The Colonizer as Decolonizer

The Colonized as the decolonized: 

Jérôme Bel and La Ribot on choreographing as an act of resistance in the nineties.

By Emily Barasch


In my last work, I sat on stage for 10 minutes staring at my doll sitting on a chair across from me. I sat there unmoving, and then I continued to sit while I played an interview with Marina Abromovic discussing what performance art is. I then asked if I could have a volunteer from the audience come up, and I had him read the introduction of the book DANCE by Andre Lepeki. I then had him go sit down and then told the audience, “okay, now I am going to dance for you, because that is what you came here to watch me do”. What I did then was put on pop music and invite the audience up to dance with me and we had a wonderful cathartic dance party for the remainder of my “piece”. This was a very casual and small study for me, and the few audience members were viscerally annoyed at having to watch me sit there for so long, having expected a “dance performance”.           

I recently watched a video of Jérôme Bel’s work, Jérôme Bel, and La Ribot’s work, 13 Piezas Distinguidas. I was reminded of this pivotal time in choreography during the nineties.  At the center of these performances lies the question: What constitutes a dance performance? What continues a performance? 

What constitutes dance? Jérôme Bel, explains at its simplest distillation, a dance performance requires living bodies, music, and light. What follows from both performers, is the interrogation and investigation into breaking down the hierarchical, colonialist nature of historical methods of choreography, within this loose framework of a “dance performance”. They are choreographing using the anti-form.

The essence of these performances by Jérôme Bel and La Ribot, is the opening of a new discourse for the potentiality of this interrogation [interrogating the performance and performing the interrogation], while gaining legitimacy for this kind of work as valid and urgent. While these sorts of durational and corporeal performances may read as lazy, they are actually a part of a critical and necessary discourse in breaking down the hegemony of modern dance choreography.

The bodies may be moving in a slow, easeful, monotonous way, as often seen in the “post-modern” /“post-Judson” aesthetic. This term is extremely imperialistic in placing the 1970s American Judson time period as the defining binary point in dance history, but it is an important moment in dance history, and thus I will use it anyway.

Jérôme Bel and La Ribot’s work is intentional and necessary in challenging the capitalistic structure of choreography. If Eurocentricity as an aesthetic is a child of colonialism, it must be said that these two dancers as white Europeans are placing themselves at the center of the decolonizing work. They are both the colonizer and the decolonizer. They are using their position as white Europeans to challenge the discourse of traditionally appreciated European aesthetics. In this, the colonizer [Bel and La Ribot] awakens that which is used to colonize [dance].

Jérôme Bel’s piece, Jérôme Bel, is posing the question, what is a dancer? What makes a dancer? Is it just the human body, or something more? By stripping the performance of superfluities such as bright lights and fancy costumes, Bel’s work is rooted in reality, using the body to humanize the research. He is de-colonizing the dancer and deconstructing the body.

By utilizing the body to relocate and contextualize it’s history and audience’s perceptions. The body is the thing being looked at, but the body is also the thing being used to look at itself. Bel and La Ribot examine the body as subject, vehicle, and synthesizer. Bel speaks in the video about rendering things mundane in an effort to de-hierarchize the experience of making, performing, and watching work.

Doing a ballet variation is not more valid than a body sitting in a chair on stage—they are of equal value and importance. Bel’s work speaks to this, and allows dance viewers and spectators to begin breaking down the oppressive nature of making and viewing work. His work reveals how deeply we have been socialized and colonized to experience and create performances. He wants to de-historisize, de-colonize, and de-contextualize (by providing hyper contextualization). He strips down the dancers both of clothes and context to exacerbate the audience’s connotations of the performers existence and experiences through their gender. By not adding any additional costumes, lights, or sets, the audience is left with nothing but a naked body and a light bulb to place their own expectations on the humanity of the bodies being presented. What is identity? Who are you when aspects of your identity are taken away or exaggerated?

            In Andre Lepeki’s book, Exhausting Choreography, he talks a lot about the capitalistic and colonialist structure of choreography:      

“ One cannot neglect the effect of hegemonic forces that constantly try to dominate and prevent the creation of subjectivities by binding individuals into reproductive mechanisms of subjection, abjection, and domination… Choreography demands a yielding to commanding voices of masters [living and dead], it demands submitting body and desire to disciplining regimes [anatomical, dietary, gender, racial] all for the perfect fulfillment of a transcendental and preordained set of steps, postures, and gestures that nevertheless must appear “spontaneous” (Lepeki)

Both Jérôme Bel and La Ribot are challenging this idea in real live performance, through the vehicle of the body as the tool. For me, these two radical and revolutionary choreographers are challenging this exact notion. This framework of challenging and interrogating this problematic structure of choreography, which Lepeki points out, is how I want to approach my own work.  Lepeki also explains that Bel and La Ribot are:

“challenging historical notions of choreography— moving away from identity politics being self contained—and using other bodies as subjects to expand modes of identifying and representing…Bels insistence in uncovering how choreography specifically participates in, an is accomplice of, representations ‘submission of subjectivity’ under modern structures of power.” (Lepeki)

In both Bel and La Ribot’s work there is no delineation between the sacred and the profane. It all exists in our bodies and is valid. Something reading as sacred or profane is imposed onto our bodies by external forces. We have been constructed to be uncomfortable by the image of La Ribot lying naked splayed out on the museum floor. This is seen as profane, while watching a Paul Taylor (or even Batsheva to be more contemporary) piece is seen as exciting and impressive for its physicality and entertainment value.

However, small my own performance was extremely important for me in my own research. It was the first time I did not engage in historical Eurocentric aesthetics and methods of choreographing and performing. In my opinion, this is where the work is in the field of performance and dance studies, and as a choreographer I hope to continue unpacking my work through this lens.







Emily Barasch is a Brooklyn based, California raised, and New Orleans influenced choreographer, and performer. She received her BA in dance and sociology from Tulane University.  Emily has spent time learning, researching, and dancing in Israel, New Orleans, South Africa, Germany, Stockholm, and Cuba. She has studied under Juliana May and Alexandra Beller. Her work has been presented at the American College Dance Association and the American Dance Festival's student showcase, Green Space, Eden's Expressway, BAX, Hatch Series, and WAXworks at Triskelion Arts, as well as having performed at the Stockholm Fringe Festival in Sweden. She is currently living in Kassel, Germany as part of a choreographic residency/mentorship program for twelve months to further her research.