Abandoning a performance piece for a new one two days before it is supposed to go up would make most artists, and their presenters, panic. Not so for Jérôme Bel, who flew in to New York from Paris in September to kick off The French Institute Alliance Française Crossing The Line series with his work, The Last Performance (a Lecture). Trouble was, as Bel explained, the original lecture about every performance being the last, had been posted on YouTube and viewed by so many, that he had other things in mind. It was hard to tell at first if he was serious, or if this was part of the show. Turns out, he was serious, and the night was better for it.
Bel is as charismatic as performers get, and he’s oh-so loveable. This, paired with an affinity for groundbreaking, thought-provoking work, helped make his new “lecture” wonderfully engaging. Bel humbly and playfully explained himself into his new piece with an accented “I apologize for my linguistic vulnerability.” He created a conversation between himself and the audience in which he shared his thoughts on performance and presented his “survival guide to watch performances.”
Bel stood at the front of Le Skyroom at FIAF, behind a mic, his hands folded at his back. He wore blue shorts, white sneaks, a bright green jacket, and pulled out a small red journal with notes for this newly created piece, which was written, he said, on his plane ride over.
Bel walked us through some of his most influential performance experiences; from his first moments seeing Merce Cunningham’s Rainforest, where he began contemplating the movement of the space around a dancer—as shown by large silver balloons that move around the dancers on stage—to his endurance through a six-hour theater piece.
As he spoke, he performed. If he was talking about space, he motioned his hands to outline it. If he was talking about children, he mimicked them. His ideas were grand at times, like when he pondered the function and truth of an audience. At other times his ideas were straightforward: “You can understand a piece without understanding the language,” he said.
His opinion on the works he saw was subjective, just as our experience with him was the same. He created a microcosm of his experiences with several pieces in his own work, and kept us laughing throughout the evening.
“When I see the choreography, I see a little more about myself,” Bel said of William Forsythe’s work. This statement embodied his intention for us, and watching him explain his favorite moments in performance, I learned more about myself and what performances have affected me. This, I can easily say, was one of them.
Dance aficionado or not, what made this “lecture” unique, is that anyone listening to his words and watching him perform would be able to relate, even if they’ve never seen one of the works he was talking about and even if they’ve seen little dance at all.