Bel Epoch (2021) with Megan Bridge
Photo credit: Johanna Austin

Bel Epoch (2021) with Megan Bridge

French choreographer Jerome Bel and his company have been headliners on the international dance festival circuit. He returned to the 2022 Philadelphia FringeArts with a live dance memoir about his life and career. 

Bel had decided not to tour his productions because his mission is to leave a zero-carbon footprint on the environment, which means no plane travel. His solution at the 2022 Fringe Festival was to cast dancer-choreographer Megan Bridge to embody him in his two-hour monologue titled Jérôme Bel (2021).’ It sounds like a stretch, but Bridge delivers a captivating and moving performance. As part of the process for this show, Bridge was required to translate the text from French to English.

On the FringeArts Theater stage, Bridge is seated behind a desk on a darkened stage next to a screen “My name is Jerome Bel, I am single, and I have a 16-year-old daughter, I am fifty-seven years old, and I live in Paris” “If some of you become bored, please don’t hesitate to leave, I doesn’t bother me. There will be no theatrical twists or resolution at the end.”

Bridge channeling Bel’s persona with such authority would be a shot in the dark even to try to explain her technique; it just works. 

He describes skating and, at age ten, takes acting lessons. As a teen, he tried to imitate the dances he saw at the movies. Bel is kicked out of a formal acting class at sixteen because he never learns his lines. Bel next describes going to dance classes where “for the first time in my life I have the feeling of being loved for who I am.” He gets interested in literature and art while his parents are in the process of divorcing, and Bel takes his revenge, citing his “passion for art gives me power, a weapon and use it against my parents and the bourgeoisie.”

From there, he describes the pivotal events of his life as a rebel with a dance cause. His impulses as an artist challenged the dance establishment, its systemic hierarchies, and prejudices perpetuated in commercial and academic dance.

At nineteen, Bel auditioned for France’s National Conservatory Dance Center and was not impressed, stating, “our creativity is not called upon, it was more about making us obedient… not artists.

When Bel sees a performance by Pina Bausch, he is “overwhelmed,” and he starts exploring more conceptual work without much dance involved. “During the performance, I go from laughter to tears and visa-versa without knowing why. I’m overwhelmed.”

He benefits from Mitterrand’s initiatives to support artists having the financial support to develop new work. “I see dignity in the profession as a dancer.” 

From ages twenty to twenty-seven, he dances professionally. “I make an everyday living, doing what I love. I tour. It’s glamorous. A life I never dared to dream.” But in 1991, after two best friends die of AIDS, he quits performing, and two years later, Bel decides to become a choreographer. 

His first pieces alienated audiences so much that in one performance, the entire audience walked out. He relates how disoriented his failures were but remained committed to his aesthetic of making something that expressed his ideas about dancer diversity, experimentation, and content. 

Throughout the text, Bel allows brief glimpses into his personal life – the painful breakup of a loving relationship with a woman; being in denial of the realities of the AIDS crisis; his professional failures, eventual successes, and joy about being a father. 

He expresses astonishment at being commissioned by the vaunted Paris Opera Ballet, where he creates a piece that illustrates the torturous poses that a corps de ballet dancer must endure during productions of Swan Lake. But his proudest work is in his evolving artistic mission to present dance as a genuinely egalitarian and humanist artform not chained to any commercial calculous in such experimental works as ‘The Show Must Go On,’ ‘Gala,’ and ‘Disabled Theater.’

Bel Epoch (2021) with Megan Bridge
Photo credit: Johanna Austin

Bel increasingly includes what had been previously excluded from the dance stage – “People with disabilities, children, teens, queer or transgender people, the performers are mostly amateur with a couple of dance professionals.” 

Excerpts from ‘The Show Must Go On’ and ‘Gala,’ previously staged at FringeArts were danced by some of the original Philly cast members – Kharrima “KC” Stevens, Edgardo Colon, Destiny Nguyen, Mauri Walton, Siheed Woods, Erin McNulty, Eddie Fifield, Jamie Ray-Leonetti, Cliff Schwinger, and Amelia Terrapin. Megan Bridge joins them for David Bowie’s 80s hit ‘Let’s Dance’ and U2’s ‘Every Breath You Take,’ in which the dancers stop and make direct eye contact with the audience during the refrains “I’ll be watching you.” 

Edgardo Colon and Erin McNulty led the dancers with smoldering salsa moves in ‘Gala.’ While the youngest member of the troupe, Eddie Fifield, led everyone with his moves to John Lennon’s song ‘Love’ with some wave choreography and a moonwalk variation or two.

An emotional highlight was a film clip Bel describes as a life-changing experience working with dancers with Down Syndrome. When he couldn’t conceive a piece for the dancers, he told them to do what they wanted. The group was uninhibited in their improvisations and unselfconscious dance expression when moving to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ and other pop songs. 

Bel’s text stuns in its universality about what all true artists face in realizing their vision in a commercial environment. Since international touring keeps his company afloat, he feels he is now at a crossroads. At the end of Jerome Bel (2021), he intimates that this show might be his last. But then again, as Shakespeare mused, ‘All the world’s a stage,’ so even for Bel, a show on some stage must go on. Cue music, no?

Bel Epoch (2021) with Megan Bridge
Photo credit: Johanna Austin
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