Naked music, naked light and naked dancers: Let’s talk about Jérôme Bel

Photo Courtesy of dancetabs.com ||  Jérôme Bel is a choreographer known for controversial subjects, such as his “Disabled Theater,” shown above. 

Photo Courtesy of dancetabs.com || Jérôme Bel is a choreographer known for controversial subjects, such as his “Disabled Theater,” shown above. 

Patience Kayira ‘20
Assistant Arts Editor

In the age of “dick picks,” it can be difficult to view naked choreography as an artform, rather than an exhibition of body parts for the voyeuristic eye. Yet for Jérôme Bel, a French choreographer known for his minimalistic pieces often described as “non-dance,” nudity is a driving force. 

Bel rose to fame in 1995 with his eponymous piece, “Jérôme Bel” that featured four naked dancers creating shapes with each other’s body hair and writing on their bodies with a red marker. Le Monde journalist Rosita Boisseau writes that “Bel’s ‘95 piece normalized nudity in the world of dance.” 

Boisseau also writes, “Danish artist, Mette Ingvartsen presented her piece on sex politics, “69 Positions,” at the Museum of Modern Art. Italian choreographer, Emma Dante has also created a piece featuring 14 naked dancers.” 

For Bel, “nakedness” --the term he prefers-- enables him to stage a “return to the body.” Boisseau writes that Bel was inspired by Roland Barthe’s 1953 book on the history of writing, “Writing Degree Zero.” Bel told Le Monde, “The idea was to reset everything to [...] the body. It became the stake of the piece. The body before the dance. Nakedness imposed itself immediately.”

“Jérôme Bel” is a 50 minute piece void of any music aside from an occasional humming which Bel described as “naked music.” The dancers perform on a dark stage illuminated by a Thomas Edison lightbulb which Bel calls “naked light.” 

If you want to see the full version of “Jérôme Bel” online, you need a code. Bel’s website speaks to his minimalistic aesthetic. With a white backdrop that says, “knock if you wish, but please don’t come in,” and size 9 typewriter font, his online presence can only be understood by few. 

Youtube does provide a trailer for “Jérôme Bel.” It consists of a woman pinching layers of her skin in a cringe-worthy way. She begins by placing a silver object in her mouth and then proceeds to tug onto her stomach as if it is a sweater she no longer wants. As the dancer attempts to stretch her skin apart, the bopping and humming of Bel’s “naked music” plays in the background.

In a 2005 interview with Christophe Wavelet, a critic for the International Space for Emerging Forms, Bel described his creative process for creating this piece. “I work alone in my bathtub. I read. I write things,” says Bel. Bel also explained how he read numerous children’s books while working on his project. For Bel, children’s books describe gestures in an odd and intriguing way. “You can sneeze at 200 miles per hour,” Bel said, sharing a line from a book he had read.

As groundbreaking Bel’s ‘95 piece is, not all the feedback has been positive. In his interview, Bel addressed the frustration his work created for feminists. In one scene of “Jerome Bel” a woman kneels behind a man, who is standing. She threads her hair from his backside to his frontside, giving the viewer an odd shape of pubic hair.  Bel was criticized for the “weak” submissive-like choreography he gave to the women in this piece. On this topic he said, “Feminists criticized me, and rightly so.” He makes this admission, and then he moves on to something else.

Bel also experienced harsh criticism for his 2012 piece, “Disabled Theater.” Disabled Theater features a full cast of dancers from Theater Hora, a Genevan Dance company for dancers with learning disabilities. New York Times writer Siobhan Burke explains that “Disabled Theater has been criticized for its superficial celebration of difference.”

In an interview with Marcel Bugiel, Bel defended this piece by saying, “The theatrical device is a way of provoking this encounter. Sure, it carries risks due to disabled people’s exclusion in society and our lack of knowledge about them. I’m absolutely convinced that this community has to be given greater visibility.” 

Thus, Jerome Bel certainly tries to push limits. Burke writes that, “his work revolves around the questions: what is dance?” Some of his other experimental works involve “Shirtology,” a 20 minute performance of a man taking off his layers of tee shirts. “The Show Must go on” is an intergenerational piece featuring professional dancers and amateurs dancing to pop songs. 

Bel has also pioneered a style of “biographical dance,” according to Paul David Young from Hypoallergenic. “Cédric Andrieux” and “Véronique Doisneau” are two examples of this style. Both pieces tell the story of professional dancers recounting their experiences in a dance company.

Jérôme Bel’s piece “Jérôme Bel” will be performed at the Autumn Festival in Paris from November 2 to November 7. The Autumn Festival is an annual event that invites artists from all disciplines, theatre, dance, music, fine arts, etc., to share their work.