Human Treasure

Thoughts inspired by group therapy and two works of Jérôme Bel: The show must go on at the Volksbühne (Großes Haus, Jan 2018) & Gala at Hebbel am Ufer (HAU 1, April 2017)

It’s over half a decade ago: April 2012. After having a very difficult first year of university, I sign myself up for one term of group therapy…and I end up staying for four.

Six years on, I still feel deep gratitude for the experience. Although I can’t remember the specifics of the weeklysessions, what I do distinctly remember is how I came to appreciate, admire and… to be honest… love the other people in the group. There wasn’t anything particular about these people that made me so fond of them, and I’m not sure any of us would have made friends outside the therapy space. We were a mixed bag of 18-25 year olds. We could have been a random cross-section of any cohort of undergraduates from a British university. Yet it was through getting to know each other in that space, through the process of sharing, listening and reflecting, which was carefully and expertly guided by a psychotherapist, that provided the fertile ground for my feelings of fondness. I wasn’t alone in this. I remember distinctly the thoughts one participant shared at the end of his last ever session. He said:

Being in this group has made me realise that every individual person has so many different facets to who they are. They are just like a diamond; those many facets are what make them unique, complex and beautiful.

Those words have always stayed with me.

Group therapy created an atmosphere in which I could look at other people in a way I hadn’t looked before. What was it about this experience that encouraged/enabled me to view others (and therefore sometimes myself) in a positive, empathic and even celebratory light? Perhaps the invitation and the support to see and be seen. On reflection, I think my meaningful encounter with group therapy at that time in my life – whilst I was discovering my political side and trying to locate myself as a theatre maker – deeply informed me as an artist. In the six years since, I have experienced, sought out and actively tried to facilitate space for that same loving and appreciative way of looking at others within the realms of performance.

[KLAXON] ***It is crucial to remember that collective artistic processes are, and should remain, very different from therapy spaces.***

I am not suggesting that performance projects should aim to expose and explore people’s troubles and difficult life experiences – no! In fact, I steer clear of anything like this when working collectively (I am not a therapist). I mean that there are ways in which art can open spaces for looking at each other in new ways. Ways that are careful and caring. As both a theatre-maker and audience member, I have had that same subjective experience of “seeing the diamonds” in the rehearsal room and onstage, that I had in the group therapy space as 19 year old undergraduate. And I feel privileged and hopeful every time.

This is what I see in the work of choreographer Jérôme Bel. Having now seen two of his pieces, Gala (Hebbel am Ufer, April 2017) and last week The show must go on (Volksbühne, Jan 2018), I marvel at the simplicity with his work displays human beings on stage as if opening the lid of a treasure chest. Through providing simple, open structure in his choreography, it is with the relaxed and playful presence of the performers that the colour and complexity comes flooding into the piece. In so doing, the piece lets the performers shine. Whether dancing freestyle, attempting a particular style like ballet, or simply standing still staring into the audience; as a spectator, I just sit and marvel at the beauty of the individuals onstage.

In my opinion, this effect was achieved more fully in Gala, a piece made in 2015, than in The show must go on, which was choreographed fourteen years before in 2001. In Gala, local dancers, who are both professional and non-professional, play with different forms and, thus, challenged the notions of “failure” and “success” in dance. The piece digs deeply at the phenomenon of dance itself, explored through the unique movements of a wide array of different bodies. For me, seeing the performers explore techniques, such as ballet and waltz, before finding ways to express themselves in freestyle moments and self-choreographed solos was emotionally stirring. When I saw Gala at Hebbel am Ufer in April 2017, the dancers seemed incredibly comfortable on the stage. Even when moving in ways that challenge them physically, there was something so unashamed about their dancing that moved me and made me want to get up and dance without fear as well.

The show must go on does offer such moments; yet as my partner pointed out after we saw the piece reinterpreted at the Volksbühne in January 2018, overall it feels more like a choreographer’s ‘vision’. Although The show must go on at times opens the treasure chest, creating a space to observe the uniqueness of the performers; the choreographer’s vision cuts in and shuts the lid. In the piece, 25 performers – who, in the production I saw, were a collection of Volksbühne “staff members and friends” – moved to a soundtrack of 19 classic pop hits. Each new song heralds a piece of choreography that takes the track “at its word” and literally interprets the lyrics, often fully embracing cultural references, such as the hilarious Rose and Jack Titanic moment to “My Heart Will Go On”. As in Gala, in The show must go on there were points when each performer shone brightly. For example, when the full ensemble danced the Macarena – a moment I could never have guessed I would love so much! However, there are also long, drawn-out moments when there are no performers onstage and the literal interpretations of the songs get tedious. For instance, when “La Vie En Rose” plays and the audience are lit with pink light for the entire length of the song. Nothing else happens. For me, moments like this quickly felt boring and gimmicky.

As an artist interested primarily in devising work with a mixture of professional and “non-professional” performers, Bel’s work reminds me of the importance of always staying awake to the people I’m working with. Their uniqueness and diversity is the treasure of the piece. Therefore the key to facilitating/directing a great ensemble piece is providing the support and structure for the treasure chest to open. Having seen The show must go on and Gala the wrong way around, chronology-speaking, it felt to me as though the former was the experiment which led to the brilliance of the latter. In Gala more time was given to fully observe and appreciate the individuals performing on the stage;  the diamonds were given the space to brightly shine.