Gazing Anew at Jugs, Curves and Maps

Posted on 08 January 2014 by Deborah Friedes Galili

This is a guest article by Judith Brin Ingber.  

Besides the fact that Suzanne Dellal Dance Centre brought together more than 130 international personalities interested in dance Dec. 4-Dec. 8, what I saw brought me to some new thoughts and quandaries.

Of course one person couldn’t possibly watch all the dance offerings in large and small spaces (starting in the morning and lasting past midnight), nor could one meet all who came from such far distances. I’m always curious about political perspectives, dance tastes and choreographic motivation, what someone else thinks are the ideal and the practical, plus who executes the choreographic intentions effectively in performance. Some of these concerns I talked about with a dashing woman from a big festival in Eastern Europe, and the gallant, elderly director of a theatre in southern Europe who gave me a picture postcard of his most beautiful 18th century theatre. The comments were far different with a radio personality who spoke Arabic as well as several European tongues, English and Hebrew—she’d grown up in North Africa and fled a hostile situation against Jews when she was young. She was upset and left one of the dances described below; her responses to what she saw were decidedly different than a Broadway dancer I also spoke with who’d graduated to handling a big American university theatre.

Politics come up all the time in Israel, but just this morning in conversation with dance writer Gaby Aldor, she mentioned that politics aren’t necessarily a defined political act or obviously from the right or the left– it could be an action of everyday life. But after watching a few of the new performances I wondered about politics from several different points of view: what were the politics of the presenters watching the dances and how might they affect what the international presenters bring to their venues? In fact, the issue of what is overt and what subversive, what is clear to us viewers and what is not became more and more interesting. Obviously political was Arkadi Zaides’s 4 Years 4 Projects 40 Minutes presented in one of the Centre’s studios. Once an acclaimed Batsheva dancer, he’s left behind the demands on an extraordinarily accomplished company dancer for Naharin dances in favor of his own highly individualized post-technique moves. We sat on the floor in front of two large screens. Zaides sat on a chair with a microphone in hand and typed papers he later read from in English.  Rather than a live performance we saw a video of Zaides dancing, in regular guy garb, his movements distorted and agonizing to watch. Next to the large screen showing his relentless moves was another showing a loop of video clips he’d chosen from an archive of the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights. Program notes indicated he was strict in choosing only clips “recorded by Palestinians” that “portray Israelis only” seeking, he wrote, to map the movement of the human body in the “local reality of ongoing conflict and emergency in Israel/Palestine.” We seemed to be peeping at roadways and some separation barriers or yards with encounters recorded in everyday shots, sometimes parents with children, sometimes religious Jews with soldiers. It was hard to understand what the incidents were about with no context. All the while, on the screen to the right, Zaides’s convulsive movements pulled his body askew in disturbing ways. He read a monologue about being a refugee himself and how he was searching for ways of connecting  “political and personal spheres.” After the presentation, I got to talking to a presenter at Zaides’s performance who mentioned his own facial scar from barbed wire. Without asking where was his encounter with the barbs, I knew they weren’t from a cattle ranch in the Western U.S.  A different presenter had walked out and later told me she didn’t agree at all with what Zaides was presenting.

I sat in a much bigger audience for the second afternoon of the Festival in a surprising place. How much of a political act was it that we were bused to a new alternative space outside the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre? Not as comfortable as their main hall because it’s an unheated proscenium theater but it’s a daring cooperative venture, controlled by dancer/choreographers within a huge old building known as the “hanger.” In one of the Old Jaffa Port’s weathered warehouses, it opens out to the sea. Just because I was sitting in the “hanger” I had the odd feeling that a plane might swoop down with the gulls and come right in. But I settled down to watch several dances, and I want to disclose that my politics agreed with those in the dance Bodyland. I was delighted with what Oded Graf and Yossi Berg choreographed, for 5 men including the choreographers plus Soren Linding Urup, Pierre Enaux and Robin Rohrmann.  Before they began speaking to the audience (in English) I could imagine from their names in the program that some of the cast were European. By their accents and autobiographical comments, we learned the dancers were Israeli, Danish, French and German.  The mélange of comments were put together with movement to humorous as well as physical and political effect.

'BODYLAND' by Yossi Berg & Oded Graf, photo Christoffer Askman

 Yossi Berg and Oded Graf’s Bodyland.  Photo by Christoffer Askman.

