There are a few things you will not encounter when the PuSh International Performing ArtsFestival presents French cho- reographer Jérí´me Bel’s The Show Must Go On at SFU’s new Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, in the Woodward’s complex, from January 20 to 23. Daring displays of agility and strength. Precisely synchronized ensemble movements. Balletic pirouettes and jetés. A stage full of lithe young bodies. Futuristic break-dance-inspired moves. Tutus. Pointe shoes. Stage sets. Props.
The list could go on, and on. Carried to extremes, it might encompass everything anyone ever goes to a dance performance to view. But Bel, a renegade dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-philosopher, is far more interested in the intelligence of his audience than in the virtuosity of his cast, and consequently we can say this: The Show Must Go On will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
The piece, as Bel’s assistants Dina ed Dik and Henrique Neves explain on the line from the Granville Island Hotel, is about many different things, including the power and significance of everyday movement, as opposed to showy feats of athleticism. It is also, they suggest, a way of clearing space for the audience to examine its own preconceptions about art, entertainment, and even life itself.
“One of the main things for him [Bel] is that we have to leave the structure of the piece open, so that they can see how it’s made, how it’s done,” ed Dik says. “There’s no secret about it. So yeah, you have a lot of time to think.”
“That’s totally correct,” Neves adds. “I wouldn’t say he choreographs your thinking, but he leads you in a very clear way. I think, as an audience, you are not surprised by virtuosity, by secrets [in this piece]. It’s always about your reaction to something you understand, that you can see. It’s there, it’s clear, and, again, it brings you back to you as an audience. Is that what you expect from a performance or not? Would you like to see something different? It’s about negotiating space; it’s about your desires and your expectations versus what you’re watching.”
Neves and ed Dik have worked with Bel for almost a decade, having been part of the 2001 workshop in which the choreographer developed The Show Must Go On. Their job is to explain his ideas to local casts, but even so they find it difficult to express the essence of this multifaceted project, which has been performed worldwide. During their half-hour conversation with the Straight, they circle around some of the key points of the work. It’s inclusive, they say: Bel specifies that the 20-strong cast must draw on the ethnic makeup of wherever it’s being produced, and feature a wide range of ages. (In Vancouver, The Show Must Go On will include some of our best practitioners of contemporary dance and physical theatre, including Susan Elliott, Billy Marchenski, and Tanya Marquardt; arts maven Max Wyman and Downtown Eastside community activist Jim Green will also appear.) It uses an almost cloyingly familiar soundtrack—everything from Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” to Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose” and George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex”—to prompt fresh thinking about dance, music, the body, and society. And the two say its impact will be felt intuitively as well as intellectually.
That might seem like a tall order, and ed Dik and Neves allow that The Show Must Go On can fail: they cite a Buenos Aires production in which the cast and audience’s unfamiliarity with the score resulted in an experience quite different from what they, and Bel, had intended. Even in English-speaking cities, they say, it’s not uncommon for people to walk out mid-show.
But those who have seen Bel’s other creations—such as last year’s Vancouver International Dance Festival production of Pichet Klunchun and Myself—know that he has an almost alchemical ability to wring profundity from seemingly unpromising material.
“It’s about finding something deep in something that could be considered tacky or banal or uninteresting,” Neves says. “And the idea that you can find something deeper in that through what you can do with it is, I think, a generous one.
“With this piece,” he continues, “Jérí´me was very interested in an idea of community. For one thing, he was trying to give the piece to the audience and say that the audience is as important or more important than the performers. And he’s also interested in an idea of community as a theatrical moment—a moment where people get together.”
People will get together as a result of this production: not just in SFU’s new theatre but afterward, to discuss its implications and their reactions. This show will go on, in many surprising ways.