Video: Maya Brinner’s Red Ladies was one of several works exploring the individual within the group at International Exposure
A few weeks after International Exposure 2009, not only am I continuing to mull over some intriguing works that I saw, but I am still thinking about the many attendees I met and contemplating the conversations I had with them.
It was truly remarkable to see how many presenters were scoping out Israeli dance with the hopes of bringing Israeli choreographers or companies to their venues. The audience at International Exposure was well-informed, sophisticated, and worldly; its members were knowledgeable about the contemporary dance scene in their own home countries and had seen some of the latest productions from around the globe.
This diverse array of cultured visitors – and their well-informed observations – reinforced my own perception that there is indeed something especially appealing about Israeli contemporary dance. It was illuminating to talk to repeat attendees and learn that they found this year’s festival stronger than in previous years; it was also encouraging to speak with first-time visitors and discover that they found several works of interest.
I had several stimulating conversations about the festival with Brian Schaefer, a dance writer and administrator based in San Diego, California. He has generously written a thorough, thoughtful reflection on the festival for Dance In Israel, offering an invaluable perspective from outside the scene. Enjoy!
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Seeing Israel through the Lens of Dance
By Brian Schaefer
Oil and water may be the most contentious of the commodities in the Middle East. But who says art can’t be a country’s natural resource as well?
Such is the purpose of International Exposure – a type of cultural trade fair to encourage the export of one of Israel’s most valuable products: its creativity. Each year for the past fifteen years, a flock of foreign presenters, managers, choreographers, and journalists has descended upon the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv to get a crash course in contemporary dance in Israel in the hopes that we fall in love with an artist or company and take them home with us to introduce them to our families, or rather, audiences. It’s souvenir shopping on an entirely different scale.
The Israeli Ministry of Culture brings us here to demonstrate the wealth of dance in Israel, show us Tel Aviv as an exciting, cosmopolitan city, and let us discover just how far Israel has come from the pioneering, agricultural days of the kibbutzim and sabras when Israeli dance meant communal folk gatherings, which is still how most Americans consider it. So the point of International Exposure is to destroy that myth and show us an Israel that is innovative and cutting-edge, both in its technology and in its art.
The process of actually bringing a company to the States is a complicated pas de deux that relies on a lot of other factors that come later on. But for now, for this week, it’s about seeing work. A lot of work. An exhausting amount of work.
Still, the experience is extraordinary. And the impact is powerful. Five days later, we leave with a semblance of an idea of what makes contemporary dance in Israel so vibrant. Without trying to lump everything together – after all, one of the strengths of the program is its diversity – there are a few noticeable characteristics, trends, and themes that emerge.
Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s Big Mouth. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
It’s difficult as an outsider not to read too much about the regional conflicts into the work we see. Few artists, save perhaps for Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor who explicitly reference Israel’s military history in the engaging trio Big Mouth, admit to addressing politics in any way.
Yet as foreign critics and presenters who for the most part view Israel from the lens of international media, we inevitably look for ways that artists respond to their social surroundings. Maybe we look too much. But perhaps also the fact that such intentional reactions to the political environment are conspicuously lacking in so much of the work we saw is equally telling.
What we actually got in many instances was a complete departure from the realities of this world, and surprisingly often, we were thrust in to the realm of the absurd where the unexpected can occur at any moment, where things are never quite as they seem or can in an instant morph into something unrecognizable. The absurdity is also in the behavior, where over-the-top characters cavort about with exaggerated gestures, inhabiting fantasy worlds in extravagant costumes and bright make-up.
Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak’s Trout. Photo by Asaf Ashkenazi.
Perhaps no Israeli choreographers better encapsulate this aesthetic and sensibility than Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. At International Exposure, the duo showed excerpts from the company’s repertory, the charming Rushes, made a few years ago for the American company Pilobolus, and the new evening-length work Trout, created in 2008 in Norway. In each, the zany characters and extravagant sets and props transport audiences into an imaginary place that may resemble reality at times but clearly isn’t.
Barak Marshall’s Rooster. Photo by Kfir Bolotin.
In Barak Marshall’s Rooster, we took a colorful visit to the shtetls of the 19th century to witness a love triangle mixing stories from the Bible and Yemenite folklore with a period aesthetic and surreal scenes of, for example, a man “laying” eggs in his mouth. It’s a work that, while perhaps a bit unfocused and difficult to follow for non-Hebrew speakers, exudes energy and charm and provides a strong showcase for the performers.
Across the board (for the most part), International Exposure guests walked away with a deep appreciation for Israeli dancers, whose focus and commitment is a noticeable strength of the performances.
Other works that dove into the absurd included Yasmeen Godder’s LOVE FIRE, complete with the gutting of a stuffed creature resembling some combination of goat and lion, an unexpected shower of blue glitter, and a dramatic illuminated heart made of diagonal fluorescent tubes. Yossi Berg and Oded Graf’s study in masculinity, 4 Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer, also made use of a life-sized dead animal, raising peculiar questions about the role of taxidermy in Israeli society. Okay, not really, but seeing both works in one night gave something to think about.
Michal Herman Dance Group’s Fellowship, based on a short Kafka story, embodied absurdity in the extreme mannerisms of its characters and their exaggerated interactions, as did Irad Mazliah’s Unter den Linden.
