BWW Reviews: Jerome Bel Challenges and Inspires with Disabled Theater
At the Sunday matinee performance of Jérôme Bel's Disabled Theater at New York Live Arts, the audience was almost as interesting to observe as the performers. To my surprise, the people sitting around me were much more restless than the ten actors who began their performance by each standing in the center of the stage for one minute. Coughing, rustling programs, and shifting in their chairs, the large audience was among the most unsettled groups I have joined in a theater.
For their part, the actors were full of movement but comfortable on stage, changing positions in their seats, drinking water, and joining in the dances of their colleagues, as they liked.
This overall restlessness was a tribute to the simple but effective structure Bel created for the members of Theater Hora, a Swiss theater company made up of adults with learning and mental disabilities. The piece essentially recreated the experience Bel had when he met with the actors of Theater HORA, complete with onstage translation and production assistance from choreographer Simone Truong.
Rather than direct the actors, Bel provided them with a structure to create their own piece, and allowed the audience the chance to meet the actors in the way he did. In effect, the audience was trapped between a public commitment to observe the work as it unfolded before them, and any preconceived notions or discomfort about disability that they brought with them into the theater.
The piece served as an authentic, meaningful introduction to each actor. They took turns introducing themselves by name, and then described their handicaps, sharing perspective on the challenges and personal experience of living with disability. The actors were free to describe their handicaps as they see and feel them.
The dances that made up the center of the work were unique, personal, and exuberant. Bel asked each actor to create a dance solo for themselves, complete with music of their choice. Bel originally chose seven of the ten solos, but fortunately for the audience, every actor was eventually given the opportunity to share their choreography. Some of the dances were simple, and some very complex, but all shared a remarkable energy and presence. There was none of the subtle tension that can often be seen in trained dancers. The dances were free of self-judgment and full of emotion.
It was both inspiring and challenging to encounter the concept of disability, and it's place in everyday life. Several of the actors described their enjoyment of the piece but also shared comments made by their family members who found it deeply upsetting. Miranda Hossle touched on a central connection between this theater piece and the discernment of purpose in human life when she stated, "I think that my job in this piece is to be myself and not someone else."
Watching Disabled Theater was a remarkable experience of the power live performance has to inspire discussion and investigation into a complex aspect of humanity. I left the theater inspired and humbled by the actors' honesty and their ability to live fully present in each moment.
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas