Philly Fringe 2016 review: Jérôme Bel’s ‘Gala’

'Gala' gets Philly moving

I almost never give standing ovations. Standing O's have become a given when attending performances, but audiences forget that they are a way of communicating. They are the highest form of praise anyone can offer, a chance to say to the people on stage without words, “Thank you for your work. You gave me something truly special, something I will never forget.” Gala, Jérôme Bel’s offering for the 2016 Curated FringeArts Festival, gave me that chance.

Everyone is invited to this gala. (Photo by Veronique Ellena)

Bel enlisted local Philadelphians of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels (amateurs and professionals) to make up the crew of 20 dancers that take to the stage and redefined "#squadgoals." The team of firecrackers then interpreted various genres and styles of dance from ballet to Michael Jackson; trust me when I say you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a group unapologetically attempt to moonwalk across the Prince Theater stage.

Embracing difference

This dance piece is kooky and unusual; it’s not about perfection. It’s about witnessing the pure delight of someone finding the right beat for the waltz, of living vicariously through the performers as they throw a baton in the air with abandon.

Though Bel is credited as choreographer, all of the performers had an opportunity to create their own solo pieces. They danced their solos as the rest of the crew tried to follow along. Presumably these were styles and songs that each performer most loved or with which they felt the most comfortable. One spirited youngster led the brigade by darting back and forth across the stage before running full tilt through the curtains to the wings and back again to the tune of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” There was a different roster of soloists every night, so each show was a surprise (to performers as well as audience). Chaos reigned, and it has never been more welcome or appreciated.

Filling the stage

However, Gala had a slow windup. The audience sat in silence as a series of theaters, classrooms, stadiums, and more were projected onto a screen. It’s like watching someone’s bizarre family vacation slideshow, if they visited only potential playing spaces. But if you could overlook the PowerPoint presentation style and give over to the images, a common thread appeared.

All of the “theaters” are absent of human activity — no audience, no performers. It was a long sequence, but the length afforded time to suss out what Bel was communicating: these spaces never have to be empty. Anyone can step up and fill the void.

As I looked around me and noted tears, cheek-straining smiles, and tons of shoulder bopping, I knew Bel and company had accomplished a rare feat. The camaraderie, support, and unbridled joy make Gala an experiment that has a rare ability to unify both dancers and audience. 

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