French choreographer, Jérôme Bel presents two similar pieces, one with non-disabled people, the other, premiered about 10 years later, with actors with learning disabilities.
Premiered in 2001, The Show Must Go On. About twenty untrained people signed up to participate in a group dance performance with a pop music narrative operated through a sound desk at the front of the stage. Which was all very entertaining. Dancing and very occasionally singing, the company only presented as a group, never as individuals, and performed a rehearsed succession of set pieces, punning on the tunes. Starting with all the promise of West Side Story’s Tonight, they danced as ballerinas, sank titanically and bubbled submarinally. All before turning the spotlight on (in our case at the Berlin Volksbühne) a bemused, slightly uncomfortable audience, mostly continuing to look dead ahead. Literally nobody danced – although perhaps we all wanted to…
Then in 2012, responding to an invitation to work with actors from Theater HORA, Zürich’s inclusive theatre company, Bel developed this idea into another piece; Disabled Theater. Which I saw as part of the 2017 No Limits festival in Berlin…
A Stage Manager announces that Jérôme has been working with the ensemble and has asked them to perform various tasks. There are 11 actors. 11 empty chairs on the stage. 11 bottles of water. The Stage Manager proceeds to call the tasks.
Each actor must come on stage and stand alone at the front looking at us for one minute and then leave. Everybody does, except one. We look back, a bit unsure – where is this going? Then, one by one, they return, but this time they say their name, age and profession before taking a seat on stage. Everyone finishes with: “… and I am an actor.” One is also a flute star – the audience laughs.
And then, round again, but this time, they’ve been asked to tell us what their disability is. It starts to feel uncomfortable. What’s happening here? Some people laugh. But then, isn’t this also that the actors are opening up to the audience, offering a more intimate insight into their world and sowing the seeds for that intimacy to grow as the show progresses?
Next, each actor has prepared a short dance piece, choreographing and selecting the music themselves. Jérôme has chosen 7 of these to be performed. The Stage Manager calls out names, cues the music and on we go. Why only 7? Does he think these are the best? Or the actors he likes best? Or…Or… The different performances are great, the dancers speaking volumes through their movement. One evinces fury, dancing a punk rock performance to Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. Another, more formal, an elegant dance shot through with fragility. The seated ensemble members watch, fidgeting, dancing along, supporting each other.
Then, each of them tells us what they and their families think of the show, mostly positive but sometimes not: “My sister cried and said we looked like animals in a zoo.”
Finally, Jérôme has asked that the remaining 4 dance acts are performed too. And we start to realise. This isn’t about competition or exploitation or voyeurism – this is about the cast owning their stage personas and their performances, taking control.
And it’s about us, the audience – our assumptions, our expectations of what theatre, and perhaps even disability, should be. This ensemble is showing us another way to look at things, another way of being that we could all learn something from. Not better or worse, just different. Why wouldn’t we be interested in that? The actors are anything but a disempowered group of object people. They are strong, confident, in control.
This production, Disabled Theater has proved hugely successful. Over the past 6 years, the company have played around 180 performances of it all over the world. They’ve won awards. Some of the HORA actors joined later performances of The Show Must Go On bringing an additional perspective and offering insights into how actors with disabilities can enrich performance, and how ensembles can be more inclusive. And it’s also played an important role in the development of inclusive theatre as detailed in a book of essays of the same name, edited by Sandra Umathum and Benjamin Wihstutz.
Comparing the two, although the former are professional actors, the stakes were clearly higher for the performers in Disabled Theater than in The Show Must Go On. Both crossed the barrier between audience and performers as we all exchanged gazes, curious as to what the other would do. Ramping up the artistic tension, the individual approach of Disabled Theater was both emotionally and personally exposing for the actors. And it challenged its audience to confront their own perceptions and experience. It wasn’t about disability as a separate thing, a condition, it was about all of us and how we find our way through life. We’re all a lot more similar than we think. So why can’t we suspend all this judgement and appreciate each other – and try to understand ourselves – just a little bit more?
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Main photo : Production picture. Photo © Hugo Glendinning