This year’s Performa performance art biennial included a highly unusual piece featuring actors not often seen onstage. In Disabled Theater (Nov. 12-17), a co-presentation of New York Live Arts and Performa 13, the actors were all persons with cognitive disabilities, such as Down syndrome. Organized by Paris-based choreographer Jérôme Bel and Zurich-based Theater Hora, the piece sought to have no reference point other than the performers and their medical diagnoses as contained within their bodies and their stories. Each part of the program began with the announcement that “Jérôme Bel asked” the actors to do such-and-such, which they then each did.
The event took place on a stage that was bare except for a semicircle of chairs for the 10 actors and a table and chair for the translator/emcee. The translator was necessary, she announced, because the performers spoke Swiss German. In fact, these disabled people sang along heartily in English, Italian and High German when pop songs were played during a later dance segment. The actors affected a kind of non-costume of casual sportswear, and many of them were barefoot or in their stocking feet.
Bel’s point-blank style of presentation was most potent in the opening gambit. The emcee announced the first task: that Bel asked the actors to appear on the stage one by one and stand for a minute of silence, facing the audience. It was painful on both sides of the proscenium.
After walking onto the stage, each of the actors squirmed and squinted into the glare. Looking down at the lone, mute figure at the lip of the stage, the spectators froze in their seats, amazingly quiet. The actor’s return of their gaze, denuded of the usual spectacle that cloaks theatrical voyeurism, reminded them that it is impolite to stare at those less fortunate. The uncomfortable specter of the “freak show” haunted this silent confrontation. That Bel developed the piece at the invitation of Theater Hora, a Zurich theater group for the disabled, provided a defense against charges of exploitation, but it did not diminish the audience’s palpable anxiety.
The other tasks in the show included the performers stating their names, ages, professions and disabilities; performing a dance that they made up; and commenting on what they thought of performing the piece. In relating their disabilities, rather than naming them they sometimes talked about the challenges they present: “I’m slow” or “I have difficulty speaking” or “I don’t remember things very well.” The uplifting dance numbers, which ran a bit long, alluded to even more forbidden terrain, the sexual lives of the disabled, as there was some crotch-grabbing, one dancer stripped off his shirt, and a woman included some chaste lap-dancing in her routine.
Freighted with identity politics and the non-aesthetic of what Susan Sontag referred to as “victim art,” Disabled Theater risked all the dramaturgical pitfalls of agit-prop: the outcome was never in doubt, as it was under the control of ideology; the lesson must be taught in broad strokes. The audience was all too ready to applaud and sympathize.
Theater or dance, “social practice” or group therapy encounter, Disabled Theater was built on Bel’s paradoxical effort to eliminate representation, which he has also pursued in other work. In his Cédric Andrieux (2009) and related pieces about other dancers, the eponymous dancer talks about himself and his career while demonstrating some steps from his personal performance history. The pieces refer to no outside story and contain no character portrayal, at least apparently. Likewise, in Disabled Theater, Bel wants to suggest that the performers are not acting, but being.
In the second task of Disabled Theater, however, the actors all described their profession as “actor.” But they were in a show whose premise is that the “actors” were not acting. In fact, though open to improvisation, the show was well rehearsed. It was acting. Disabled Theater is traveling the international circuit, including Documenta 13, Festival d’Avignon, the Walker Center and Berlin’s Theatertreffen. The performance in New York was virtually identical to what I saw at Theatertreffen, except that one of the actors had dropped out. Prejudice might make us believe that disabled people lack the necessary discipline, emotional control and intelligence to act on the stage. Precisely because of their artifice in Disabled Theater, the actors demonstrate their very human qualities and estimable capabilities.