Disabled Theater

10, 11/05 – 20:30 FR
12/05 – 18:00 EN
(no subtitling/very little text)
±1h 30min

Aged between 18 and 51, Theater HORA’s actors have years of experience performing on stages across Europe. French choreographer Jérôme Bel insists that what he wants to do with these performers who have Downs Syndrome or unknown mental disabilities is art. Experimental and demanding theatre, the kind that has made him a master of the contemporary stage today. These actors have wide experience of drama techniques, yet according to Bel they are also a lively subversion of theatre and dance. Their singular temporalities, extraordinary physicality and presence in the world threaten the idea we have of the human being, as it does the idea we have of theatre. Resisting the quasi invisibility of disabled people in society, Disabled Theater shakes up traditional codes of performance, both in art and in life, and our inclination to say “oh how human” for prescriptive, recognisable and regulative setups. Unconventional theatre indeed.

Jérôme Bel

By & with
Remo Beuggert, Gianni Blumer, Damian Bright, Matthias Brücker, Matthias Grandjean, Julia Häusermann, Sara Hess, Miranda Hossle, Peter Keller, Lorraine Meier, Tiziana Pagliaro

Assistance & translation
Simone Truong, Chris Weinheimer

Marcel Bugiel

Assistant Jérôme Bel
Maxime Kurvers

Jean-Florent Westrelin

Thanks to
Sasa Asentic, Urs Beeler, Tom Stromberg, Andreas Meder (Internationales Theaterfestival OKKUPATION!), Stiftung Züriwerk, Fabriktheater Rote Fabrik Zürich and the spectators of the public try-outs

Production manager
Ketty Ghnassia

Artistic director Theater HORA
Michael Elber

Managing director Theater HORA
Giancarlo Marinucci

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Halles de Schaerbeek

Theater HORA (Zürich)

Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels), R.B. Jérôme Bel, Festival AUAWIRLEBEN (Bern), Festival d’Avignon (Avignon), Ruhrtriennale, Festival d’Automne à Paris (Paris), Centre Pompidou (Paris), La Bâtie – Festival de Genève (Geneva), Hebbel am Ufer/HAU (Berlin)

Supported by
Stadt Zürich Kultur, Kanton Zürich Fachstelle Kultur, Pro Helvetia

Tour management
Theater HORA

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I emailed Jérôme Bel in October 2010 and asked him whether he could imagine doing something with actors from Theater HORA, a Zurich-based company consisting of professional actors with learning disabilities.

As a dramaturge specialising in this quite particular kind of theatre, Jérôme Bel’s work had always been an important benchmark for how I see disabled performers. Pieces like Le dernier spectacle (1998), The show must go on (2001) and Véronique Doisneau (2004) with the classical dancer from the Opéra de Paris helped me understand that the on-stage potential of actors with learning disabilities not only involved the social and political, but also the aesthetic, and that their work as actors touched on major issues around contemporary experimental theatre.

Bel, at that time working with virtuoso dancers, replied and said he was surprised by my proposition. He initially refused, but asked me for DVDs of shows performed by HORA’s actors. Intrigued by what he had seen, he suggested meeting the actors for three hours and then seeing them again for five days. It was only then that he decided to do a piece with them: an account of their initial encounter.

Marcel Bugiel


Jérôme Bel is a choreographer who from the outset has been interested in what lies beyond the performance. In his choreographies, the rules of dance and theatre are handled like the syntax of a language for analysis and then for bringing to the stage. Danced and spoken by both professional and amateur dancers, his choreographies might equally be seen as manifestos for the democratisation of dance which he pursues by taking a non-virtuoso approach.

For his show Disabled Theater (2012), he has worked with actors with learning disabilities from the Zurich-based Theater HORA. For a society which defines itself as basically normal, disability is a source of distress: it constitutes the limit against which its normality collides. Its intellectual declension – mental disability for example – is generally thought of as the absolute opposite of the condition of experimental theatre’s intellectual and cultivated audience. Bel has chosen to make this disability the focus of the audience’s attention, by adopting it as a key to interpreting what allows us to reflect on a shared dimension.

Bel’s challenge in his work with Theater HORA’s actors lies in opening up a space in which disability is not excluded from the visual and discursive practices nor hidden behind the screen of the politically correct, but rather integrated into a discourse directed at both the aesthetic and the political dimension.

