Jérôme Bel's Ballet. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa.

Julia Trotta and Davide Balula in Conversation


Back in November we went to see Jérôme Bel’s Ballet (New York) commissioned by Performa at three different venues: Marian Goodman Gallery, Martha Graham Studio Theater, and El Museo del Barrio. After each performance we'd grab dinner (at least four burgers were consumed in the process) and discuss our thoughts. When we got home and it came to writing the piece, we had to isolate ourselves in separate rooms and communicate by Skype because in person we were too easily excited and our conversations got too tangential and unwieldy. So here is what made it into the slightly distanced (but hopefully more cohesive) version of our conversation.

- Davide Balula and Julia Trotta

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Julia Trotta: So let’s just try to describe the piece first.

Davide Balula: Ok.

JT: Ha! In some ways it’s so simple, it’s hard to describe but I think it’s important to establish the structure before starting to analyze the piece

DB: Yes, it’s all very linear. Very narrative. One thing happening at a time.

It’s like in a book that has different chapters. It’s kind of a history of dance that becomes less and less rigorous as it unfolds.

JT: Well that’s already analyzing. I guess my thought was that we introduce the structure: 5 acts, 13 dancers, 3 venues. The acts: Ballet, Waltz, 5 minute group improvisation in silence, Michael Jackson (the Moonwalk) and a Bow. The dancers: A motley crew. From a ballerina to a 10-year-old boy, to a girl with Down’s Syndrome, to a pair of brothers who look more like wrestlers than dancers, to a girl in a motorized wheel chair… The venues: A commercial art gallery, a legendary downtown dance studio, a proscenium stage.

DB: I wanted to describe my impressions when I arrived at the first venue and discovered the piece.

JT: OK, that’s great. So the first venue was Marian Goodman…

DB: The venue was left as is with a show of photographs by Jeff Wall where characters are almost in life size.

JT: Right, big portraits that almost became part of the audience.

DB: The seating was simple. Chairs and pillows on the floor. No stage rising. People had to seat next to each other, touching shoulders and faces/expressions visible under the same normal fluorescent light for everybody

JT: It was intimate.

DB: The piece even starts without people noticing. Someone comes out and turns to the first page of a simple sign that reads, “Ballet.” Silence.

JT: Well then Chopin starts playing and the cast starts coming out one-by-one.

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Jérôme Bel, Ballet (New York), 2015. A Performa Commission. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa

DB: Besides the two ballet dancers in uniform, each character tries his/her loose version of a pirouette, walks to the other side of the gallery and waits there in plain sight. When the last dancer is done, they cross the gallery again one after the other with a clumsy and amusing “grand jeté.” End of act one.

JT: Right, the different ages and body types and ability levels. All wearing their own costumes. It was very watch-able.

DB: Entertaining, yes.

JT: Awkward but uplifting. And then the second act was the Waltz.

DB: This time, in the exact same way, they come in pairs and it becomes about the couples, the odd pairings: tall and short, awkward and elegant etc.

JT: Some same-sex pairs.

DB: I think we can also describe the case of the wheelchair which was also an other moment.

JT:  Yes, for the girl in the motorized wheelchair the Waltz presented a kind of “problem.” But her partner just got up on the front of her scooter and they twirled around the room.

DB: With some sort of grace I felt.

JT: Yes and seriousness. I remember her face being very concentrated.

DB: Then they all go back again backstage until one more page is turned.

JT: And the next act was the 5-minute improvisation with the whole cast which I thought was kind of the crescendo of the piece.

DB: Yes. Dancing in silence. Didn’t seem to have any direction and occupied the whole space. All very loose, informal, amateur…

JT: Yes, they were making their own decisions and there was no reference to a specific kind of dance.

DB: The improv part was really the moment where everybody could be “homogenized”, and they were in some way, but also that was when quality and creativity differentiated people more than their body type and ability, I thought. The antithesis of Ballet where criteria is based on perfect execution, neck size or weight/size ratio.

JT: And then the next section was “Michael Jackson.”

DB: Yes, which pushed the new style into POPular moves that everyone knows.

JT: So it went back to individuals moving across the room, one at a time, each doing a version of the moonwalk to Jackson’s Billie Jean.

DB: “Says I am the one who will dance on the floor in the rouhound” (music)

JT: Haha, exactly! I think I remember you saying it was kind of like Soul Train. People in the audience were really getting into it at that point. Everyone smiling, tapping their feet. It kind of felt like we were all parents at an elementary school recital.

