PARIS - Jérôme Bel hurries into the cafe La Ménagerie de Verre on a sunny afternoon, dragging an immense suitcase and bubbling over with apologies for being five minutes late. In his pink shirt and orange pants, the choreographer would attract attention in any event. But the combination of the suitcase and his mobile face draws attention in an appealingly Chaplinesque manner.
“I love dance,’’ he says, attempting to make up for lost time, “but I started too old to ever be very good. I’m more a philosopher of dance.’’ Others have also called him conceptual, experimental, cerebral, and controversial as he has risen from the fringes of the French dance world in the 1990s to acclaimed-insider status, with commissions from such prestigious institutions as the Paris Opera Ballet and the Louvre Museum. His five much-toured staged portraits of dancers have won widespread praise.
Bel’s “Cédric Andrieux,’’ about and performed by the former Merce Cunningham dancer Andrieux, will be presented tonight through Sunday at the Institute of Contemporary Art, in conjunction with the exhibition “Dance/Draw.’’ A video of Bel’s “Véronique Doisneau,’’ a piece on a Paris Opera Ballet corps dancer, will be shown in a gallery at the museum.
Bel begins lifting books from his own library out of the suitcase and placing them on shelves that line a wall. The cafe is part of an arts center that will soon be under his directorship, a place for artists to take risks. It’s conveniently located near the apartment he shares with his 6-year-old daughter, Ryo. He speaks of her with great pride and affection.
Finally, settling down with a cup of green tea, he explains his philosophy. “I identify with Marcel Duchamp and Merce and Pina Bausch,’’ he says with gusto. “They weren’t afraid. Pina was a bad girl. That saved me a lot of time. They’re my models. There’s no limit to what art can do. I love radical art. I don’t mind when people throw tomatoes or boo what I do. I’m not very good about making dances; I’m good about something else.’’
That something else is creating engrossing theatrical works that offer new perspectives on dance. He hugely admires dancers and their process. This couldn’t be clearer than in “Cédric Andrieux.’’
He approached Andrieux after seeing him perform at the Lyon Opera Ballet, which Andrieux joined in 2007. Eagerly, Bel probed the dancer’s surface. “Jérôme has a very conversational, precise way of working,’’ says Andrieux, 34, on the phone from Lyon. “He asked me to come up with what I wanted to say about being a dancer. He’s as interested in the ordinary as the virtuosic. He makes you very aware of your habits. Consequently, you become aware of what you do as a performer to hide stress and discomfort. He allows you to feel vulnerable. I feel much safer now for not having to hide what I go through to perform.’’
The work begins with Andrieux, casually dressed in hoodie and sweat pants, walking to center stage, and putting down his dance bag and water bottle. Tall, red-haired, and nonchalantly elegant, he begins his story with his first dance classes. Going on to describe Cunningham’s slow, laborious process, he shows steps and movements. In these wonderfully electric moments, the audience gets to see his transformation from an ordinary man into a dancer.
“It’s amazing,’’ he says, “how you can discover, through someone else’s vision, new tools for going deeper into your art form. Like Merce, Jérôme is uncompromising. What I love most in this work is putting myself out there, without being in a big group or company. People come up afterward and talk to me. They identify with me. The piece really opens eyes.’’
There’s nothing Bel, 47, likes better than breaking down the barrier between the audience and the performer. He’s been a challenger of the status quo from the beginning. His father worked for UNICEF, and the family lived in many countries during his childhood. “It makes you realize not everyone is like you,’’ he says.
Though born in the South of France, he returned home only in his late teens to study at the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in Angers. He was already curious about performance. But the conservatory soon proved too traditional for him, and he left with a group of like-minded artists to experiment. For a few years, he danced with French and Italian companies. In 1992, he assisted the theatrical choreographer Philippe Decouflé with the creation of the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Afterward, he went out on his own.
“I felt the only way to be a choreographer,’’ he says, “was to read philosophy and dance history.’’ So he schooled himself in the dance world of 1960s New York, where choreographer Trisha Brown and others began exploring natural movement. It was not the usual preparation for choreography but obviously one that served his purposes well. He also managed to meet his heroes - Cunningham, composer John Cage, and artist Robert Rauschenberg, among others.
Bel still explores dance and theater of all kinds. When in Paris, he goes out four or five times a week, and to festivals in the summer. He recently sacrificed for his daughter, and attended a conventional performance at the Paris Opera Ballet, she all dressed up in pink and excited about a story ballet. “I almost fell asleep,’’ he confesses. But because of her, he now travels less, rehearsing his dancers via Skype when possible. “I’m not a young choreographer anymore,’’ he says, standing to go with nonetheless youthful bravado. “Now I have to figure out the second part.’’