At some point during “Disabled Theater” there comes a moment of personal reckoning. Does this 2012 work by French choreographer Jérôme Bel respect the stories of 10 actors from Switzerland’s Theater Hora, all of whom have disabilities? Or does it exploit them so as to inspire a sort of pitying superiority on the part of the viewer?
Bel is an unsentimental artist — he focuses on little-known truths about people who create, interested more in their idiosyncrasies, motivations, rituals, strengths and weaknesses than the highlights of their résumés. On Thursday night at Walker Art Center, the Hora actors showed how they became part of Bel’s process.
For those unfamiliar with Bel’s works, the way he employs actors with disabilities may give pause. In fact the approach is consistent with his other productions, such as “Cédric Andrieux,” about a former Merce Cunningham dancer. Bel dismantles all performers’ lives in a similarly methodical manner.
Simone Truong, speaking in English and Swiss-German, narrates and gives matter-of-fact directorial expectations. The actors step forward one by one, some looking down, others staring into the crowd, studying us in the same way we study them. Next they give names, occupations and ages (ranging from 20s to 40s). And then they describe their disabilities, ranging from “learning weakness” to Down syndrome, “slowness” or simply “I don’t know.” Lorraine Meier is blunt: “I am Mongoloid. I am a [expletive] mongol.”
The recitation of personal stats seems cold, but Bel shifts the narrative, giving each actor a chance to perform a solo dance of his or her making. Julia Häusermann delivers a defiant riot girl stomp set to Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” while Matthias Brücker summons up a lively soft shoe. Within the movement all questions are set aside. As Meier spins freely to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” she embodies the very spirit of the song.
It’s when the actors describe their feelings about the piece that the potential for indictment of Bel and the audience is most keenly felt. Some say it’s “super.” Others, like Damian Bright, recount negative family reactions, some calling it a “freak show.” This could be the reaction of a protective parent but it also reflects the remaining societal discomfort with disability, even in the realm of performance where so-called norms are challenged.
For Bel the distinction makes a difference. Above all, the Hora members are professionals who take their craft as seriously as any artistic peer. This is why “Disabled Theater” works. These actors are doing their jobs and just being themselves, too.
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.