Jerome Bel: Gala

12 October 2016

Jerome Bel's Gala gives professional theatre a massive joyful kick in the nuts.

Perhaps the best moment comes half way through.  A seventeen year old boy moves forward from the chorus to perform a solo dance routine that the others will copy behind him.  Except it isn't his turn - he's gone too early.  So the middle aged ginger man who'd just finished leading a rave sequence, whispers gently in his ear, and the boy nodds and moves back, until his moment comes.

The mistake isn't covered up or awkward, it's just a tiny moment of human fallibility in a show which celebrates our mistakes and imperfections.  There is such quiet dignity and kindess in that exchange - the care, then the acknowledgement of the mistake and then we move on.  It doesn't matter.

Gala starts with a long, long series of images of stages all over the world: a rolling google image search projected on the back wall.  Lots of red velvet curtains, but outside stages, puppet show stages, ancient amphitheatres too.  It's in silence, apart from the toddler in the audience talking all the way through, doing the alphabet.  It's Tottenham, the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, and no-one shushes or looks exasperated.  It's just part of what's happening.

And when the images finish, it's just simple, as all the most complex things are.  There's an old re-used calendar standing up at at the front and it's got the world Ballet on it. So the participants, one by one, walk across the stage and do some ballet.  They spin, twice.  There's a couple of young kids, a boy (the one above) who uses a wheelchair, an old man who looks like Father Christmas.  A tall guy who probably dances in West End musicals.  An older woman.

They wear ridiculous clothes, and they try and do balletic spins.  Some of them are good it, some of them aren't.  It doesn't matter, not in a patronising way, it just doesn't matter because we're not watching them spin, we're watching them.

And we're challenged.  Some of the audience start to clap the more obviously physically disabled dancers when they complete their spins or jumps and that feels uncomfortable, or ok, or something else.  

The longer it goes, the more we tolerate the more proficient performers while expectantly waiting for those who are out of their comfort zone to step back onto the stage and dance.

After Ballet they do Michael Jackson moonwalks.  And a free-wheeling Waltz.  And three minutes of improvised movement all together in silence.  That bit's less exciting, maybe - there's too much to watch, it feels a bit safe, like they're not quite in it yet.  But there's a direct link between the audience and the performers, like parents at a school play - utterly invested in the people on stage and willing them to do well.

And then a young woman does a solo, a kind of wishy-washy contemporary piece within which she's fully committed, and when she's done the whole company reappear on stage all wearing each other's clothes.  Father Christmas is in a skirt.  A man is wearing only a pair of underpants stretched up over his shoulders.  They look ridiculous and wonderful.  The message is clear but gentle: we're different and we're all the same.

They stand behind the woman who did the solo and the same music comes up - it's Bon Iver - and she does it again, and they do it too.  And they don't know what they're doing, but that's it - we see them trying so hard and failing in the most joyful way.  They're a mass of clowns, except they're not idiots, they're winning.  They're trying hard and having an amazing time.

They do it again and again - a chaotic hula hoop dance led by an amazing performer that ends with hoops flying out of control, a rave with the ginger man, a bollywood number that goes so quickly that no-one gets even close.  There's something in pursuing something that's basically impossible that opens up huge space for achievement.  

The right to fail is liberating.  There's no precision.  Music fades up and down like it's being operated on a CD player at a teenage disco in the 90s.  The lighting is basic.  The sound is scratchy.  The curtain keeps getting caught on the sign that says 'Ballet'.

But it's the clunkiness which is so political:  it skewers so many things that are deemed important in professional theatre: precision, showmanship, virtuosity, perfection.  It says fuck your precision and your po-faced self-importance and your massive budgets, look at this space and look at these people.  

As the piece climaxes with Miley Cyrus and show-tunes, all we want is to join them.  And be part of them.  To throw on ridiculous clothes (then, at the end, throw them off - a final joyful exposure) and dance around like the awkward uncoordinated imperfect people like we are.