Suzanne Dellal Centre
for Dance & Theatre
Tel Aviv, Israel
Nov. 30–Dec. 4, 2011
The serene, spacious courtyard of the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance & Theatre, lying three minutes from the Mediterranean coast in Tel Aviv, is not most people’s image of Israel. Nor is a thriving dance scene that has made an extraordinary mark internationally in recent years. But for the presenters and curators attending the 17th Annual International Exposure—hailing from nearly 40 countries with the goal of bringing Israel’s best contemporary dance home to their fellow citizens—that is precisely the image they’re leaving with.
The nearly 30 Israeli companies and choreographers featured over the course of five days offered work that as a whole can be described as impressively physical, aggressive (sometimes to the point of disturbing), and often highly stylized.
Take, for example, the Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company. Their new work, Bombyx Mori, brings the duo’s celebrated quirky sensibility, grotesque beauty, clown-like men, and doll-like women into a dark and peculiar world where yards of string yield a particular power. This string eventually comes to imprison all, yet when subsequently shaped into a house or played like a harp, it’s as if to say that by re-imagining the physical and psychological cords that confine us, there is choice in how we perceive our limitations.
Similar power issues were apparent in glossy productions by the Vertigo Dance Company (Null) and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (Between Sacred & Profane). In both, large casts draped in black and white battled against the elements (water for Vertigo, tons and tons of sand for Kibbutz). Though each yearned for something deep and spiritual, each relied on letting music and design do the thematic heavy lifting. Despite successfully creating sacred atmospheres, a deeper truth couldn’t be found.
Yasmeen Godder was also searching in Storm Come End, a stream-of-consciousness trip through the waking dreams and nightmares of a cast of lonely souls each trying to grasp onto some sense of purpose. Yet while the audience may have shared the dancers’ discomfort and appreciated the choreographer’s attempt to reflect and challenge her surroundings, we too came away unfilled.
Addressing the politics of her environment much more explicitly in The Diplomats, Renana Raz strung together 15 national anthems from around the globe. With interactions that morphed from playful to silly to provocative (Israeli folk dance to the anthem of Libya), Raz’s delegation of six dancers, dressed like athletes at the 1970s Olympics, subverted these calls to patriotism.
Sharing a bill with Raz, Barak Marshall served as the other half of the Suzanne Dellal Centre’s own production. Marshall, who choreographed two previous works under the Suzanne Dellal banner (Monger and Rooster), returned to his eclectic musical playlist, vaudeville vignettes, Yiddish humor, and the same sharp, urgent, gestures in Wonderland, Part I. Though once again immensely enjoyable, it’s unclear whether Marshall is really further researching a theme or merely sitting on a successful formula.
Perhaps because so many of the marquee names in Israeli dance seemed to collapse under the weight of their own heavy-handed design—conceptually buried by elaborate costumes, dramatic sets, and precious props—certain artists emerged with refreshing simplicity and heartfelt honesty.
One of the most talked-about works of the festival was Six Years Later… . A quiet duet by Roy Assaf performed by him and the radiant Hadar Yunger Harel, it cleverly side-stepped cliché and reinterpreted Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” offering a touching portrait of a relationship in which no one (thank God) was trying to control or manipulate someone else. Likewise, Lee Meir constructed her 10-minute solo Translation Included with nothing more than a few basic lines of dialogue paired with a neurotic physical charade that she scrambled and teased into conveying multiple meanings. A simple idea, well executed, that left an impression far larger than some of the behemoths with five times the cast and budget.
Additionally, Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s small-scale Ship of Fools was one of the few pieces during the festival that felt like it actually came from a place that, to put it mildly, has some issues. Sheinfeld and Laor didn’t lay it on too thick—the work was entertaining, at times humorous, and engaging. But then we were caught off guard—a harmless game turned cruel or a guitar suddenly erected like a gun—and in these subtle moments, we were reminded that there is a big world outside of the theater, and for many in this region, it is broken.
But if dance could somehow make things better, Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company would be the ones to heal the wounds. Naharin has been at the helm of the company since 1990; his newest creation, Sadeh21, may reference the duration of his reign, serving as a type of autobiography. The episodic work has the contemplative, nostalgic feeling of an artist looking back, revisiting some of the motifs that have become signatures of his work—individuality vs. group cohesion (or conformity), numeric accumulation, and an almost militaristic precision paired with intense sensuality.
In Sadeh21, Naharin gives these ideas a polished cinematic treatment and an intimate, surprisingly sensitive core (rare and refreshing for this company). At the same time, it has an epic quality in its scale (at times, 19 dancers are on stage) and intentions, taking us on a rich, enigmatic journey through a reel of diverse and profound scenes that seem to resemble all the discoveries and struggles of life itself.
Which makes the startling conclusion so haunting, and so perfect: dancers gracefully and recklessly leaping from the top of the set into the abyss and then climbing up to do it again. It’s a dramatic statement of finality that also suggests the possibility of rebirth. Sadeh21, nothing short of a contemporary masterpiece, leaves us in emotional knots.
Thankfully, hope is tangled in there as well. And hope is also not usually part of Israel’s image. But as Israeli dance artists continue to communicate with the world, perhaps that too will start to change.
Photos, top to bottom: Batsheva Dance Company in Sadeh21, choreographed by Ohad Naharin with collaboration of Batsheva dancers; Roy Assaf and Hadar Yunger Harel in Six Years Later...; Uri Shafir in Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor's Ship of Fools. Courtesy International Exposure.