DB: The music seemed louder after those 5 minutes of silence. It also brought the piece in a very entertaining place. At that moment. Very lose. Very casual. Very friendly. It was a very light and happy moment. It almost felt like the piece ended here.

JT: Well it kind of did. The last act was the bow.

DB: Once again. One after the other. “De-introducing” themselves.

JT: Well, yes. But I saw it more as a moment of recognition for each of them.

DB: Yeah, they all received their own moment of applause. Just for them.

JT: But it was structured the same way as every other section. A new page on the board, each one making their way across the room, one at a time. So it was framed in more performative way than how we usually think of bows, as the moment where the performance stops and we recognize the person behind the performance.

DB: It was another way to compare each individual.

JT: Yes, even their bows were revealing. There was one really awkward guy with glasses whose bow was just as awkward as I imagined it would be.

DB: It’s true, it did have a very personal character.

JT: And the ballerina in pointe shoes and a tutu was formal and over-the-top for the setting, but it made sense for her.

DB: And at that point we almost got attached to each person. Almost knowing a bit of their history…

JT: So what did you think of the piece? And by that I mean what did you think of the first version of the piece at Marian Goodman?

DB: That is a question that is funny to ask right after you see a show. And we have seen 3 versions of it now and it was long time ago so I’m sure my opinion has changed at this point.

JT: Well, yes but I guess I’m wondering if you can recall your first impressions, if you can remember what it felt like to know the piece just as this isolated version at Marian Goodman?

DB: My first impressions were very positive.

JT: Yeah, I mean we went and had a burger after the show and we had a lot to say at that point. We were pretty energized.

DB: It approached the idea of judgement in a way that was light and friendly and accepting, which I found stimulating. Especially because I don’t see such diversity very often in the arts. Either because I don’t necessarily look for it, or because it is not very often presented to me. So opening that type of conversation was a very powerful thing I thought.

JT: Yeah, I mean I remember us talking about about beauty. That variety is interesting, and what is interesting is oftentimes very beautiful. Perfection is shoved down our throats and can be so boring. Movie stars, fashion ads…

DB: And not only about abilities but simply about norms, criteria and expectations.

JT: Exactly

DB: Yes beauty is central here. How we define it or more precisely how it is defined FOR us.

JT: Like the girl with a limp did a pirouette and it was just as interesting as the ballerina in this setting, maybe more so.

DB: I am not a dance expert but I really appreciate a clinical execution and perfect synchronicity of a ballet movement with the music.

JT: Of course, me too.

DB: So it was interesting to see that criteria here was shifted.

JT: And the ballerina needed to be there as a reference to the “right” way.

DB: The piece is called BALLET and of course you come in with a certain idea of what that means, but your expectations got adjusted right from the first minute of the piece.

JT: But I think I was still was skeptical after the first performance. Like the piece was too easy or manipulative on some level.

DB: Yes it is kind of an uncomfortable comedy show.

JT: The second time we saw the piece it was at Martha Graham Studio Theater at Westbeth, which was formally Merce Cunningham’s studio. The structure of the piece and the cast were exactly the same.

DB: That time the venue was a proper dance context. Historic. It was in full daylight, sun rays entering the room, beautiful windows open to the city…

JT: The setting was a bit more comfortable.

DB: It was more appropriate, with a proper dance floor which effected the movement.

JT: And there was stadium seating, chairs. But it still was not a full theater. There was no backstage.

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Jérôme Bel, Ballet (New York), 2015. A Performa Commission. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa

DB: I remember we were seating higher up. Not on the same floor level as the first time, higher than the dancers. The sound was louder, the sound engineer was almost on the stage and visible.

JT: And as it was the second time seeing the piece so I think we were more critical. We kind of knew the cast already and knew what to expect.

DB: I guess it got me more aware of the differences in the “set design.”

JT: Yes. That was always a question. Why do the piece in three different venues? Of course that made us hyperaware of the setting. But I think I remember you thinking that it was less successful there.

DB: The dancers felt tense to me this time. Maybe because I felt them further away? Also the day before there was this crazy attack in Paris.

JT: Well yeah, I remember feeling a lot more emotional and I think it did have to do with how devastated we were that weekend. The attacks, fear, paranoia…

DB: Yes it was very shocking, especially the target being the Bataclan which is a cultural venue. A place I knew intimately and even had performed there a couple times.