All kinds of unexpected things happened in an almost childlike, nonsensical way: balloons attached to fingers and toes of one of the dancers making an extraordinary, colorful bouquet before rocketing off or an inflated, enormous Mylar arm shape joined by a gargantuan inflated pair of silvery hands (designed by Sille Dons Heltoft) engulfing the dancers. The first performer came onto the stage in gym shorts, t-shirt and silver high-tops. He started a cumulative movement routine about body parts, talking and pointing out “heart, brain, butt” with comments, some morphing into self-deprecation. Some Jewish audience members could personally relate to his aside “I hear my nose is too long.”  Eventually four men in their work-out shorts and gym shoes join him in jumping rope, a sequence as staggering a show stopper as 32 whipping fouette turns from Swan Lake. Flawlessly they jumped and jumped, their ropes beating an unceasing rhythm before beginning to talk in their different accents—the Frenchman saying as he pulls up his shirt, “This is the welcoming face of France,” then pointing to one of his nipples reporting “this is my home town.” The audience laughed from the unexpected comments. The Dane explained where is Copenhagen as if his bare torso also was the map of his country.  Movements accompanied the repartee with a remark that “Since the creation of the European Union it has become very flexible.” The commentary got a little more provocative and cutting as the two Israelis indicated on their bodies how enmeshed is the map here, including a certain male part to stand for the territories. True invention ran amuck as one explained where is there a bakery and where is the Western Wall, while one mooned the audience. Legs and body parts entangled with outstretched arms evolving into an obvious reference to the sacrifice of Jesus. Through daring, physical originality we then witnessed a recapitulation of the original body parts: “butt, brain, heart, cheek.”  Now however, we saw them as locations in a “bodyland” map that had taken us on a journey we could not have imagined.

Dancers at second Dalia Festival

Dancers at the second Dalia Festival.  As pictured on page 111 of pictured in Judith Brin Ingber’s book Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance.

The Festival showed so many different solos and group pieces by women and about women that it caused me to think about womanhood anew. It used to be in the 1920s and 1930s and even in early days of new Israel in the early 1950s through the early 1960s, decorative arts and dances showed young women with jugs on their heads or held on their hips. The jugs tied to ancient Biblical stories of matriarchs at the well, and symbolized renewed Jewish life on the land. (These thoughts were crystalized for me when visiting a recent Haaretz Museum exhibition on jugs and young women.) Classic Israeli dance choreographers like Yardena Cohen and Sara Levi-Tanai plus countless folk dance creators evoked these thoughts too. Nowadays however that image of an Israeli woman no longer fits. Instead the dances are posing questions about what are the expected and unexpected roles for women, and how do choreographers approach femininity and feminism? Many dances we saw dealt with different phases and ages of women. I report below on a few that struck me.

Mr. Nice Guy

Anat Grigorio’s Mr. Nice Guy.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

I was instantly caught up in the solo called Mr. Nice Guy by the outstanding dancer/choreographer Anat Grigorio. It graphically or should I say choreographically and performatively dealt with the politics of The Male Gaze as it’s come to be known. What is the effect of the male looking at the woman and objectifying her? In this case, we in the audience are captivated watching Grigorio dancing in her chic, black, backless short dress, sometimes covered with a lush leopard coat. She tries over and over to physically answer the demands of a guy for whom she’s apparently auditioning. With no set to soften what we see and no music to distract us from the voice, we watch Grigorio trying to please the demanding voice. She changes her body and her dance to fit his directions. His disembodied cloying voice is relentlessly demanding and asks what seem to be impossible moves and positions.  Amazingly, she succeeds as she’s led into faster and faster executions of more and more grueling shapes and phrases. We cheered for her at the end for two-fold reasons: to buck up the maligned and underappreciated woman we had seen auditioning and also to cheer the superb dancer that is Grigorio who has such pizzazz and an extraordinary technical facility.

A different view of women altogether but still related to the Male Gaze was Michal Herman’s Plan B. It began with two women also on a bare stage—Herman and Inbal Shahar. They were perfectly dressed and coifed as old fashioned stewardesses in high heels in belted and elegant suits (was that in the 1950s or 1960s that women looked like that?). They showed us exits with the conventional stretching out of arms and pointed figures to direct our gaze. These gestures were also to a voice over, but it turns out the directions were not for exits in an airplane, but for the theatre where we were seated. Suddenly there was a black out and when the lights returned, we were presented with the Present. The stewardesses were now two young women dressing as modern dancers, the audience laughing at their transformation from elegance to rags as they pulled on leg warmers and stretched t-shirts, so different from their previously perfect lady-like looks. We watch them effortlessly fulfilling the directions of the teacher-director-male voice, “improvising” he says. The demanding voice causes them to show familiar movements necessary to master in dance today, aping contemporary class movements (even images that come out of Gaga classes, in fashion today).  They seemed to be showing us pages from a current dance manual. Through wit, clever costuming and moves, we watched how young women are expected to look and move, transported through a portal of time from past to present in a satiric, very successful piece.

