On Saturday, February 2, 2019, rain falling in sheets, the Center for the Art of Performance UCLA presented Jérôme Bel’s “Gala” at the superbly renovated Theatre at the Ace Hotel.  This historic edifice was the vision of United Artist movie starlet Mary Pickford.  The lavish theatre virtually drips with opulence.  Its Deco walled theatre and proscenium, with an ample stage large enough for ballet or grand opera, brings us back to the excitement of the 20’s Movie era.

Walking into the theatre there was already several enthusiastic audience members chatting quietly.  10 minutes later, the seats were filled with an eclectic assemblage of humanity from royalty to groundlings.  In this virtual anarchy of sound, the lights go down, the screen is lowered and in ear deafening silence and expectation we see pictures of theatres, all kinds of theatres, from La Scala, to school auditoriums, from coliseums to black boxes.  Within this 10 to 15-minute silent visual feast, we hear water falling then loud percussive drips.   The screen ascends and three stage hands along with Kristy Edmunds, the Exec and Artistic Director, armed with mops and cloths, rush in to swab up large puddles on stage right.   At that point several royal court members, escape to higher ground.  This is the beginning of a most unusual and authentic experience of theatre since the United Farmworkers’s El Teatro Compasino in the Grape fields.

Mary Pickford Theater, now the Theater at the Ace Hotel

Mary Pickford Theater, now The Theater at the Ace Hotel

Jérôme Bel’s choreography is a dichotomy of childlike simplicity within unsettling complexity. He sees in everything the potential for emancipation, finding singularity in each human endeavor.  His brilliance and naivete mines the soul and individuality of each person, dancer or not.   He strives to define “dance without dancing.”

This evening, in contrast to his brilliant piece, “Veronique Doisneau”, (an honest look at the life of a dancer in the Paris Opera) introduces us to a cast of 20 people with hyphenated careers: Champion Baton Twirler-dancer; Rapper-“Born This Way” cast member; Stay-at-home mom-Dr. of Optometry-Certified Pharmacy Tech; First grader-French language immersion student-yellow belt; Transvestite- office worker; Ballerina-cancer survivor; actress-wheel chair dancer, and it goes on….

After another attempt at drying the stage, it is still being bombarded by large flows of falling droplets from the grid above.  Splashing fountain-like on the newly mopped floor we are introduced to the first segment.  A Chart is placed on left side of stage…the Title: “BALLET.”   We hear the langorous tones of Chopin’s Les Sylphides, and in succession each one of the cast members walks on, prepares, pirouettes first right then left, and walks off.  All very individual.  A man with a cane shuffles on, then does tiny steplets in a circle (Ken Salley) then off into the wings; the ballerina (Petra Conti) in her feathered swan tutu with mauve and black striped leg warmers, prepares, spins two times and off; our wheel chair dancer (Ann Colby Stocking) makes a large circle and rolls off.  Everyone follows suit until all twenty are introduced.   With this intro we see each person’s bravery, vulnerability, and get a peek at who they are, and their singularity.  It’s enough to start picking favorites, while the audience whistles, cheers and harangues, like the groundlings at the Globe theatre some 500 years ago.

The chart again flips: “3 MINUTES OF SILENCE,” “WALTZ,” “BOW,” then “MICHAEL JACKSON.”  These directives rhythmically move the company of individuals, with one member taking focus. Tall, full chested John Tucker with dreadlocks, flaming red shirt and trousers, makes friends with the now dangerously infamous stream of water.  He improvs a kind of bird-bath partnership.  The water, with the brilliance of Tucker, becomes its own character.   Then our Rock and Roll Trans pulls out in front, and with blond hair flying, demands attention.

Somewhere in the middle of all the rhythmic chaos, the performers traded costumes and with that took on a kind of “I’m ok, you’re ok” aspect.  Again, Flip Chart: SOLO by Etta Fontenot and Ann Colby Stocking was sincere and heartfelt.

However, 90 minutes began to grind on until escape to the rain was an imminent relief.  Unique is Bel’s work, and sincerity goes without saying.  “Getting to know you” is interesting in small to medium doses, but one begins to yearn for some expertise…maybe Mastery is ok after all.

For more about Jérôme Bel, click here.

Featured image: Jérôme Bel’s Gala – Photo by Josefina Tommasi

For more information on The Theater at the Ace Hotel, Click here.