French choreographer Jérôme Bel is also a philosopher. He operates on several planes of thought, as evident in his body of work. On Tuesday night the Walker Art Center presented “Gala,” the first entry in a weeklong “Jérôme Bel Bookend Festival.” As is often the case with Bel, the performance was memorable for the questions it raised throughout — and some of those questions were very uncomfortable.
The diverse cast of “Gala,” made up entirely of locals chosen by the Walker, ranged from professional dancers to everyday folks. Bel’s premise is to strip away distinctions in skill and simply present different bodies as they perform a variety of styles from ballet to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. There were children, older people, a performer in a wheelchair, an adult with Down syndrome. They presented similar tasks (a pirouette, a bow, a waltz) and took turns leading the others through choreographed movements.
“Gala” walked a fine line between celebration and putting people on display. The work challenged elitist notions of who can dance for an audience. It was fun to see what people who wouldn’t normally perform on the Walker stage did with their big chance. And it was interesting to see veteran artists such as Sally Rousse (formerly of James Sewell Ballet) and TU Dance’s Darwin Black try to blend in with the amateurs — or end up confounded by their talents, as was the case with some baton twirling.
The show had a simple structure — each performer took a crack at each move and it got repetitive. We, the audience, were left to observe the difference in each performance. But those differences were also magnified by the way Bel juxtaposed the performers with one another. Over the course of the performance, it became unclear whether the audience was applauding the performers for accomplishing certain tasks, or whether they were simply rooting for the individuals. Does the acclaim evolve from supportive to patronizing over the course of the evening? It’s tough to know whether Bel’s intentions are benign, theoretical or exploitative. Perhaps all of the above.
What’s certain is that “Gala” is true to Bel’s reputation as a dance provocateur. Some observers have embraced the innocence of his work while others find it calculating in approach. There is no neutrality in his creations.
Learn more about Bel’s work during a “Talking Dance/Screening” on Thursday or take in a performance of his earliest creation, the self-titled “Jérôme Bel,” on Friday.
Jérôme Bel Bookend Festival
What: The work of Parisian choreographer Jérôme Bel.
When: “Talking Dance/Screening” Thu. 8 p.m.; “Jérôme Bel” Fri. 8 p.m.
Where: Walker Art Center, Mpls.
Tickets: “Talking Dance,” free. “Jérôme Bel” $22; 612-375-7600, walkerart.org.
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.