Members of Switzerland’s Theater Hora perform Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater at New York Live Arts, November 12-17.
Ten empty chairs wait in a semi-circle on New York Live Arts’ stage, a plastic bottle of water beside each seat. Simone Truong takes her place at a table holding audio equipment and in a soft, noncommittal voice announces the performers’ first task of the evening. She begins—as she begins all her subsequent announcements—with “Jérôme Bel asked the performers to. . . .” This particular task is for them to enter, one at a time, stand facing the audience for one minute, and then leave the stage.
Those who have seen the works by the Paris-based Bel that have been presented here (The Show Must Go On, Pichet Klunchun and Myself, and Cédric Andrieux), know that he values a flat, no-frills vocal delivery and that he desires every performer to feel him or herself in the present instant, without reproducing what has been done before or considering future implications. The 2012 work being presented at NYLA is called—clearly and baldly—Disabled Theater. And the ten who perform it—all seasoned members of Theater HORA in Zurich—are people with various learning and mental disabilities. Their actions are controlled to a degree by Bel’s simple structure, but within it they have considerable freedom to do what they feel like doing.
Standing for one minute in front of an audience of strangers is not easy. The performers do not have to look at us, but they know we are looking at them. And many of them have had the experience of walking down the street and seeing people avert their eyes. It is indeed a test. The one-minute span, however, is extremely flexible (and how many of us could perform this task accurately?). At the performance I saw, Julia Häusermann might have stayed on stage more than a minute, while Damian Bright (perhaps mischievously) chose to make his exit follow immediately upon his entrance.
Bel ups the ante gradually. When the performers re-enter—again one at a time—they announce their names, ages, and professions. This last, for all, is “schauspieler” or “schauspielerin.” Actors and actresses. Then they take their seats. We’re getting to know them. They range in age from 20 to 43. Some are slim; some are plump. Some are shy; some are bold. Some speak loudly; some speak softly. All are adept at using the microphone on the stand to their advantage.
The third task is (or could be) more difficult. Bel had asked them to name their handicap. Big Remo Beuggert says he has a memory problem and adds, as a humorous aside, that he’d make a very bad messenger. Tiziana Pagliaro says simply, “I don’t know.” Bright identifies his handicap as Down’s Syndrome, gives its alternate title, Trisomy 21, and tells us brusquely, “I have one more chromosome than you.” Häusermann says, “I have Down’s Syndrome, and I am sorry.” She goes back to her seat weeping and is consoled by Pagliaro. Lorraine Meier spits out an older, cruder term, “mongoloid.” “I am a ‘fucking mongol,’ she says, “or sometimes not. It hurts me.”
Now for the dancing. The actors chose their music, we are told, and Bel chose seven of them to perform their solos tonight. This seems strange, but Bel is a theater craftsman, and we will soon see what prompted the exclusion of three performers. The dancing doesn’t just happen in the spotlight. Several members of the cast move vigorously while sitting on their chairs in the background. They also clap rhythms when the music urges them on, or sing along. For Miranda Hossle’s solo, three men fetch drums from backstage and accompany her; Hossle, who at times looks unhappy sitting on her chair, comes to life in a confident solo (I think of it as a serpentine dance being performed percussively.
Although many of the dances incorporate spinning, they are all very individual, wonderful to watch. Beuggert performs sitting on a chair. Matthias Grandjean dances with tense, precise hauteur to what sounds like a ‘40s tune. Häusermann exits so she can introduce her number by waving a hand in a leather mitt out from behind one of the wings. Yes, she’s channeling Michael Jackson, grabbing her crotch occasionally, whipping her long red hair around, and sinking into a split (Jackson was never so flexible). Matthias Brücker obligingly drags her back to her chair, where she recuperates by lounging with her head on one colleague’s lap and her feet on another’s.
Now for a question that asks for less concrete answers: “What do you think about this piece?” Gianni Blumer says that he’s the best dancer in the group, and that he’s unhappy not being one of the seven chosen. Häussermann has a request: she would like to perform to something by Justin Bieber, instead of Jackson. Truong just happens to have a Bieber number on hand, and Häussermann grabs the microphone and belts it out. Not all the people’s answers reveal their own opinions. Damian Bright says that his mother called Disabled Theater a freak show, “but she liked it a lot.” Brücker thinks the piece is “super!” But adds, “my parents think differently.” His sister cried in the car going home. The actors say these things matter-of-factly and without self-pity.
Bel’s “choosing,” of course, was just a theatrical ploy. He knows that, for spectators, watching ten solos in a row can be tiring, so he gave us a break. Now the remaining three dance. Blumer doffs his jacket and struts his stuff boldly (Meier like the music so much that, sitting in her chair, throwing herself around ecstatically, she almost upstages him). Brücker, too, revamps his outfit in order to look cool, plays with his jacket, lets his pent-up energy out, struts, runs and slides, does tricky, hip-hop stuff with his legs. In contrast, Sara Hess goes and gets a piece of floaty fabric—at first to hide beneath like a harem girl with a secret. Before long, she’s whipping it around, making it her dancing partner.
Bel puts everyone on the spot, so to speak, challenging the actors to be themselves performing rather than performing themselves. Challenging us to look at and accept these performers’ disabilities and then look deeper to see their strengths. Interviewed by Gia Kourlas for Time Out New York, Bel said that after working with Theater Hora, he sees “disability in every human being now” and that “I will keep on working on disability, vulnerability; I will go on trying to give visibility to the hidden ones.”