Jérôme Bel is most often referred to as a conceptual choreographer; the narrative is as follows: after studying contemporary dance and working with choreographers like Angelin Preljocaj and Regis Obadia, and after a gig as assistant director for the 1992 Winter Olympics, he decided to take some time off to do some reading. Barthes on authorship and Foucault on sexuality, perhaps.
So he came back to dance with more of an awareness of critical contexts to inform its language and history, and moved away from virtuosity and technicality, towards the body and its dramaturgical dimensions – the untrained, specialised, narrative body. Choreography became, for Bel, a tool through which dance is conceptualized, probing at questions of authorship, or responsibility and artistic framing.
And in a way, that’s what his collaboration with Candoco explores; this iteration of The Show Must Go On features disabled and able-bodied performers, dancing to a hit-list of pop songs, from Celine Dion to The Beatles. The technician- also the DJ- manually skips to the track on CDs downstage, joins in the dance and intervenes into the tone of the unfolding performance. There are choreographic nuances to the tracks that foreground different relationships – overt empathy, nostalgia, individuality; there are in-jokes and moments of collective enthusiasm.
Much of the show’s nuance comes from this attention to detail – not only in allowing the performers to be onstage, but in fleshing out a complicated, tainted relationship with these giants of pop culture.
The first two tracks, we listen to them in silence – they dictate the tone, whilst also making the space present, tracing the outlines of the auditorium plunged in darkness whilst the lights slowly fade in to reveal an empty stage; this is a process that unfolds over time – there is nothing to rush it. Bel is teasing us here; this is a space for the spectacular; for the revived pop star; or perhaps, our own space for emotional stardom.
There are other instances too, when the attention shifts from stage to us, the audience, and it’s these that prompted me to consider the role Sadler’s Wells played in authoring this work, as a particular space, but also, the incentive behind reviving this show here, now. I am not sure I have an answer for either, but these questions built up in tensions between the performance and its context, intent and reception.
The Show Must Go On has been around, in many iterations, since 2001. It’s had some spectacular versions – like the relatively recent version at MOMA in 2012, featuring dancers from Trisha Brown Company, Wooster Group and ballet teacher Janet Panetta. At Sadler’s Wells, it gains a new identity through Candoco’s collaboration – the stage is populated by an amazingly diverse array of performers, who reveal their own relationships to movement and choreography.
And then there is us, the audience; uneasy about the silences between the songs; unsure what to make of long pauses or gentle confrontations; clapping in all the gaps, as if rewarding virtuosity, no matter how many mechanisms tease us to think otherwise.
The Show Must Go On, it’s very aware of the nuances of these pop, and populist songs; it teases us to consider our relationship to signifiers- it’s why we spend so much time observing the space and each other. At one point, the stage begins to lift, poking fun at its own pretence and theatricality. Music gets cut off when the audience tries to sing along; that’s the most powerful, dramaturgically sharp and conceptually fascinating aspect of Bel/Candoco’s iteration – it holds so much control over our own associations, and engages in a choreography in which we are as fundamental as the performers on stage.
The show’s literal play- the reference to the Queen song in the title, the beginning in which performers amass on stage during Come Together, the reveal of a yellow-lit sub-stage during Yellow Submarine – it prompts us to consider just how easy it is for signification to be replaced with meaning. It’s an aspect of the show that will always reflect back onto its context with stripped-down simplicity.
The Show Must Go On plays with performance and its ability to pin-point signification, whether it’s the stage that sets our expectations, which we’ve in turn, come to impose on it, or these songs that have been rendered so meaningless through their overt popularisation, but suggest such pleasing affection in a casual listening-in.
Yet I was acutely aware of just how configured my own response was to the show, as someone who appreciates the flippant aspect of Bel’s work. Whilst sitting there, listening to half of the auditorium sing along to John Lennon’s Imagine, I wondered what the conversation was shaping out to be in this auditorium, between this figure of conceptual dance, a show that is fourteen years old and an audience that’s still intent on clapping for the virtuous, even in its absence. At some point, it started to feel cynical, despite the performance navigating so elegantly between individuality and collectivity, authority and democracy.
Despite its impeccable acknowledgment of the space, of its cultural capital, it’s hard for the piece not to seem tame and cynical in the face of all of this dramaturgical play; it’s a strangely acknowledged resistance to the canon of dance, that somehow, becomes appropriated back on the premise of superficial democracy. And this is, in a way, not the show itself, but the wider frameworks that inherently dramatize it, and the pop songs that hold so much sway in its nuance.
The Show Must Go On exposes, critiques and constructs at the same time; it’s full of nuance and emotion, but also sharp cynicism and resistance. We’re Pavolv’s dogs in this game of signification as much as we are authors, and this undetermined politics shaped by time and context struck me as such an interesting problem to be posed onto, and posed by, a production. But until then, the show must go on.