Transforming the crowds scattered throughout a performance venue into an aesthetic community demands that all persons present subscribe to a theatrical pact. If any of the participants lack the ability to contract, the form of aesthetic community dissolves into thin air. People with socially recognized disabilities as performers threaten to render the theatrical pact inoperative, thus disabling theater as an aesthetic event. Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater tests what happens when the decent collectivity of the aesthetic community is exposed to the risk of collapse. Employing the materiality of ‘disabled’ to a most unsettling effect, Bel devises a deliberately cynical trade with the audience in order to re-establish the aesthetic dignity of theatrical art under unlikely conditions. Rather than expect from Disabled Theater a warm-hearted lesson about how to integrate disability in a barrier-free society, we can see in this work the price of integration where it has been taking place: in aesthetic form.
Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater, a dance piece featuring eleven actors with cognitive disabilities from Zurich's Theater HORA, has polarized audiences worldwide. Some have celebrated the performance as an outstanding exploration of presence and representation; others have criticized it as a contemporary freak show. This impassioned reception provokes important questions about the role of people with cognitive disabilities within theater and dance—and within society writ large. Using Disabled Theater as the basis for a broad, interdisciplinary discussion of performance and disability, this volume explores the intersections of politics and aesthetics, inclusion and exclusion, and identity and empowerment. Can the stage serve as a place of emancipation for people with disabilities? To what extent are performers with disabilities able to challenge and subvert the rules of society? What would a performance look like without an ideology of ability?