French choreographer Jérôme Bel’s “The Show Must Go On,” a dance-theatre vehicle that’s been touring the world for years (I saw it in Istanbul in 2013), came to New York’s JOYCE Theatre on Oct 20-22, as part of the French Institute / Alliance Française (FIAF) “Crossing the Line Festival.” In some ways, Bel’s conceit actually did cross the line: while it challenged audience expectations with clever and unpredictable devices, it also, to a certain degree, overstayed its word-play welcome.
Taking the Freddy Mercury/Queen’s hit song of the 80s “The Show Must Go On” as its lead, Bel uses a set list of decades’ worth of hit tunes, spun by a DJ perched at the front of the apron’s pit. Starting with “Tonight” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story” to Mercury’s tune as the finale, Bel’s soundtrack for what’s going on (or sometimes not going on) onstage runs the gamut of pun-jokes aimed at the audience, challenging the traditional expectations of diehard dance aficionados with his dramatic and choreographic choices.
For some patrons, that can result in a hasty exit; to others, it’s a curiosity, as it gently aims to shock even though it sometimes repeats itself to yawning point (as in hearing around 18 consecutive choruses of “Let the Sun Shine In” echo on an empty stage). Basically, it’s a refreshingly updated take on theatrical convention — breaking all the rules and getting away with it simply because it twists your cognition to the ‘aha’ moments with lighthearted intention.
Bel’s choreographic choice worth its salt here is his use of amateurs (some of whom may be semi-professional) rather than experienced professionals. The 18-member group for the New York series appeared to be a hand-picked team of people of all body types and ages, and who possessed a modicum of theatrical acumen and minimal terpsichorean expertise.
The interracial cast included three members with physical disabilities (something I applaud for its specific inclusiveness — and which worked beautifully within this concept), and a few who displayed some degree of dance training. One memorable casting choice he made in the Istanbul version was to include a visibly pregnant woman who fearlessly tackled the moves. The performers followed central cues for positioning, but moved in their own individual ways to the rhythms. Because of the intentional lack of uniformity within the collective unison action, it was fascinating to watch each person’s own version of the assignment, as they moved and grooved to the music, often singing along with the tracks.
Bel’s narrative, though, was wordplay on the titles of the series of pop songs. It succeeded at first, but then began to flag as we realized the joke was used repeatedly and often the joke was on us – the audience. “Imagine” was played in complete darkness, segueing into “The Sounds of Silence.” “Let the Sun Shine In” underscored a slowly rising curtain backlit with dim yellow light. “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine” later revealed nothing but a yellow-lit blank stage — possibly a dubiously couched joke that it could have been a potty break for the cast.
The humor was derived from the performers’ individuality, both visually and within occasional singing of certain phrases that pertained to their identities. The DJ provided a particularly hilarious bit: after the cast exited the fully lit stage, he pumped up the volume, hopped on the stage, turned off the lights except for a follow spot in which he lip synched and gyrated in his own vanity showcase of “I’m Your Private Dancer.”
The beginning of “Ballerina Girl” got an initial chuckle from the audience when all the males exited the stage (however, since Bel loves to genre-bend, he could have easily maximized the gender-bend opportunity here): “The Macarena” was a spontaneous tutti joy dance, remembering the popular hand-jive Bon-Bon; and “Killing Me Softly” was another play on words as the entire cast melted slo-mo into positions on the floor resembling the tragic aftermath of mass poisonings. Bel’s superb set list was a retrospective of some of the West’s best pop melodies ever written, and that Roberta Flack stunner was no exception — and oddly soothing in that eerie visual scenario.
Bel’s work has been popular with French audiences who tend to dote on rusty American show-biz trivia, encouraging them to sing and clap along with the songs. For New Yorkers, though, who have witnessed every avant-garde trend imaginable, it may have felt a bit arch and shopworn for its populist bent. But it was still an engaging and convivial night to expect the unexpected.