By Candice Wang, VI Form
Commissioned by Opera National de Paris in 2004, Jerome Bel’s dance Veronique Doisneau contrasts an individual, the ballet dancer Veronique Doisneau, with an institution, the world of classical ballet and the dance company. The performance is named after the dancer Veronique Doisneau, who has years of experience working for the Ballet of the Opera de Paris as both a soloist and a member of the Corps de Ballet. By highlighting Doisneau, the dance exposes the touch of humanity and reality hidden behind the balletic illusion of effortlessness and perfection. As the choreographer Jerome Bel declares in an interview, the dance lays bare the language and the rules of classical ballet and presents their often overlooked impact. The dancer exercises the freedom of self-expression in this nonetheless choreographed piece, which prompts the audience to reflect to what extent spontaneity and authenticity can be pursued in the performing arts.
To highlight the dancer, the multimedia background of Veronique Doisneau is deliberately simple. The incongruity between the grandiosity of the performance space and its occupant strikes the audience before the dance even starts. Despite the gloriously adorned performance hall of the Opera de Paris, the performer Veronique Doisneau walks on stage alone wearing her practice clothes, casually holding a bottle of water. The dancer looks like she is going to a rehearsal, which contains the informality and imperfection that are usually concealed from the viewer’s gaze. The lighting condition, the most powerful visual media in the performing arts, is compatible with the simplicity of the dancer’s costume. With a few exceptions of spotlights shining on dance demonstrations, the bright work lights illuminating the stage throughout the dance hide no dark corners from the sight of the audience, which adds to the honest, matter-of-fact mood of the performance. Furthermore, the music in Veronique Doisneau also gives the impression of a rehearsal. The performance can be categorized into two parts-Veronique’s narration about her life and career and the segments of dance demonstrations. During her narrations as well as dance demonstrations, her soft, unadorned voice is frequently the sole melody. After Doisneau tells the audience verbally about her fond memories dancing in the ballet production Giselle, she begins to dance a solo from the production to her own humming. Her voice, unsteadied by the movements in her body, and the absence of a full orchestra render the scene immensely personal. Despite its apparent publicity, the performance has a very private, intimate tone that puts the individual in the spotlight. After each dance segment, Doisneau takes time catching breath, replacing the effortless image of ballet dancers with a more real and human one. Veronique Doisneau presents ballet as something personal rather than an art form high and unreachable not only by destructing the decorative structures in conventional ballet performances, but also by empowering the dancer as the subject.
One of the most powerful aspects of Veronique Doisneau is that the dancer has a voice both literally and metaphorically. Conventionally, ballet performers communicate with the art and the audience through movements rather than language. However, Doisneau’s narration rather than movements tell her story, and her words drive the storyline. Doisneau starts the performance telling the audience all the demographics about her life–her age, her career path and impending retirement, her family, and even her income. This courageous and striking way of revealing personal information in public creates the impression that Doisneau engages in a very trusting and intimate relationship with the viewer and diminishes the distance between them. According to the philosopher Martin Buber, there are two categories of human encounter: I-Thou relationships and I-It relationships. In the former category, individuals see and interact with one another in their respective holistic and authentic existence as beings without any objectification, whereas individuals treat one another as a means to an end in the latter category. In conventional ballet, the dancers are historically objects to be gazed upon and vessels to express the artistic idea. On the contrary, Doisneau in Veronique Doisneau presents herself in her real and plain existence as a person and therefore has an I-Thou relationship with the audience. The verbal communication, especially the telling of mundane facts in plain, everyday language, returns the humanity to Doisneau that she has to sacrifice as a product of the institution, enabling her to appear relatable and genuine to the audience. Veronique Doisneau is also experimental in that it tells the story from the perspective of the performer, not the choreographer or the dance company. The dancer Doisneau herself has the opportunity to voice her grievances as an individual subject to the oppression in the ballet hierarchy, which is especially poignant in her rendition of the famous ballet Swan Lake.
Doisneau is a member of the corps de ballet in Swan Lake--a “human décor,” to use her own words. In the conventional production of this ballet, Doisneau and the rest of the corps sustain a single pose in Act II throughout the duration of the solo, degraded as a background prop to highlight the soloists. In Veronique Doisneau, she holds the position all by herself. With the moving melody, the viewer experiences the passage of time that renders Doisneau’s stillness especially excruciating. When Doisneau performs this segment in conjunction with the rest of the corps de ballet and the soloists, she essentially serves as an object manipulated by the choreography. In contrast, Doisneau becomes the subject when she performs the same sustained pose alone, making a powerful statement about the dehumanizing hierarchy existent in the world of classical ballet. This oppressive power structure is overlooked when the audience focuses on the beauty of the soloists and the storyline of Swan Lake, but Doisneau’s demonstration lays it bare and visible and leads the audience to question the real cost of a ballet production. Historically, ballet performances are platforms through which ballet dancers are exploited. This art form used to be reserved for upperclassmen that came to gaze upon the bodies of young female dancers, who would later serve their audience as prostitutes and mistresses. Although the same form of exploitation is no longer existent today, classical ballet as an institution is far from flawless. By demonstrating the oppression she experiences personally, Doisneau shows the viewer rules in the ballet world and their impact on individuals.
Although Bel strives to present ballet in a new light by pursuing Doisneau’s genuine self-expression, Veronique Doisneau is nonetheless a choreographed performance. If a ballet production tells a story, the social implications in Veronique Doisneau make it a story within a story. Despite Doisneau’s outward spontaneity during her performance, every detail in her narration and dance segments is carefully planned. When the viewer is acutely aware of the deliberation behind a production, it is tempting to dismiss it as fictitious. However, the value of fictions, stories, theatre, visual and performing arts lies in their ability to portray and interpret reality. Doisneau reveals invisible hierarchy and dehumanizing structure in classical ballet through paving a path for the audience into her personal experiences as a performer. Even though the manifested simplicity of the setting and the sincerity of her personal narration are all tools the choreographer uses, the invisible realities they reveal prompt the audience to reevaluate what they see. How “true” or “real” is Veronique Doisneau? That’s besides the question as long as it lends us a new perspective to perceive the sometimes hidden Truth in this world.
Candice Wang is a VIth Former from Beijing, China, and she lives in Thayer House. She reads and thinks for fun.
Bel, Jerome, chor. Veronique Doisneau. Perf. Veronique Doisneau. Paris National Opera. 2004. Performance.
Kramer, Kenneth, and Mechthild Gawlick. Martin Buber’s I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue. New York: Paulist, 2003. Print.
RB Jerome Bel. RB jerome bel, Sept. 2004. Web. 26 Aug. 2014. <http://www.jeromebel.fr/textsandinterviews/detail/?textInter=veronique%20doisneau%20-%20paris%20national%20opera>.
Vandenbroucke, Aynsley. “Jerome Bel, Veronique Doisneau.” Reflections on Dance. Blogspot, Mar. 2009. Web. 26 Aug. 2014. <http://reflectionsondance.blogspot.com/2009/03/jerome-bel-veronique-doisneau.html>.