When I heard of Jerome Bel’s “Disabled Theater”—an interpretive play performed by professional actors with learning disabilities—I thought, good. It’s about time we make a place for different kinds of expression in the art world. I don’t know what that place should look like, but after seeing one of Bel’s productions this week, I promise you: It’s not this.
The framework, like the title, is simply designed to highlight disability. Bel (who’s French) has instructed a bilingual moderator to read instructions first in English, then in Swiss-German to the actors of Theater HORA (who are Swiss). In soothing tones, she instructs them to: Stand onstage for a minute; state your name, age, profession; state your disability; do an interpretive dance; tell us what you think of the show. Bel, who appears nowhere throughout the play, leaves the production hands-off while his actors are asked, often painfully, to put their lives on display.
“Jerome asked that each performer go out onstage one-by-one and stand in front of the audience for one minute,” the moderator coos. One-by-one, the instruction illustrates how each actor holds himself, gazes, and interprets time (one actor simply walks in on stage, spins around, and leaves); equally apparent, it’s a chance for the audience to take a good, long look at disability. The shrill spotlight brings to mind reenactments of Marina Abramovic’s “Luminosity”—another piece which confronts political correctness, but demeans the performer’s welfare to do so.
I have no doubt Bel is coming into this with good intentions and sensitivity (it’s reiterated in the press material over and over, and kudos to him for opening this door), and it’s consistent with his previous performances in which dancers expose their careers, or bodies (even, through public urination). But some of his instructions in “Disabled Theater” toy with his performers’ self-esteem and their identity in a way that seems deeply irresponsible; when performers asked to announce her disability, Julia Häusermann said, “I have Down Syndrome. And I am sorry.” She then burst into tears, and retreated to her chair onstage to sob.
All I could think was that if Häusermann were my sister, or aunt, or mother, I would urge her to get the fuck out of there. Apparently, the sentiment is shared. When asked what they think of the work, several performers mentioned that their sisters and mothers “didn’t think it was so cool,” thought it was a “freakshow,” or “cried on the car the whole way home.” Catharsis and shock may make for powerful art, but hurting someone’s family is not a price I’m willing to pay.
When asked to comment on the piece, performers seemed to feel positively, calling it “super,” “special,” and a chance to “be myself and not someone else”. That’s an admirable quality, but I’m not so sure that performers are welcomed to be themselves so much as be their disability. Why, for example, are actors asked to state their profession, along with their name and age? Theater HORA is a professional acting company with a long repertoire; we know this. Given the strides that places like HORA have made in the past few decades– allowing people the dignity to excel creatively in their field– I’m not so sure Bel’s play is more progressive.
At least some of the company’s creative talents were encouraged to shine through when Bel chose seven out of ten performers to showcase self-choreographed dances. The twenty-year-old Miranda Hossle, who comes off as the group rebel, handed her fellow cast members tambourines and djembe drums, and busted out some pretty tight floor slides and Bieberesque arm pumps. Remo Beuggert, dressed like a pirate with a bandana and leather arm bands, bobbed his head like a yo-yo and did some invisible rope pulls and chair spins, which were pretty good by any standards. I half-hoped that Mattias Gruber, who unzipped his shirt, break danced, and ran laps around the troupe, would throw himself out into the audience for a crowd surf.
But even this exercise sends a mixed message, which was revealed during the critique portion of the show. Gianni Blumer, one of the three performers excluded from the dance, said he was upset that he couldn’t participate. He felt that he was the best dancer, and he, too, “wanted to make the audience laugh.”
Bel’s piece is frequently congratulated for cutting through political correctness. Political correctness has its problems, but let’s not be so quick to chuck it out. At best, it ensures that people get treated with dignity, even if they don’t yet have our empathy.
One redeeming piece was in Julia Häusermann’s rendition of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us”. She started from behind a curtain, waving a hand seductively. But when the chorus broke out, Häusermann threw her whole self onto center stage, with explosive torso-pops, “Thriller” moves, crotch grabs, and fast and furious hair-whips. The attitude and the anthem—“All I really wanna say, they don’t really care about us”—may have made been the most punk thing I have ever seen. And over and over, the chorus reiterated what was wrong with this play. It’s what happens when you value the idea of caring, instead of, just, caring.