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Interview with Yael Flexer: Examining Collaboration, Performance, and Culture

Posted on 05 April 2010 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Yael Flexer.  Photo by Chris Nash.

Born in Israel, Yael Flexer is a well-known fixture in London’s bustling contemporary dance scene.  After directing Bedlam Dance Company for over a decade, she joined forces with her frequent collaborator Nic Sandiland to form Yael Flexer, Nic Sandiland/Dance and Digital Works.  Now the partners are treating dance and art-lovers in Tel Aviv to several views of their unique creative vision.  Flexer is teaching a workshop for dancers at Studio B on Wednesday, April 7 and Saturday, April 10, and her latest dance, The Living Room, will be performed at Tmuna Theater on Friday, April 9.  Meanwhile, Nic Sandiland will discuss some of his works, which cross the borders of artistic disciplines, at the Kalisher Gallery on Wednesday, April 13.

I caught up with Yael Flexer via Skype prior to visit to find out more about her work.  Read on to learn about her partnership with Sandiland, the pair’s outlook on performance, her movement style and choreographic aesthetic, and how the The Living Room is connected both to British and Israeli culture.

* * *

Deborah Friedes Galili: When did you start working in London?

Yael Flexer: Oh, ages ago. Probably in 1992.

Deborah: Was that when you founded Bedlam Dance Company?

Yael: Yes, just about.  I was choreographer in residence at the Place Theatre.  And then, as part of that, I set up the company.

Deborah: I understand that the name of your company is different now.  What is the exact name?

Yael: It was Bedlam [Dance Company] for many years.  I did many projects and touring productions and various things, and then the last five or six years I’ve been working more closely with Nic Sandiland.  We’ve been doing more interactive and digital works, and we’ve had a quite a few commissions for different spaces to make works specifically for them that are digitally based, and so it felt like the right time to change the company.  Also, we kind of reached the age/place where it felt a bit more appropriate to just name the company after us.  So people would associate the work with our names . . .

I think a company as a ‘dance company’ suggests something else, and I think we’re more artists that are making work – and it happens to sometimes be live work, and sometimes digital dance work – so I think it’s just to reflect that.   So the company name is basically our names, Yael Flexer, Nic Sandiland/Dance and Digital Works, which is like an umbrella, or a production company.

Deborah: You said that especially around five or six years ago, you started working more with Nic.  Had you worked with him prior to that as well?  Was he part of Bedlam from the beginning?

Yael: No, he made his own work.  He originally trained as an electronics engineer and got into performance in the ‘80s, and then started making his own work.  His work is less dance-specific; it falls under the dance category, but really it’s a whole mixture of things from live work to installation, some of which has more of a dance element.   Others have been commissioned by poetry societies or a variety of venues.  So it doesn’t necessarily have to be dance.  But I think his outlook is really the idea that in some way the public is partner to the choreography and it’s the encounter with virtual performers, in some cases, or between the public and virtual settings.   In a sense, he choreographs the public and considers the public’s movement within the work.

Deborah: Can you tell me a bit about the work that you’re bringing here to Israel?

Yael: Yes, it’s called The Living Room.  But actually, I should say that right from the start, from setting up the company – although sometimes we make commissions for other organizations or companies where we have a lot of digital [work] or projection in performance – for our own work, we like to make very separate things.  So the live work is very intimate and has very little – well, has no digital element.   And then we’ll make installations for galleries or public spaces that have choreography in them to varying degrees.  But we like to keep them quite separate.   It’s almost like two sides of the coin, working in two different mediums.  I think sometimes when people hear “Dance and Digital Work,” they think of work that’s very high tech, and actually, the live work is very low tech, no tech at all.  And the installation work, even though it is high tech, it doesn’t have that high tech aesthetic.  It’s really about intimacy with the viewer.

Yael Flexer’s The Living Room.  Photo by Chris Nash.

Anyway, the live work is called The Living Room, but it’s not really a living room.  I think it’s more a rehearsal space, and in some ways we’re inviting the audience into our space.  So there’s a kind of informality about the presentation.  It’s a very formal work choreographically, but there’s something about allowing people into our space and having a very light or inviting essence of us all being together in one room.  And there are quite a lot of jokes.  Some of them are between us, and some of the jokes are between us and the audience.   There’s quite a lot of banter that goes on that allows that informality.

I think this is quite different from the work you see in Israel, because you don’t really see that level of humor and that amount of text in work.  Often it’s much more movement driven in Israel.  And although this is also very movement-driven – there’s some very strong and physical movement sections – there’s a way in which the work is a bit more open for the audience to be part of it without any audience interaction, as in no audience participation.  I think that’s kind of been a thread through all of my works, this idea of intimacy between an audience and a performer, and the idea that we witness one another so it’s not just about the audience watching us but it’s also about us in a sense watching them, and there’s a kind of equality of gaze and an equality of power between us.  It’s always breaking the fourth wall, which is a term that is often used . . . it always talks about performance and opens the question of performance.

