Chor. Jérôme Bel, Tramway, 17th – 18th October
When faced with an international choreographer famed for his ‘non-dances for non-dancers,’ in collaboration with Theatre HORA Switzerland’s only professional theatre company comprised of performers with learning disabilities, it’s difficult to predict what will happen. To be honest, what seems to unfold is a piece of non-theatre which is both stark and revelational.
One by one, the eleven actors enter the stage, stand for an approximated minute, and exit once more. Next, they enter, introduce themselves, and take a seat on the stage. To avoid any confusion, Simone Truong acts as an interpreter, not only to translate the actors’ Swiss German, but also signaling each section as it happened in rehearsal. ‘First, Jérôme asked the actors to enter one by one… Next, he asked them to introduce themselves by name, age and occupation… Jérôme then asked the actors to state their disability…’
Each actor comes forward to name their disability in their own terms, with varying levels of anecdote and medical specificity. But note, each performer has already identified him or herself as an actor, before going on to present their disability, which range from Down’s Syndrome or Chromosome 21, to developmental issues and autism.
This done, the actors each present their dance, which consist of their own choreography to a piece of music of their choosing. These range from pop to metal to dance, with a stand-out performance of Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us’ from Julia Häusermann. While this is the apparent, performative crux of the piece, it’s not quite finished.
Next Jérôme asked the actors what they thought of the piece… And, on the whole, they say they liked it. Some say it feels more like a casting than a play, but otherwise they’re happy with it. Their families thought differently. They were angry and upset, and called the performance a freak-show. Which is not something which I see: sure, people are on stage, and the show comprises mostly of their presence, rather than the more performative aspects, but these are people who have chosen to make their profession the stage, being themselves on a stage.
That’s not to say the performance is without its problems. While this moment of self-critique can act to foreclose any further potential criticism with a nod of recognition, the entirety of the performance is still shaped by Bel’s looming ghost, and mediated entirely through Truong’s translation, meaning that the actors’ self-expression is limited to pre-determined moments in an impersonal overarching structure.
Yet the end result is a show which neither hides learning disabilities, nor relegates them to the realm of symbol or sympathetic plot device, and places them alongside the people who live them, so that they, and not their disability can truly be centre-stage.
[Caitlin MacColl – @turningtoaverse]