In Disabled Theater, Bel highlights the dynamics of exclusion which lead to the marginalisation of those considered incapable of performing, by showing in contrast that they are perfectly capable of challenging the very mechanics of performance and making allusion to existence as an unfragmented kind of presence.

Chiara Vecchiarelli


“There’s one thing I’ve continually looked for and which runs through all my pieces to varying degrees. Something to do with incapability. I’ve actually always asked people I work with to do something they don’t know how to do. And my intuition told me that the way Theater HORA’s actors had of being on stage, which is impacted hugely by their learning disabilities, could reveal it, could make it evident. In a way they perform failure in theatre, something that pushes back the limits of what I thought I’d marked out in my own work. I’ve thought a lot about theatre codes; I’ve questioned them, deconstructed them and subverted them. But these actors go even further than me! It’s this inability to perform the usual work expected of an actor that interests me most with them.”

Jérôme Bel


“People with learning disabilities have no representation and there are very few discourses about them. They don’t exist in the public domain either. They’re excluded from society. The gap between the majority and this minority is unfathomable. There’s a partition there which is intolerable. One of the challenges for me is to make the community these actors represent more visible, to show that these undervalued actors can enrich experimental theatre, that their uniqueness is full of promise for theatre and dance, just as their humanity should be for society in general.”

Jérôme Bel


Marcel Bugiel: Do you remember what you first felt about the actors from Theater Hora, the feelings you had when you saw these individuals with learning disabilities for the first time?

Jérôme Bel: The first time I saw them was on the DVDs you’d sent me. The emotion I felt was so strong that I couldn’t think. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to understand this emotion, which is unusual for me. My desire to work with them came from this first experience because I needed to understand what had happened to me the first time I saw them.

MB: In a way Disabled Theater reconstructs the situation of your first encounter, including the assistant who was meant to translate the things you were asking them to do into their own language: Swiss German. There’s a huge distance between you and them which initially was perhaps due to the circumstances. But you seemed to want to maintain it, perhaps to go against this initial emotion or be more able to understand it...

JB: The circumstances didn’t help bring us any closer: the actors live in Zurich, I live in Paris. I don’t like rehearsing so we didn’t meet up very much and, more than anything else, they only speak Swiss German, which I don’t. But I’m generally quite distant with people I’m working with. I find it really hard to maintain a friendly relationship with performers during rehearsals. I think it’s because I don’t want affects to get in the way of the artistic project. It’s only when the piece is finished that I can get closer to the performers. (I’ve always thought that the audience should identify with me, that they should re-live the different stages of the work I’ve done. The pieces are always the chronological story of the work I’ve developed alone or with the performers. The audience should therefore go through the same emotional and intellectual stages that I myself went through during the research. They follow the experience and then draw the conclusions they want.)

Distance helps me contain my emotions better, that’s for sure, so that I don’t let myself be overtaken by them in order to be more capable of analysing the challenges of the piece, to be as precise as possible in the discourse it produces.

This distance is also one of the key parameters of theatre, of stage performance. Actually the real distance between the theatre and the stage, between the audience and the performer, is one of the conditions necessary for the theatrical event to take place. It’s this distance which the audience has to cover, this energy which the audience has to put into it, that makes them spectators. If there’s no distance or separation, there’s no theatre, it’s just life and in life there are no spectators, just actors.

That’s why as a director I have to maintain this distance, I have to distance myself in order to see what the audience will see. This position produces a particular aesthetic which is mine. It’s part of me and I can’t change it. Whenever I’ve tried to, it’s been a failure.

MB: In this aesthetic, theatre is primarily an observation device. And the main subject of observation is... the individuals on stage, the performers. Focusing on their individuality was the subject specifically of your earlier works, solos with dancers like Véronique Doisneau and Cédric Andrieux. The audience is invited to discover the individuals behind the brilliant performances which these dancers are normally meant to give. And yet this piece isn’t called Theater HORA, it’s called Disabled Theater.

JB: It’s precisely the splicing of disability and theatre that interests me, this disability/theatre pairing. How theatre is modified when it’s done by actors with a learning disability, and what theatre does to actors with a learning disability. My artistic project is theatre, trying to understand its structure, how it works, what its power is. Each piece is a sort of scientific experiment for this research. Just like Véronique Doisneau or Pichet Klunchun, you could say that the actors with learning disabilities are guinea pigs of a kind, allowing me to advance my investigation into theatre and dance. Working with all these performers allows me to learn about theatre and that’s why I choose to work with them.