And we imagine things [in this work].  It’s called The Living Room, so we imagine furniture throughout the show.  We walk around pretending to be bits of furniture.  And there’s a way in which the work talks about the domestic, the very day to day, or the passage of time, and about dancing as well.  In Hebrew you’d say tmunat matzav; it’s a kind of picture of us living through time.  We’re slightly different ages; the youngest is 22 and the oldest is 39 – that’s Karni, the composer.  We’re talking about the differences between us and our different experiences in time, so it feels like it’s more about living than about a specific living room.  It’s living in a room [rather] than necessarily a living room.

Deborah: And are you performing in it as well?

Yael: Yes . . . [laughs]

Deborah: I thought I read that somewhere, so I wanted to check!

Yael: I haven’t performed I guess for five years.  I’m in it, but I’m not much in it.  I’m performing in about two sections, dancing.  Mostly I read; I’m the reading light.  And it’s kind of clear that I’m the choreographer’s voice in there.

Deborah: Is the text original text that you as a cast have developed, or is it taken from somewhere?

Yael: There are two kinds of text.   The text that I read is mine.   And the text that we have between us is very simple text.   It’s kind of simple pleasantries, almost.  It’s quite English – thank you, don’t mention it, you’re welcome – things like that which we developed with a dramaturge, Gary Stevens.  He’s a live artist who makes his own work.   We invited him to come along for this production, and he’s brought with him this idea of the furniture, or the imagined furniture, and the text that follows.  I wouldn’t really call it text.  It’s more deconstructive than that; it’s words, really.

Deborah: I’m curious – how does Nic play a role in this?  Obviously, as you said, you keep these things very separate; in this case, it’s the live work, it’s the dance, as opposed to, say, having the technology layered on.   So is he an active collaborator in this piece as well?

Yael: No, it’s a live work.  I collaborate with him on the installation works.  But we recently did the show [The Living Room] at The Place Theater in London, and we did present an installation called Orbital, which has quite a lot of similarities to the live work.  So in a sense we work concurrently, we work at the same time, and one influences the other.

Orbital is an interactive work where the audience circles a projection that’s on the ground.  The speed with which the viewer walks around affects the projection and causes it to move.  The viewers circle the projection, and obviously that [is the] idea of orbit, or orbiting the projection.  And in the piece [The Living Room] we have quite a lot of circles as a kind of feature of the furniture spinning around the room.  So I think they [the works] start to influence one another, almost unconsciously.

The last production was called Doing, Done and Undone, and it was much more clearly related; when we filmed, the camera was almost like another dancer in the dance, and as people move through the installation, they make the footage go back and they affect the time and the speed in which it’s played back.  There’s a sense in which the viewer is inside the performance.  So there’s some works where that relationship is clearer.

We’ve really done so many installation works alongside this live work; there’s others which are more . . . really about the public. We have shop installations placed in high street or in shopping malls where the viewer affects what they see.

But I think in this case, the installation Orbital and the live work The Living Room are two that work together. You’re not going to see Orbital in Israel, but Nic is going to be giving a talk about his work at Kalisher Gallery, part of Seminar Hakibbutzim School, and he’ll talk more about various installations and the theoretical underpinnings of that.

Deborah: Can you talk a little bit about your movement style and your movement aesthetic for this work?

Yael: Generally, my aesthetic is quite functional.  It’s release-based – that’s the technique, anyway.  But it’s very punchy, it’s very fast – but it’s very functional.  There’s a sense in which dance is not decoration. It’s somehow about form and function.  So you’ll see lots of angles and lots of work with joints, breaking through the joints, collapsing towards the floor; there’s quite a lot of material that happens on the floor.

Choreographically, there’s always a kind of mathematical rule or physical rule that leads each particular dance.  Although it is dancing, there is a kind of inert rule that we follow, whether it’s about dancers being in contact and that’s the idea of that particular section; whether it’s about circling and orbiting being an idea for a section; whether it’s about triggering movement, one dancer triggering movement in others, or chasing one another.  We always have quite a clear logic for us as we make the choreography, so that as you view it, you can maybe not work out the logistics or the logic of it but have a sense of coherency about it.  But certainly the movement style is very physical, but very functional . . .

Yael Flexer’s The Living Room.  Photo by Chris Nash.

Often, dance is described as kind of pure dance or dance theater, and I would say the work aligns more with pure dance in that it’s really concerned with the mathematics of space and time rather than trying to convey a kind of drama or relationships in a dramatic sense.  We’re always ourselves when we’re onstage.  We’re never transformed or anything like that. So there’s no sense of transcendence or big drama.  It’s very, very much in the here and now and the how we meet each other and simply being ourselves as people, as dancers.  And I think the work – and certainly the text in the work – talks about that to some degree.
I think what might be interesting for an Israeli reader/viewer is that – because I’m in it and I’m the choreographer voice in it – The Living Room has quite a lot of the notion of the “unhomed.”  I don’t know quite how to translate it to Hebrew, but in some way it’s a word that could only be made by an Israeli not living in Israel in that it talks about the kind of longing but also the loss of a home, in that sense of where I grew up is not where Israel is now.  I think we mention this question of the “unhomed” or the not having a home a lot, and therefore we’re imagining furniture, because we ultimately don’t have a home.   And there are some references [in The Living Room] that are also very English and talk about the dancers and their background, and I think that might be an interesting thing to consider, that kind of reading of the work.  So it’s talking about dancing through time but also the idea of difference, or the idea of a kind of mixed cast of different places and different backgrounds and the sort of longing for a home or to be “homed”.

