Review: The genius of “The Show Must Go On” is its ability to take the audience from laughing out loud to sombre reflection

Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer

French choreographer Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On is a dance work that lives up to its name. Since its original commission in 2001 by Berlin’s Shaubühne, the work has gone on and on (and on!) and has been recreated and restaged in countless locations around the world.

And it’s easy to see why, as its simple, structured improvisation format – which is based around performers verbatim interpreting 19 iconic pop songs using everyday mundane gestures – is easily and effectively transmitted on to new groups of untrained dancers.

Some may consider the constant replication of this tried and tested format may become boring and repetitive for audiences, however there is nothing tiresome about Bel’s work.

As he states himself in an interview, “there is nothing to get about the unfathomable mystery of a human face looking at you. And what happens on this face seems incredible to me every time” revealing that this piece is not about the ego of the choreographer and his ability to create complex choreography, but instead to showcase the human identities of the individuals taking part. 

“Neither sense nor duration nor concept nor direction, just theatre – people looking at other people unlike anywhere else.” – Jerome Bel

 

Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer
Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer

In its present recreation at the Volksbühne, the performers are in fact staff members of the iconic Berlin theatre, and The Show Must Go On therefore aptly shines a light, for a change, on the people who are usually behind the productions.

In the dimly lit auditorium, the DJ, placed front and centre and illuminated with a small light to allow him to see his equipment plays the first of the evening’s 19 songs. Tonight from West Side Story dramatically fills the space.

But nothing happens. Let the Sun Shine from the musical Hair is the next track to grace our ears, but still, no movement or dancers appear on stage. The audience look around in anticipation, some begin chatting, not knowing what to make of the lack of performers. Lights come up on stage, maybe this is it? But no, it’s just reflecting the eponymous command of current song.

It’s not until Come Together that we see the cast of Volksbühne staff come together on stage as the song commands, filling the once blank space with an array of colourful tops and expressionless faces.

For the rest of the Beatles track they just stand there, observing their observers, and allowing us to get to know, on a human level, the people we will be watching for the next 90 minutes before they descend into movement as dictated by the next track, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance – what else could it really be?

The varied cast of men, women, old and young start to boogie “in the most peculiar way” (to quote another Bowie classic), each adopting their own styles of grooving that allow us to get to know their individual personalities. At the end of the song, you can see that they are tired, as they take off clothes to cool down and go off stage to get water in an endearing injection of realism that is not often seen in theatre.

Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer
Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer

The 15 songs that then follow take you on an emotional rollercoaster. I like to Move It booms out from the stereo and the performers break their cool facades and descend into craziness and abandon, jiggling their breasts, removing their clothes and waving them around, and disrupting the stage back curtain in a scene that is most comic for friends and family in the audience to see their relatives acting with such lunacy.

Lionel Richie’s Ballerina Girl sees all the men suddenly exit the stage on the utterance of the female noun, as the women begin to complete adage steps and live their childhood dancing dreams (it is worth noting that although they are evidently untrained there are some impressive moments such as one woman sliding slowly into splits with great control.)

Other humorous highlights include the DJ himself coming on the stage (having created a spotlight for himself) for a private boogie to Private Dancer, the Macarena, where all the dancers rush back on stage like kids at a disco (and I can’t lie, I wanted to run up and join them), and a recreation of the infamous Titanic scene to My Heart Will Go On.

Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer
Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer

But it’s not all silly physical comedy, as the genius of The Show Must Go On is its ability to take the audience from laughing out loud to sombre reflection (or in my case, tears).

Nick Cave’s Into My Arms sees the cast mingle and embrace displaying the beauty of human connection, and Imagine sees all the lights go dark, and the performance travels from the stage into the audience’s own minds, as they are incited to actually imagine all the eventualities Lennon proposes (because let’s face it, how many times do we actually listen to that song and thing about the depth of the lyrics?).

Moments such as this highlight how in The Show Must Go On the spectators are just as active participants as the performers, and the audience at the Volksbühne accept this challenge whole heartedly. A particularly poignant moment is during Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, as the whole audience defiantly comes together to hum the melody as the DJ fades the song in and out.

Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer
Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Photo by David Baltzer

Often projects that engage non-dancers or performers are extremely valuable for those who are involved, but rarely is such a work equally as effecting for the audience.

But this, as previously mentioned, is because Bel involves everyone in The Show Must Go On, not only through inviting spectators to deeply consider the songs that are played, literally shining the lights on them reversing the traditional theatre set up, but also through the choice of the songs themselves, which are so recognisable and well known that they are loaded with personal memories, and offer everyone present a way to connect to the work.

Reviewed on 16th of October at Volksbühne, Berlin

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