JT: And this piece being about different types of people coming together, celebrating difference. It felt kind of therapeutic to see at that moment.

DB: But I guess seeing the piece for the second time removed all effect of surprise, and maybe increased my expectations.

JT: Yeah, I agree with that. There is a little less magic when you know what’s going to happen. But I actually thought the improv was incredible at Westbeth.

DB: It’s true. It was. It was very communal. Warm.

JT: They cast seemed a lot more comfortable with each other and the movements were more fluid.

DB: People playing with the natural light beams, people interacting with the architecture more, standing on the edge of the windows etc… and really touching each other more, circling and caressing one another. It really seemed to me that the cast was more intimate at this point. You could tell they knew each other better. You could see they had developed affection for one another.

JT: They seemed more confident.

DB: I must say that seeing it for the second time made me less receptive to the “comic” moments in the piece. They felt less amusing to me, maybe too self conscious. Like when the young kid gets lifted up during the waltz, or highlighting by a funny movement a particular moment in the music etc. It felt less authentic. And I remember telling you this right after we saw Will Rawls perform a couple days after.

JT: Yeah, you said that seeing Will’s piece (also referencing different categories of dance) made you think about Bel’s piece more in terms of its relationship to entertainment. And we discussed how Bel’s Ballet was structured like a reality show competition or a beauty pageant with different categories, but that it took out the hierarchy and the idea of “the best,” which those things are always about.

DB: Will’s piece was so tense and difficult for the audience. A very different type of discomfort. It was more demanding in some ways. Whereas like you say, the beauty pageant format was already something you didn’t have to question much. It’s a conventional format that people know well.The effects can then become more orchestrated and the reaction of the audience more predictable.

JT: Right, it’s a formula.

DB: It’s true that seeing the Jerome Bel’s piece through a prism set by Rawls, I started to analyze all the mechanisms as very calculated. But some of the “formulaic” gestures were probably just repeated by the dancers because they felt the audience would react a certain way… Maybe somehow, the performers were trying to seduce the audience or something.

JT: And it’s also unclear how much direction they were given by Bel.

DB: Yes that’s true. You couldn’t tell who was making the decisions. But you could feel the dancers slowly looking for more clapping.

JT: And that was amplified in the last performance.

DB: Maybe the amateurs were becoming more professional ?

JT: Getting used to each other and the piece.

DB: Yes, exactly. The scale of the venue increased drastically for the last version.

JT: Well you almost missed it! But it started with a slide show that wasn’t presented in the other two venues.

DB: True. Luckily they held the door right before and I snuck in at the very last second! I had to sit in the last row of the Mezzanine, which was pretty interesting actually.

JT: Well I was downstairs in the orchestra.

DB: The “slide show” was presenting images of a lot of different venues. You were seating in a theater and made to look at other theaters.

JT: It was lots of different performance spaces, exhaustive in terms of what that could mean. From opulent theaters, to plastic chairs in a back yard, to a weird stage in a mall… Not sure it resonated in the same way for people who hadn’t seen the other two versions at Goodman and Westbeth, and most in the audience hadn’t.

DB: Indeed. They probably questioned why he was showing those images which seemed to have nothing to do with what followed.

JT: But regardless I think it made everyone in the audience conscious of the setting. Which was a large proscenium theater with a big, red curtain and lots of velvet seats.

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Jérôme Bel, Ballet (New York), 2015. A Performa Commission. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa

DB: In that type of theater you seat in the dark. You can’t really see the person next to you. The performers have some powerful light on their face and they can’t see the face of the audience either.

JT: That’s true, it’s a very different experience for both performer and viewer. But after having seen the piece in the other two smaller venues, I felt like a proud parent when I got to the last space. Like, “they made it!”

DB: Haha!

JT: It felt the most “successful” in some ways just because of the scale and the drama of the setting. And the number of people in the audience.

DB: Yeah it was more professional. Even between the acts the dancers were hidden behind the side curtains this time, no longer visible, not waiting for one an other as they were before. Or at least you couldn’t witness that fact that they were all watching and reacting to each other as in the previous venues. You couldn’t see all the hiccups of missed departures etc.

JT: Right, in the other venues there was no off stage. The whole ensemble was basically visible at all times. Here it was more formal. But once it started I got uncomfortable. Or nervous.

