Anna Efraimsson on Jérôme Bel

At first, we hear a woman singing gently as the camera carefully scans details of The Paris Opera. The Paris Opera, prestigious and golden, is the monument of monuments when it comes to classical dance. The curtain goes up, and a seemingly small woman enters the huge black stage.

Her name is Veronique Doisneau. She is 42 years old and a classical dancer. And what we witness before our eyes is the very last of her performances at the opera before she retires. For thirty minutes, alone on stage and in a slow careful pace Veronique tells us her story of being a “sujet”, a middle ranked dancer in the strict hierarchy of the ballet company. In a personal, melancholic slightly critical way she describes her life as a dancer through both talking and dancing, passing through good and bad moments, recounting dances that enjoyed and disliked. The story also touches upon the ugliness of the ballet dancers’ reality- such as being a human décor.

The piece was commissioned by the Paris Opera who originally wanted Jérôme Bel to make a piece for the company. Instead he chose to portray one woman. By letting Veronique Doisneau tell her story- a retiring dancer, low in the hierarchy, Jérome Bel makes a political and critical statement around age and body politics in the ballet world without saying it overtly. Doisneau represents the voices that we never hear, the voices of the ballet bodies whose mission is to please and to be gazed upon. In that sense, when Veronique tells her story she tells the story of many others who never get to speak.
At the same time the critique is subtle, and the piece is, as the title suggests, most of all a hommage to the dancer Veronique Doisneau. The piece is a part of a series of portraits of dancers where Bel has put the spotlight on the dancer’s craft, knowledge and discourse.

It is said that Jérôme Bel wanted to make a documentary in theatre setting for this piece, and just like in a documentary we feel the presence of the maker, we imagine the talks between the dancer and the choreographer and the catalyst questions the maker posed in order to give birth to this courageous speech. The trait is a typical of Bel, who makes the social, political and cultural context visible in his work around dance.

Jérôme Bel is in the middle of his career, but he is already legendary.  He is one of the front figures in the conceptual dance movement that arise in France in the 90-ies. In French this movement is sometimes called “non-danse”, no dance, which alludes to a dance which doesn’t have to include dance or dancers in a traditional sense. Ideas are guiding the expression and not vice versa. This expansion of the definitions of choreography and dance have been important for the dance field and inspired a lot of younger choreographers.