Who has not heard the suggestion “dance like nobody is watching”? The kinetic counterpart of singing under the shower could very well work as a subtitle for Jérôme Bel’s Gala. In his works, Bel sticks his finger exactly where society hurts and more or less delicately tickles that spot eliciting responses. Gala is not an exception. A Dance Umbrella production in partnership with Bernie Grant Arts Centre, LIFT, TATE and Sadler’s Wells, Gala continues Bel's exploration of what performance is by putting a whole spectrum of bodies on stage. And in doing so, he puts us in touch with our and others' humanity.

Dance like no one is watching: Jérôme Bel's <i>Gala</i>, part of Dance Umbrella © Veronique Ellena
Dance like no one is watching: Jérôme Bel's Gala, part of Dance Umbrella
© Veronique Ellena
It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I have truly enjoyed Bel’s work. Gala tests the boundaries of the choreographic universe. The work starts with a visual catalogue of performance spaces of different sizes, forms, traditions, geographical location and historical context, presented both in the auditorium and on stage. Similarly, the performers are varied. On stage are twenty amateur dancers and professionals of all ages and backgrounds: from the lively primary schooler, to the emotional teenager, the bubbly grandmother and stocky grandfather, a tall woman with down's syndrome, a hula hoop princess, an enthusiastic kid in a wheelchair and a petite swift moving lady, a cancer survivor, and of course a ballet and a modern dancer to mention only a few. The format is very basic: task-like instructions written on the back of an old calendar. The work journeys through the different bodies and the first action is ballet. We see a really uncomfortable girl producing two en dedans pirouettes, one on each side, and then the rest of the group in procession, one by one, come up and do the same. Similarly, they fly across the stage in a grand jeté on splendid allegro music. The clapping of the audience gets constant, and so does the cheering. Ballet was only a warm up, followed by the waltz and issues of leading, moonwalking, bowing and even a silent group improvisation. And we discover that we don't really care about the result; rather, that we're more interested in how the dancers walk to the centre of the stage, how they prepare for the task and how relieved they are when it is done. We discover different characters behind the gestures and we can guess how they will behave facing a similar situation.

Jérôme Bel's <i>Gala</i> © Josefina Tommasi
Jérôme Bel's Gala
© Josefina Tommasi
In our society where every image is retouched, our minds are populated with images of unreal, flawless bodies. The (young) moving body is no exception. Bel’s non-dance projects instead reclaim moving and dancing for everyone – and not for professionals only. This is no new concept, as untrained bodies have been on stage at least since the experiments of the Judson Theatre, but what is ‘newish’ is the expansion of the idea to differently abled bodies. Detractors of Bel’s works ask for the necessity of bringing certain types of bodies on stage judging the shows as cheap, degrading entertainment. Gala is far from that. Yes, it indeed brings all different types of physicality to the fore usually glossed over in the homogenising tendency of political correctness. Important for me is the discussion generated by the performance, instead of the silent swallow sparked by a clean aesthetic. The risk of spectacle was especially present in his Disabled Theatre (2012). The film version of this show left me particularly puzzled. I now realise it was the distance created by the two-dimensional images. In Gala, the effect is different. It is a long time since I have felt so present during a show (seeing the whole company moving with the exuberance of a primary schooler to Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball was simply priceless). The work forces us to consider our reaction to different bodies moving, challenging the aesthetic limits that we have been fed. Bodies convey histories – not the trained body, a trained body executes technique, and produces it at the expense of its own history – it is through these histories that we are able to connect with those bodies a couple of meters away on stage. It is where empathy starts. It is also a very tricky place to bring the audience to and the Bernie Grant Art Centre's intimate size allowed for it.

The mission of Dance Umbrella, London’s international Dance Festival, is to celebrate the power of the body in motion and energise 21st century choreography across the city. Bel’s Gala definitively moved me in an unexpected way: between a laugh and a moment of apprehension it made me feel human and part of a wider group. Go and watch Gala if you want to rediscover the joy of dancing for its own sake in this over-conscious society. Dance like nobody is watching and dance, also, if someone is watching. They might be simply enjoying your movements: any body type allowed.