DB: And this time it was de-humanized in some ways. I remember that the improv was signaled by a voice before, and for this one, the signal was just a light flashing for the beginning and the end of the five minutes. You could definitely feel that pageant scale being blown up. You felt more glitter.

JT: Right. What was so nice about the piece in the other, smaller venues was that the pageant format didn’t hold up in some ways because it wasn’t about the best or the most beautiful. The ballerina wasn’t any more interesting than the old man. But in the big theater things started to change.

DB: Even their hand-picked outfits looked different, more conscious on stage.

JT: Yeah and people in the audience started to clap for their favorites, which made me really upset.

DB: Haha yes that’s true that was very awkward.

JT: It provoked competitiveness. Everyone tried to be more spectacular to get claps. So in some sense I feel like the last version, however sensational, was a failure.

DB: I wonder if people felt that as well or only those who had seen the previous ones? The fact that performers were thirsty for recognition somehow.

JT: I’m sure only those who saw the other versions (probably about 5 of us) felt that way. And during the bows there was a woman in front of me that didn’t clap at all which made me furious.

DB: That’s funny.

JT: And it would have never happened in one of the other venues.

DB: Because here she was in the dark ?

JT: Yes, that’s probably part of it.

DB: She would feel judged not clapping when others were showing so much enthusiasm.

JT: And I actually thought the performances in the last version were not as strong. You could feel their nerves. They were more self-aware.

DB: Most of them were probably performing in a big theater for the first time? You could really see the ones who were comfortable though. Like the woman in the black and white unitard. She was clearly trained in contemporary dance.

JT: Yeah I mean when we saw the piece for the first time at the gallery I said that I could picture myself participating. Doing the moves with them. The last time we saw the piece participating would have been my worst nightmare.

DB: Your dance moves are pretty impressive, though I must say, I don’t think I’ve seen you do the moon walk.

JT: The best conditions don’t necessarily make for the best setting for this piece. Just like the most technical dancer doesn’t necessarily make for the best performer for this piece. So to me it just confirms success and perfection as being challenged, as over celebrated. Does that make sense? I can rephrase.

DB: It felt important to be able to relate indeed, and it helped a lot to be at the same level as the performers. A more casual setting definitely seemed more accepting. I wonder if you become more critical as a work becomes more “successful” or if it just tells a different story.

JT: I think that is absolutely true. Higher stakes. Well in the Performa description it said, “Jérôme Bel takes a group of trained and untrained performers from New York on a bold adventure across the city to consider how each environment—dance studio, white cube, and theater—frames the ways we look at and ‘feel’ dance.”. So I guess he was conscious of the successes and failures of each venue.

DB: I wonder if Bel would try to produce an intentional failure?

JT: Well it wasn’t a disaster.

DB: Not at all. It seemed people left very happy. But I remember feeling a little disappointed. Not that it was less interesting of an experience. I was just much more critical, more judgmental of his intentions etc.

JT: I’m not sure if it’s as complex as we’re making it. Maybe we’re just looking very closely. It’s a tolerant piece… you can do it in a backyard or in a big venue.

DB: I liked that about it. In fact that is what I liked the most.

JT: In the end I was thinking that if I saw it on America Has Talent I would think it was exploitive, so is it exploitive?

DB: You could probably watch it on MTV.

JT: Right, but I think we’d be kind of disgusted by it if we saw it on MTV

Or maybe not, I don’t know.

Jérôme Bel

Ballet (New York)

Run time: Approx 30mins

Marian Goodman Gallery

November 7, 2015

Martha Graham Studio Theater

November 15, 2015

El Museo del Barrio

November 19, 2015

Dancers

Hashiel Castro

Hector Castro

Alex Clayton

Moriah Evans

Madison Ferris

Frog

Casey Furry

Anne Gridley

Charles Krezell

Megan LeCrone

Shelton Lindsay aka Professor Cupcake

Etienne Servaes

Chai Smith

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Davide Balula is an artist living between NY and Paris. His practice investigates chance encounters, random patterns, and the materiality of time. Although he works within various media, including sound, installation and painting, his art can take the form of recording devices, unusual measuring tools, and scientific experiments. He regularly collaborates with chefs, dancers, and musicians on performances and improvisation concerts.

Julia Trotta is based in New York. She advises private collections, writes and makes films on art. She is currently in production on a documentary about her grandmother, art historian Linda Nochlin.

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