Laurent Chétouane and Jérôme Bel
The Humanity of Man

Laurent Chétouane and Jérôme Bel
Laurent Chétouane and Jérôme Bel | Photo (detail): © Gudrun Pawelke

Two seminal theatre productions are breaking new ground – not only are they undermining established theatre forms, they also wish to infiltrate society; Jérôme Bel with “Disabled Theater” and eleven mentally disabled actors from the Zürich-based theatre Hora, and Laurent Chétouane with “Sacré Sacre du Printemps” and seven dancers with very different backgrounds and strangely painted faces.

In Germany there is an active debate about inclusion, which in accordance with the UN Disability Rights Convention is to take over from integration. Germany ratified this in 2009 and committed itself to allowing disabled persons full and effective participation. Theatre with disabled people is nothing new. What is different about “Disabled Theater”?

Jérôme Bel: We are nowhere near inclusion. The disabled have no voice in our society. They are somewhere outside, far away. I bring them quite close, to the centre of the theatre, on to the stage. In “Disabled Theater” everyone is who he or she is. As in all my works, I want to go beyond representation – nothing is “re-presented”.

What can we learn from the performers, what have you learned?

Jérôme Bel: For me the most interesting thing was the way they perform and how in this way they extend the field of theatre and dance and enrich it. They bring us new experiences because they have qualities that we no longer allow ourselves. They don’t try to be anything, they are. Their vitality and joy, their relationship to their own body and those of the others is so fundamental and direct that intellectuals are simply amazed.

What does this “otherness” mean for dance and theatre?

Jérôme Bel: It is a total enrichment for every dancer and choreographer. The performers of Hora teach us to accept differences. That’s why it was important to me to be present at all the leading festivals in 2012: Avignon, documenta, Festival d’Automne Paris, Ruhrtriennale. This is something that concerns us all. For society they are the minority of a minority – virtually “foreign bodies”. And they are actually different – their bodies, their faces, their movements. Some great dancers saw the performance and came up to me afterwards and said, “When I see these people I have to admit to myself that I don’t dance.”

How do you overcome representation and identification?

Jérôme Bel: As a member of the audience I normally identify with the performer onstage. In Disabled Theater there is some confusion, particularly at the beginning, because viewers do not want to identify themselves. They certainly don’t want to be disabled. Then, gradually, the performers reveal something to us that is also within ourselves. This touches us and we realise that we are also often disabled in life.

In both pieces the audience is confronted by the otherness of others, by their uniqueness and the preciousness of life itself. This happens via the faces of the actors. Emmanuel Lévinas says that without the face of the other no ethics would be possible. He thinks we need the perspective of the other. Laurent Chétouane, what role does “otherness” or “strangeness” play in your work and what happens in “Sacré” with identification?

Laurent Chétouane: Our aim is to touch something new and with this to produce a community. I mean this absolutely in a political sense. There is this longing for community. As with Jérôme, the confrontation with their naivety, their carefreeness was important. Sheer simplicity has already become strange and unusual for many people. The greatest strangeness, I think, one finds in one’s own body. So not in the search outside, but in introspection. Where are my own minorities in myself? That was our starting point.

Even though we are asking the same questions, we are following quite different paths than Jérôme. My dancers are likely to be accepted by the majority, they are white and they look like dancers. At first glance the viewers seem to be able to fully identify with them. But it is when they start to move that the dancers reject the identification. We have analysed this relationship to the audience. We have worked on the dancers’ awareness that they are being observed and examined what this means for the moving bodies.

The visual impact is decisive for the perception of otherness – without this there is no theatre experience. What does this mean for the audience? What does this mean for the performer?

Jérôme Bel: What do you do in the theatre? You pay to look. The essence of the theatre is to see something different from yourself. Our performers, however, seem to be so very strange that it’s a challenge for the audience keep on looking at them. We are brought up to avert our eyes from whatever seems different, strange, deformed or disfigured. But I force the viewers not to avert their gaze so that they become aware of themselves as observers. There is usually a lot of coughing in the audience at the beginning of a performance. I see that as a defensive reaction.

Laurent Chétouane: I force my dancers to perceive that they are being observed. By the other. By the audience. Where exactly do we perceive otherness? Where does this otherness take place? How do we make it perceptible? The dancers have told me that the awareness of being observed triggers in them a new perception of the body. The dancers connected once again with the desire to move. This released a tremendous energy.