In the case of Theater HORA’s actors, what fascinates me is their way of not incorporating some of theatre’s rules. Indeed I’ve worked a lot myself from theatrical and choreographic conventions naturalised by performers, by the audience and by choreographers and directors. I’ve worked on deconstructing these prescriptive conventions. Given their cognitive distortions, actors with learning disabilities haven’t incorporated some of these conventions. It’s an extremely interesting situation for me because in a way their theatre is freer than that of standard performers. Their freedoms reveal theatrical possibilities that I didn’t know existed.

The first question to ask is what theatre these actors perform. The second is why they perform this theatre. And the first thing to ask yourself is: Who are they? That’s when another research field appears, that of the individuation of performers. It’s impossible for me not to use that. The performer is the heart of my theatre: he or she must appear on stage as an artist, worker, citizen, subject and individual in his or her most absolute uniqueness.

It’s this uniqueness that can reveal to me just what theatre is capable of. Disabled (or incapable!) actors open up new possibilities, new powers!

MB: Aren’t you afraid that some in the audience will think you’re staging a freak show, that you’re exploiting these actors and exposing their disabilities, that there’s an element of voyeurism in the show?

JB: That doesn’t worry me. For me theatre is precisely about being able to see what you’re not used to seeing, what’s hidden and concealed from view. Theatre that shows what you know by heart, that doesn’t take a risk in the performance, that doesn’t question the performance, that doesn’t push the performance to its limits is of no interest to me. If you don’t go to theatre to be a voyeur and see what you’re not allowed to see, I don’t understand why you go. When I go, that’s all I hope for.

The question of performance by people with learning disabilities is complicated because these days it’s highly unthinkable. You don’t know how to react when you’re confronted with them, their presence is hugely embarrassing because they’re not represented in the public domain. And for as long as that is the case, there will continue to be embarrassment and uneasiness. The only method is confrontation. You have to be able to be in contact with them. The theatrical device is a way of provoking this encounter. Sure, it carries risks due to disabled people’s exclusion in society and our lack of knowledge about them. I’m absolutely convinced that this community has to be given greater visibility. It’s the only way for relationships with them to be “pacified”. I’d say that I’d prefer to show badly than not to show at all.

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Jérôme Bel lives in Paris and works all over the world. His first piece, nom donné par l'auteur (1994), is a choreography of objects; the second, Jérôme Bel (1995), is based on the total nudity of its performers; and the third, Shirtologie (1997), presents an actor wearing several T-shirts. Le dernier spectacle (1998), on numerous occasions quoting from a solo by the choreographer Susanne Linke, as well as Hamlet and André Agassi, attempts to define an ontology of performance. The piece Xavier Le Roy (2000) was claimed by Jérôme Bel as his own but was actually choreographed by the choreographer Xavier Le Roy. The show must go on (2001) brings together a cast of twenty performers, nineteen pop songs and one DJ. In 2004, he was invited to produce a piece for the Paris Opera ballet, Veronique Doisneau (2004), about the work of the eponymous dancer who was a member of the company’s corps de ballet. Isabel Torres (2005), for the ballet of the Teatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro, is the Brazilian version of the production for the Paris Opera. Pichet Klunchun and myself (2005) was created in Bangkok with the Thai traditional dancer Pichet Klunchun. In 2009, he produced Cédric Andrieux (2009) based on the dancer who had been with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before moving to the Lyon Opera Ballet. In 2010, he created 3Abschied with Anne-Teresa De Keersmaeker based on Gustav Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. Jérôme Bel won a Bessie Award for The Show Must Go On in New York in 2005. In 2008 Jérôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun won the Routes Princess Margriet Award for Cultural Diversity (European Cultural Foundation).

Founded in 1993 in Zurich, Theater HORA’s aim is to support and promote the creative and artistic development of people with learning disabilities. It enables the performers, on a professional level, to show off their extraordinary talents to a wide audience. HORA endeavours to offer the actors an environment that allows both professional acting and the development of other artistic activities, such as visual and figurative creations, costume and mask making and music. It is essential for them to be able to express themselves as ‘genuine’ individuals. HORA believes that people with learning disabilities possess unique talents and creativity, enabling them to make an important cultural and social contribution to our society. All of HORA’s activities aim to have this view accepted by and incorporated into public opinion.

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