Many dances showed the difficulties and challenges that could arise as time goes by in a woman’s life. These might include: does she accept herself? Will someone else accept her? What might have been true in other eras? What is true for her in the moment? In Yasmeen Godder’s See Her Change a figure is set apart as she ages. Or, is she questioning how to accept her aging body in her dance profession? Three dancers — Dalia Chaimsky, Shuli Enosh and Yasmeen Godder –- performed on a messy stage littered with costume pieces, a dressing table and a patchwork of ideas, the sections, seemingly casually presented. There was strutting in high heels, then shuffling in clogs, coffee cup in hand, changes of clothing topped off with wigs, or not, boas and pieces of clothing off and then on, hung up on the stage curtains, or not. A child’s voice is heard saying “mama, mama” but the lead character is too distracted to respond; instead there are silent screams, chocking gestures and many repeated movements pulling scraggily hair unhappily across the face.

Instead of obscuring the face, obscuring the hair was the subject of a more modest piece, Hat with a Feather choreographed by Tami Izhaki for the all-women Nehara Dance Company shown in one of the studios.  I was fascinated with its originality and have been pondering a situation it portrays for observant Jewish women. We are introduced to four young women and one older in demure pastel colored pantaloons or dresses. Two primly walk next to each other and we realize their braids are attached as if they are Siamese twins. Their movements are therefore circumscribed, one skirting only just so far around the other, their heads held just so. Another young woman perches mermaid-like on the floor, trying to rise but as she moves, we notice her big toe is entangled in the end of her incredibly long braid. Her foot jerks her head backwards menacingly whenever she tries moving, her extremely arched backward position a marvel. The demands of her hair stretch her head towards her foot in painful-looking pulls. A mother figure arrives, seemingly to straighten things out, first flicking off some awful sounding music, and corralling the young women. She matter-of-factly demonstrates how to properly adjust a long scarf over one’s hair to conceal all of it as required by strict Jewish code once a woman marries. On the one hand she frees the braid from the young woman’s foot, but the freedom is circumspect. Another young woman struggles and is tamed through the reins of convention and traditional expectations. She is finally crowned; the hat with the feather ending the moves for self-sufficiency and bringing modesty.  In truth, the five accomplished dancers practice traditional Judaism exploring through their dancing some of the challenges of their observance. The Hat with a Feather serves them well.

Much more menacing was Cassandra, the duet by Ronit Ziv, based on Aeschylus’ texts about Cassandra’s power of prophecy cursed by disbelief from others. The paradox begins when we confront two dancers standing with their backs to us. We assume they are naked on top with their bare torsos, their flowing skirts incongruous in their fullness. When Gefen Liberman and Sofia Krantz turn, however, their nipples are taped over with wide black swatches. It was a hideously disturbing look throughout as I watched their torsos freed of clothing yet marked with the terrible tape.  Even though their torso movements were so articulate, they were stifled and marked. The two moved often in unison leading me to believe they were two sides of one, reaching one way and the other in their yearning madness –huge reaches of limbs whether stretching in their uprightness or pulling on the ground in one direction and then another. Are we watching something of the dark and painful state, maybe even a feminine flaw dealing with uncomprehending, authority figures who ignore and refuse to accept what is present, never mind what might happen in the future?

Other dances were also disturbing and unsettling on the same subject of womanhood. Atom by Oded Zadok and Kazuyo Shionoiri with animation by Neta Canfi was enhanced by extraordinary shadow puppetry enacted by the two choreographers. But it was a cruel depiction of a submissive wife who never figures out an alternative to her doomed life.  All we watch happened to her in her kitchen and bedroom. In Ich Bin Du by Ella Ben-Aharon and Edo Ceder, the two choreographer/dancers sometimes showed a Madonna figure that was needed but repulsive. Aging was also the thrust of two pas de deux in a collaboration between Ido Tadmor for himself and Elwira Piorun. Danielle Agami’s Shula danced by women in the Batsheva Ensemble remains a fascinating piece in my memory. Young women making a real salad, and serving dinner for each other, carrying on with life as they straighten enormous upturned structures that transform into tables and chairs, literally straightened things out for one in their social group. Another voice over in English harasses a young woman listening on the phone to her supposed lover’s sarcastic, cruel remarks: “Call me in April to remind me of your birthday in May” he says. Her apt moves with dismissive flicking legs, or crashing off upended benches and crawling into others showed her state of mind.  The young women help each other in understated moves that literally still carried weight and showed us they would manage, unlike some of the other women characters we had seen in other dances.

