Jérôme Bel’s Gala turns the performer/spectator dynamic and the act of performance itself, inside-out. It opens with the audience watching, in silence, a slide show of empty auditoria and vacant performance spaces. Lonely Opera Houses merge into ruined amphitheatres before seguing into the closed red curtains of toy theatres and the vast empty arenas of outside festivals. It was as if watching the theatrical equivalent of a compulsive train-spotter’s holiday snaps. For a few brief seconds, the Sadler’s Wells audience found itself staring at a photo of the empty seats in which we were now sitting. And, with expert timing, the slides stopped just as tedium began to beckon.
A flipchart was stationed downstage left, showing the handwritten word, ‘Ballet’, following which twenty people each walked across the front of stage – strictly, one-at-a-time – stopping to perform a double pirouette or – in some cases – just awkwardly turning around, twice. They then ran or walked a diagonal from upstage right to downstage left, doing their best to perform a jeté – or a little hop – along the way.
These twenty individuals made a diverse group, in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, physical ability and dancing skill. It was immediately obvious that some were professional dancers: Julie Cunningham (former dancer with Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark) was instantly recognisable; ballet dancer, Gyorgy Baán (remembered from New English Ballet Theatre) performed a classical variation from Don Quixote, later in the show; three more (Jordan Ajadi, Rosie Terry and Anoushka de Grunwald Crepaud) have contemporary dance backgrounds; while another (Arunima Kumar) is classically trained in the Indian dance form of Kuchipudi.
These professional dancers merged into an ensemble of eccentrically-dressed individuals – they swapped parts of costumes mid-way through the show – for the most part clearly without dance training, including two enthusiastic children (Stephanie Gallagher and Seth Kent) and a few senior citizens. One young man (Zach Opere Onguende) began in a wheelchair; a young woman (Rosie Leak) has Down’s syndrome; and it later transpired that another woman had undergone a mastectomy. A couple of the amateurs were literally dancing dad’s (Colm Gallagher and Godfrey Leak) since their offspring were also in the cast!
The audience at this Dance Umbrella event contained a high proportion of professional and student dancers and so here was perhaps the ultimate in dance performance deconstruction with the spectacle largely being delivered by non-dancers for an audience liberally peppered with those trained in the art! Bel’s style is generically known as non-dance, a choreographic ideal that perhaps achieves something close to its apogee in this production.
After attempting ballet, the group moved on (in apparently random pairs) to perform various approximations of waltz steps, before repeating the opening walk across the front of the stage but, this time, in the manner of Michael Jackson. This funny interlude was followed by an even funnier three minutes’ of silent improvisation with each of the gang, occupying their own bubble of activity, amongst a writhing mass.
The final session saw each performer take it in turn to lead the group in steps of their own devising, through a back-to-back series of solos that truly got to the heart of the piece. Professional and amateur dancers alike struggled with genres unfamiliar to them, such as Indian classical dance and a hula-hoop sequence led by a performer, professionally known as Symoné (and the only session to be repeated). Another young player, Finn Burnett Pope, also seemed pretty adept with the hoop.
Stripped of the particular essence of their individual skill, the professional dancers and their amateur counterparts thus merged into one amorphous group. And, it was the sessions led by the non-dancers that proved to be the most revealing. Zach – the wheelchair-bound performer – stood up and moved gracefully despite his obvious ambulant disability; and Rosie – the young woman with Down’s – could certainly teach a few professional dancers about the elegant extension of her arms. Her floor-based solo, strongly emphasising the process of breathing and stretching, was utterly absorbing.
The evening was brought to a feel-good conclusion by the ultra-theatrical delivery of New York, New York led by professional drag artist, Finnbar Love, as a stage-struck young man of ambiguous gender; performing as if a cross between Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) in Glee! Love’s infectious enthusiasm transferred first to his nineteen colleagues, gaily following his lead by flinging off outer layers of clothing; and then to a grateful – and sentimental – audience who were mostly on their feet at the end.
This may have been a motley crew, dressed as if rummaging through a box of discarded circus clothes, and possessing an eclectic range of dance skills, beginning – for quite a few of them – at nil; but nonetheless, with Mr Bel’s sensitive direction, they achieved an inspirational and uplifting performance that certainly sent me home with a spring in my step.