Exploring Israeli Society through Dance at International Exposure 2009

Posted on 02 January 2010 by Deborah Friedes Galili


Video: Promo for Arkadi Zaides’s new Quiet

As guest writer Brian Schaefer wrote in his article, for most visitors from abroad, International Exposure is a veritable “crash course” in Israeli contemporary dance.  For me, however, International Exposure serves another purpose.  Since I’m now intimately familiar with both the scene as a whole and with the artists themselves, this festival provides an unparalleled opportunity to consider developments in the field over the last year.

While Brian rightly noted that the vast majority of works in International Exposure did not overtly address the Israeli context, a few works did tackle issues in Israeli life – and as someone who has seen the vast majority of contemporary dance created in Israel since 2007, I can vouch that this is a notable shift.  Out of all the dances I watched during my first two years in the country – a number which easily surpasses 100 and probably nears 200 – I can probably count the number of works which explicitly examine Israeli culture and society on less than two hands.  Most of them, such as Renana Raz’s We Have Been Called to Go, were works that had premiered in previous seasons; while I saw this dance on stage, I had to seek out other works such as Yasmeen Godder’s Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder on DVD.  Indeed, when I saw Hillel Kogan’s Everything at Exposure in January 2008, its focus on Israeli machismo was such a revelation because it was the only new work I had seen which openly examined an aspect of Israeli identity.

So it was absolutely astonishing for me to watch as not just one but a handful of the offerings at International Exposure unmistakably explored Israeli society. Two of these dances had premiered just weeks earlier in the Curtain Up festival, and while they both took the relationship of the individual to the surrounding Israeli society as their main theme, they approached the subject from different personal perspectives and aesthetics.

Noa Dar’s Anu.  Photo by Tamar Lamm.

In Noa Dar’s trio Anu (Us), one dancer – perhaps dressed to look younger in pigtails and a skirt – is initiated into the group, first observing her two fellow performers and then modeling herself after them until she becomes a participating member.  Though at times the context is universal, there are several scenes which bear the recognizable imprint of Israeli culture.  Gathered center stage in a tight circle, the trio performs a speeded-up mishmash of Israeli folk dance steps; occasionally, one dancer breaks out of the group, causing the others to pause, but then the three immediately resume their folk dance at an even more frenetic pace.  Another powerful section references the army service which is compulsory in Israel.   Juxtaposing stylized miming of military actions (loading, aiming, and shooting guns; throwing grenades; scoping out a building and breaking in; strip searching a suspect) with sweetly tranquil classical music, the scene is chilling.

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s Big Mouth.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Whereas Anu follows the process of indoctrination into society, Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s Big Mouth considers the reverse process of an individual critically considering this group mentality.  The strains of an Israeli folk song set the stage even before the curtain rises, and the tone is further established as the three dancers (Sheinfeld, Laor, and Keren Levi) begin by turning their backs on the audience and striding in unison around the perimeter of the space.  Gradually, the trio’s regimented marching is punctuated by Israeli folk dance steps – a mayim here, a three-step turn there – and eventually, Levi tries to break out of this seemingly never-ending pattern with her own idiosyncratic movement.  Later, to the swelling melody of an Israeli military hymn, Levi stands downstage and slowly opens her mouth wide until her face is distorted in the shape of a silent, terrible scream; this simple yet virtuosic act leaves a haunting imprint even after the booming music dies down and Levi’s face returns to its normal state.  Despite the tenderness with which Sheinfeld and Laor cradle Levi during their final trio, keeping her perpetually aloft while passing her back and forth, the emotion which prompted such an agonized cry clearly lingers, prompting her to leave the group at the close of the work.

Besides Anu and Big Mouth, two other brand-new works showcased in International Exposure 2009 also seemed to be colored by the political and social dynamics within the Israeli context.  Rami Be’er’s choreography has often explored Israeli life, and his Infrared, which the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company premiered in November, seems to follow in this pattern.  Though much of the choreography itself is more abstract, the work opens with a man’s voice solemnly intoning a poem (written by Be’er) about soldiers in a garden and with one dancer slowly emerging from what appears to be a body bag.  Meanwhile, Arkadi Zaides’s Quiet, which was presented in a studio showing as a work-in-progress, features a mixed cast of Jewish and Arab performers and effectively plays off the tensions between these two groups.

After two years of barely seeing any choreography explicitly grappling with the Israeli context, I couldn’t help but wonder why so many dances were now openly invoking this subject and its intense undercurrents.  Could it perhaps be that, after the war in Gaza last year, some choreographers felt compelled to reexamine their surroundings?  What other political and personal factors were at work?

Noa Dar’s Anu.  Photo by Tamar Lamm.

In a conversation with Noa Dar prior to the premiere of Anu, she said that her latest work stemmed from her experiences as “a mother and also as a citizen” of Israel.  While Dar talked about how her young children’s education was already “printing on them their future and the future as soldiers,” she also recounted her experience at a protest against the incursion into Gaza in 2008, during which not only right-wing counter-protesters but also passersby cursed the demonstrators as traitors.  The choreographer further discussed the media’s one-sided account of both Gaza and the 2006 Lebanon war and brought up recent legislation curtailing the rights of Arab Israelis.  “This work came out of these experiences, out of this fear that this country is getting more and more closed,” Dar acknowledged.  She continued, “It’s about the uniformity that Israeli culture brings and trying to explore how to survive it, to go against it but still be inside, to be able to comment on it, to try to change it.”

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s Big Mouth.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

While these recent developments spurred the creation of Anu, Big Mouth emerged from somewhat different roots.  Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor choreographed the dance during a period when they were frequently away from Israel; sometimes they were on tour with previous works, and at other times they were in the Netherlands where they collaborated on the new trio with Amsterdam-based Israeli dancer Keren Levi.  Sheinfeld remarked, “Somehow I think it affected this work; it made the piece somehow with reference to the Israeli culture.”  Laor chimed in the conversation, noting not only the physical distance of the three collaborators from Israel during the creative process but also other events which caused the artists to consider issues of nationalism and group identity.  While Big Mouth does include specific allusions to the Israeli context, Sheinfeld reflected that ultimately, “the way that we treat the subject is the personal level, is the individual, and how an individual acts in a group.”

Arkadi Zaides’s Quiet.  Photo courtesy of Arkadi Zaides.

Meanwhile, in the publicity for Quiet, which premieres this weekend at Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv, Zaides explains the backdrop for his latest work.  He writes:

Quiet arose from a real sense of emergency; in light of the growing violence and mistrust between communities in Israel, constantly subjected to states of shock which never allow the space needed for reflection, and thus never allow for change. In such an environment it felt acute to create a platform which allows for an open and honest communication; a place where it is safe to let one’s demons out and set them free; where the irrationality of response is examined and emotions are bravely explored; where a broad perspective is sought and where trust is continuously built.”

With these works’ diverse reference points and perspectives, they are welcome, thought-provoking additions to the Israeli contemporary dance scene.

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The works mentioned in this article are currently performed throughout Israel.  To find out about upcoming concerts and to learn more about the artists, visit the websites below:

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