I began to wonder why were there so many dances with male voice-overs? And why were the voice-overs in English? I asked one of the choreographers if there were versions in Hebrew for Israeli audiences.  “No,” he slowly said, surprised, “Dance is so international and performers come from all over to work in Israel, so English suffices for all of us from all over, and besides, audiences here, too, all understand English.” Is that a political statement, I wondered? Who in Israeli audiences is left out from fully understanding the layers of a dance if the language projected is English? Does it also represent something of the invasive style of America and her expectations? I couldn’t get away from the feeling the sound scores were created with foreign audiences in mind, ready for tours abroad.

I don’t remember voice in the sound score created by choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak’s for their group dance Dust performed by their company of eleven on opening night of the festival. It wasn’t outwardly political, nor about the plight of women, filled with the choreographers’ signature plethora of imaginative images. Real dust invades everything on earth, so perhaps they thought that justified the endless unearthly images? The set was enchanting with a door upstage that opened to let in a flood of dust motes like children in odd school uniforms of white caps and white knee-length gowns. These unruly children in their classroom sat at their desks, a stymied teacher barely managing in stuttering steps, often crossing the room to no effect. The desks collapsed with odd legs, others were up-ended and transformed into spinning flip books of animated images; others were projected on the upstage wall (by Roni Fahima and Shimrit Elkanati). Through the door odd characters emerged, a boneless figure oozing to the floor and canes of the blind tapping as many pushed in through the classroom door. The canes became lines of structures and suddenly we saw a construction, a house, invaded by the children/dust.  Whether seen or not, the ubiquitous dust motes in the hands of Pinto and Pollak took over all the space in an orchestra of originality.

After watching so many dances, another set that stood out was the askew playground in Nadar Rosano’s Asphalt, a broken down bench and slide inhibiting the dancers’ freedom and possibilities.  Another set piece was a bird’s nest in Idan Cohen’s Songs of a Wayfarer to Gustav Mahler’s music of the same name.  It became a surprising mask, blinding the solo dancer in a evocative piece that connected the choreographer to his European-born grandmother, who suffered from the Holocaust despite a life of freedom afterwards in Israel. Rami Be’er’s Undividided Void for his Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company had a monumental set for his evening length piece featuring a sensual figure (Renana Randy) sought after by all the men—in a beige leotard she was sometimes seen in a raised space outlined by a metal frame upstage—showing off parts of her sinewy torso undulating in alluring ways; at first there was one wooden panel also placed upstage, opposite the screen. I misunderstood it to be an empty bookshelf, as if culture and history were missing in the rush of movement and aggression. The sensual figure came down off her pedestal, out of the shadow box even becoming a regular figure in the crowd. Sometimes however she was threatened and sometimes she was danced with lovingly—was she the old sides of the desired but the object to discard? Or just a part of all of us? Whatever the murky meaning to her, the oddest part of the dance to me remains the set. More and more wooden sections were brought in by stagehands during the evening, standing them contiguously, upright along the perimeter of the stage. The wooden panels did add a warmth and a sheen as the stage lights bounced off the wood.

One could never level triteness as a criticism of the dances presented at the Festival, but repeated movements did cause visual fatigue. Of course there are arabesques, turns and deep knee bends in many dances, but when a gesture seems specific but then pops up in many dances, it loses its punch. Unfortunately the sequential bending backwards requiring virtuosic control by the dancer became a matter-of-fact accomplishment as did a sudden swirling to the floor in sudden dramatic falls. Nonetheless, profound originality in a myriad of dances (often dealing with womanhood, the politics of place and coping with everyday living) confronted me in so many of the dances. Based on my impressions and what I’ve tried to describe of the extraordinary International Exposure 2013, the foreign presenters who came to Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance the Theatre have provocative and thrilling choices for their audiences world wide.

Judith Brin Ingber lives in Minnesota but returns often to Israel to teach dance history and to catch up on dance performances.  She lived in Israel from 1972-1977 teaching apprentices for the Bat Dor and Batsheva Dance Companies. She also choreographed a program for young audiences for Batsheva, assisted Sara Levi-Tanai at Inbal Dance Theater, and co-founded the first dance magazine with Giora Manor called The Israel Dance Annual. Her recent book, Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance, was published by Wayne State University Press. 

3 Comments For This Post

  1. Sharon Says:

    Anat Grigorio is such an amazing and talented dancer, I always enjoy watching her perform, love Sharon!

  2. Bear Says:

    Knwgeldoe wants to be free, just like these articles!

  3. Dancer Says:

    I’m big fun of Anat Grigorio. She is great dancer & choreographer.

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