While not necessarily “absurd,” Artour Astman & Ilana Bellahsen’s ArtLana presented the two artists as babies in a wide-eyed, charming duet. The grotesque masks in Noa Dar Dance Group’s Anu suggested something of the absurd but dealt more explicitly with another theme that was largely prevalent throughout the festival – the struggle between the urge for individual expression and the pressure to conform.
The aforementioned Big Mouth tackled the topic effectively as did Maya Brinner’s Red Ladies, which followed a trio of women from synchronized harmony to individual awareness and then group conflict.
But perhaps no dance company in the world embodies this tension between group cohesion and individual identity than the Batsheva Dance Company, whose new work Hora closed the festival.
Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s Hora. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Batsheva’s artistic director Ohad Naharin shifts quickly and effortlessly between complicated group sections, done in perfect unison (in a way that no other company can approach), to solos that marry abandon and control in surprising harmony. It’s a tactic utilized in several of his recent works, and just because it’s a recognizable pattern doesn’t mean its predictable. Yet here, the tool loses its impact. While past works like Shalosh (Three) or Mamootot, though still abstract, feel like they follow some sort of arc, Hora in comparison feels circular. At the end, we’re back at the beginning and as a result, it’s a bit harder to appreciate the journey, but then again, maybe that’s the point.
Naharin has always had eclectic music taste, easily moving from a traditional Passover song to the Beach Boys to soundscapes that he himself creates. In Hora, the score consists of some of the most recognizable and clichéd pieces of music by Strauss, Wagner, and John Williams borrowed from the archives or classic science-fiction films. Like the title of the work, Naharin challenges the audience to rearrange its reference points for the associations we have created throughout our lives.
As a result, he creates extremes of possibilities and the space in between where anything can happen and meaning is left ambiguous. Throwing viewers from one end of the spectrum to the other (from familiar to unfamiliar) with unrelated and nonsensical movements forces us to fill in the gaps of how they relate and what it all amounts to. And while you may not walk away with an answer, Batsheva ultimately leaves an impression that, indeed, there is something human within this controlled chaos after all.
I always get a sense, watching Batsheva, that there is something dark and explosive just under the surface, and that’s another thread that seemed to weave its way through the festival of Israeli choreographers and companies. Noa Dar’s Anu plunged suddenly into simulated rape, and Berg and Graf’s 4 Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer similarly incorporated sexual violence into the narrative.
Rami Be’er’s poem Infrared, which is also the name of the work for his Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, follows multi-colored soldiers into a garden, which the over-produced performance suggested rather explicitly. The company appears to have a wealth of resources at its disposal and produced a glossy show that, ultimately, was lacking in the substance and urgency that many of the smaller companies displayed.
Vertigo Dance Company in Noa Wertheim’s Mana. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Noa Wertheim’s Vertigo Dance Company similarly approached the theme of complicated group dynamics. Yet their work Mana offered a depth and sense of intrigue that made it one of the most compelling pieces of the entire week, one that brings together many of the themes discussed here in a tight, luscious, and appealing package that foreign audiences are likely to respond well to.
If another theme might be added, it’s the embrace of classical music mashed with contemporary, fragmented movement. It’s not a new idea in contemporary dance, but the idea was particularly noticeable at this festival. In addition to the well-known scores in Batsheva’s work, Godder also used the waltz for inspiration, and Idan Cohen’s take on Swan Lake paired the Tchaikovsky score with sharp, defined, lightning-quick movement that actually made the idea feel current and relevant – no small feat for such an overused score and well-known ballet. But the sense that Israelis are resisting tradition, or at least looking to re-contextualize it to their new realities, came through loud and clear.
Maria Kong in fling. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Of course, one can’t possibly force all of the performances into only a few basic themes. Defying all categorizations was the work by Maria Kong, a new company comprised of former Batsheva dancers. fling opens with an aching violin solo, performed facing away from the audience, while projections on two columns conjure a world of dark hallways, mysterious rooms, and the constant shift of shadows, which gives the sense that time is passing us by. Without a dancer on stage for the first nearly twenty minutes, a captivating world is created. When they do appear, the dancers move with robotic precision. The slight turn of a head sends waves that reverberate throughout another dancer’s body. Similarly, fling is a subtle work that makes a big impression.
And while International Exposure aims to present contemporary dance, we were also brought to the Israel Ballet studios to view excerpts from the company’s repertoire. The dancers were proficient, the partnering well-executed. But the formality of the ballet language doesn’t seem to fit this country.
Interacting with and observing Israelis on a daily basis during the week of the Exposure, the intimacy, suspicion, joy, tension, spirit, and vitality that seems to hover over society here is reflected in the works of contemporary artists that display the same such characteristics.
In comparison, the ballet, with its sterilized look, organized structure, clear gender roles, and polished edges seems to be just what everyone else is fighting against. And that conflict is what makes the dance in Israel so fascinating.
Related Articles on Dance In Israel
- International Exposure 2009: Showcasing Israeli Dance
- Batsheva Dance Company Premieres Ohad Naharin’s Hora
- Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak’s Trout
- Curtain Up 2: Vertigo Dance Company and Noa Wertheim Host Elad Shechter
- Curtain Up 3: Yasmeen Godder Hosts Iris Erez
- Curtain Up 5: Noa Dar Hosts Maya Brinner and Irad Mazliah
- Curtain Up 6: Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor Host Noa Shadur
- Idan Cohen’s Swan Lake Soars into the 21st Century