Deborah: That’s really interesting for me to hear.   I’m from the U.S.; I came to Israel because I was intrigued by Israeli dance and I stayed here.  Some of the things you talk about, I can connect to on a reverse level – you know, what I feel in terms of my relationship to the U.S., although I haven’t been gone as long.  Also, a lot of people certainly ask me – and especially when I was first here and looking at work by Israeli choreographers, I wondered – if there was something that they were saying or that they were dealing with that was coming somehow specifically from their relationship to their home, just in the same way that you could look at anybody who’s American or British or whatnot and see if there’s something culturally specific that they’re considering.  So it’s interesting for me to hear that you do see, somehow, a connection specifically to these issues.

Yael: This particular work definitely refers a lot to cultural baggage, or what is culture and how is it a part of you, or what is you and what isn’t you.  I think it has that perspective of being nearly 40 and having children and being away from Israel and those kinds of questions.  I mean, not everyone would read it in that way, at all, but I think if you want to read it in that way, there are those links.  I’m really interested in performing in Israel, because it would be great to see how an Israeli audience reads it.   Also in a sense, whenever you make work as an Israeli outside of Israel, you are the voice of Israel – whether you like it or not – if you reference Israel in any way. So there are things there that are interesting for an Israeli audience to view, thinking, “Okay, this is what an English audience is seeing about Israel,” or how we are represented through me, I suppose, and through Karni.   So there’s a kind of element of explanation that maybe you would never use if you were only making it for a predominantly Israeli audience.  I mean, I don’t know if it’s the case; I don’t think it’s that much explanation, but I think there are some words that only an Israeli audience would get and in other places it’s just Hebrew; they (an English audience) have no idea what we say.

Deborah: And based on what I saw online, did this just premiere a few weeks ago?

Yael: Yes, we just premiered two weeks ago.

Deborah: So this will be the first performance of it outside of the U.K.

Yael: Yes.

Deborah: Have you brought any of your work to Israel before?

Yael: I have but a really long time ago.  I’ve been doing lots of work in Israel but mostly teaching.  This is the first time we got funding from the British Council to bring the work over, just because it’s a big company.

Deborah: It’s six dancers?

Yael: It’s five dancers, me, and the cellist as well, Karni.

Deborah: Can you talk a little bit about the music?

Yael: Well, there are three composers.  Really there are two, and there’s one track that we used from a different composer (Dougie Evans) that I’ve worked with.   It’s Nye Parry and Karni Postel.   I’ve worked with Karni on two other productions in the past, so it’s an ongoing collaboration, and I’ve worked with Nye for ten years.  And I kind of forced them to get together!  And it’s been great, actually.

The sound score is different from other scores in that it’s more filmic in a way, and having Karni play live just brings a kind of edge to it, and there’s an element of improvisation at play – not entirely, but she has a little more freedom to respond to us with the cello.  We’re really looking at what we called the beautiful cello – this idea of a quite pleasing or harmonic sound and the more distorted, heavy, uncomfortable sound, and the work plays with those two extremes.  So sometimes it’s very comfortable, and sometimes it’s very uncomfortable.  And similarly, sometimes we’re very comfortable and kind of cozy with the audience, and other times we’re a little more edgy or in some senses less familiar with them and with each other, so there’s a sense of maybe more destruction or discomfort or disharmony . . . so that sense of being “unhomed” comes through in the music as well . . .

What else can I tell you?  We’re doing lots of workshops when we’re in Israel.  And this is what we do quite a lot; education work, mostly at the university level but sometimes with youth as well, and sometimes with adults.  I think there’s an element of wanting to know our audience to some degree and that familiarity, so it kind of runs through.   It’s a way of breaking the ice as well, so we’ll have some participants who have done our workshops coming to the show, and I think that’s always nice.

Yael Flexer’s The Living Room.  Photo by Chris Nash.

Deborah: Is there anything else that you think is particularly important to say about the work or your company?

Yael: It’s good to mention that the dancers are a very equal part in the making of the work. It’s a very adult company, I mean, although we range from 22 to 38 or so. The way I approach it is very democratic; it’s quite a social and democratic way of conceiving and making the work. So even though I direct it and make certain decisions, obviously, it’s not hierarchical in any way. That’s really important for me. You know, we always have a really good laugh making the work, and I think you can see that when you see the work. That’s a device to get what I want out of the dancers and the kind of work I want to make. In a sense, the work represents a kind of process, and I think that might be different from other choreographers’ process. So the social part of being together and making work is just as much a part of the work, or becomes part of the work.

More Details

Yael Flexer, Nic Sandiland/Dance and Digital Works presents Flexer’s The Living Room at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, April 9.  Tickets (NIS 65) are available at (03) 561-1211.  Nic Sandiland talks about his work at the Kalisher Gallery on Tuesday, April 13; for more details, call (03) 516-5535.

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