Correspondence from Daniel Linehan, PARTS #3: Going on
by Daniel Linehan
I want to write about a performance from the inside. At PARTS, we recently learned and performed Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On. If you haven’t seen it, the basic idea of the show seems pretty simple and straightforward. It is a show composed of 18 pop songs, where we do what the songs tell us to do. John Lennon sings, “Come Together,” and we come together on stage; David Bowie sings “Let’s Dance,” and we dance; Sting sings “I’ll Be Watching You,” and we watch the audience, etc.
An important part of the show is that we don’t do anything that the audience wouldn’t also be able to do. The motivation for the show is obviously not to impress the audience, but then, what is the motivation? Now that I’ve been part of the process, it seems that the reason behind this absence of virtuosity is not what I first thought it was. The reason actually has little to do with creating a democratizing force between performer and audience, and it also has little to do with creating an equalizing homogenization of the performers. In fact the goal is to expose the individual performer, each of us, to show us in all of our difference. In another show, where I might accomplish impressive feats and do difficult things that most people can’t do, I am completely replaceable, in principle. There are many people out there who can learn to do those things, and since the choreoraphy is about the virtuosity, it doesn’t change very much in my absence if someone else fulfills the virtuosity. But in this show, there is a sense in which I am completely irreplaceable. Since I have almost nothing to accomplish, the subtlety of my individual behavior is completely exposed. How I stand, just so, how I shift my weight, just so, how I receive the gaze of the audience and how I return it, just so. The way I react to the odd situation of being on a stage, just being there, with lights shining on me and an audience out there looking at me, the way I do this is completely non-replicable. Nobody could truly imitate it. And for this reason, in the performance of the show, I feel unexpectedly and extremely vulnerable.
Of course, in another sense, everyone in The Show Must Go On is replaceable. It’s a relatively easy piece to learn (although more difficult to do than it looks), and when Jérôme Bel’s company tours, the cast comes from a rotating group of 40 different performers. I am sure the presenters don’t mind much who the performers are, and I doubt they would care if there were a certain individual couldn’t do the show. It would still be a work by the internationally reputable artist Jérôme Bel, and on the surface, it seems like it would look exactly the same. But I think it isn’t the same. The structure is the same, but the piece isn’t only about the structure, it is more about how these particular individuals in this moment exist inside of the very strict structure. The piece exposes the nuances of this individual on stage, and this individual on stage, and in this sense, it is a completely different piece depending on who is performing it, and also very different for the same performers from performance to performance, because they are performing in a different moment.
I think this may not seem so special…I think there are many choreographers who work with specific individuals and who try to allow each performer’s individuality to really be on display. But the method for putting the individual on display is often about finding out what kinds of things this specific individual can do and the interesting ways in which he or she does them. In The Show Must Go On, it is almost the opposite method, a stripped-down method: we do what anyone else would be able to do, and we try to attract as little attention as possible when we do it. We do almost nothing. This means that you don’t get to see what we are able to do and the interesting ways in which we can do these things, but something else, more subtle and perhaps more essential, is allowed to come to the forefront. We do what we can’t help but do, we be what we can’t help but be, by virtue of being ourselves, by virtue of me being who I am. That’s why I keep on saying that I feel “exposed” and “vulnerable” rather than on “display.” And perhaps if you pay attention, this is what you get to see, some essential part of who we are, without the distraction of us trying to impress you.
This is what I think is one of the major driving forces of the piece, from inside, anyway. From the outside, I think there are probably widely disparate ways that audiences receive it, and I don’t know them all. For one thing, there is a danger in the use of pop songs. There seems to be a lot of room to read irony into the piece, for example: perhaps we only do what the pop songs tell us to do in order to show how inane the pop songs are. If this were my reading of the piece as an audience member, I would think that it was a very uninteresting piece. There are also long stretches of the performances where the performers aren’t on stage at all, so the piece obviously isn’t just about exposing the performer, it’s also about exposing the audience as well, and also about exposing some of the conventions of performance by breaking with audience expectation (the audience expects to see performers when they come to a performance, and for a while, they don’t get to see any). But I have to admit I’m not entirely sure what the experience of watching the piece is like. I haven’t seen it; I’ve only performed it, and these are just some of my thoughts about the piece from the inside.