Jerusalem Dance Week / International Exposure: Intense physicality and politicized bodies (November 2016)

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(Written for and posted on the Tel Aviv website creative writing.me.)

One of several remarkable moments that surfaced, during this twelve-day marathon of Israeli dancing, was a segment of Local/Not Easy in which Iris Erez coaxed us (“Come on! You can do it, I give you permission!) to open our cell phones, search for and activate animal sounds. As the soundscape filled up with a gentle woodsy menagerie, she laid back luxuriously on the stage floor delighting in sharing the moment with us. In my dance curator’s mind, this brought into sharp focus numerous issues of critical postmodern performance. I am thinking of Bourriaud’s proposal of a relational art in which artworks are no longer objects but rather occasions that create relationships; the integration of new technologies into live performance; the transformative power of authentic personal narrative; how powerful women’s bodies and choreographies have shifted the male gaze towards a “human gaze.” I was also deeply moved.

Much of the same can be said for Osnat Kelner’s Solid Gold quartet, a retro inter-disciplinary “choreographic musical” whose dramaturgy was threaded together with Michele Obama’s recent, radiant “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves” speech. It moved me to tears, again. What a precocious and intelligent performance form, in which everything was skillfully mixed: music, singing, dramatic acting, dancing, and even the integration of computers. A post-performance lobby discussion with Osnat confirmed her belief that there were vital parallels between this moment in U.S. and Israeli politics. This delightful performance work was playful and biting, lively and serious. As my über-host Elad Schechter – Jerusalem choreographer, curator and director of the Alliance House artists’ collective — reminded me frequently, “Here, everything is political.” Even Vertigo’s director remarked to me, during an all-too short break between performances, that this year he was compelled to make an uncharacteristically “dark” dance, to reflect the urgent state of the global predicament.

Yes, I did discover the fabled ultra-intense physicality of Israeli dance, on display among so many of this year’s performances. It was also soon apparent that contact improvisation (myself a second generation Contacter and long-time teacher of the form) has left a deep mark on local dance compositions, along with an aesthetics of rawness and rough-and-tumble movement. It was intriguing to re-think of contact improvisation as source material for choreographic dynamics, once it is removed from the vagaries of improvisation and its typical casual “naturalness”. (Susan Foster once reminded us in a presentation on Isadora, that “naturalness” is a social construction after all.) It is also true that the dance world, at least in North America, has integrated the movement possibilities of this shared weight dance form into their choreographies almost from the onset of Paxton’s first experimentations. Contact Improvisation has always embodied a metaphor for “alternative culture.” But within this group of Israeli dance-makers on display, it seemed to me that the interplay of physical forces had reached a new level of choreographic possibility and maturity.

In view of my work as curator for the Tangente performance space in Montréal, with our preference for intelligent and innovative work, I was particularly kin to the text-oriented intellectuals among the choreographers, albeit those for whom dance and dancing (rather than, as the French say, “non-dancing”) remains a vital component of their propositions. What, after all, has distinguished art-making in the post-colonial era if not that it is a vehicle for ideas and has something to say to the world. An art that is useful after all, if non-decorative and not always beautiful. In this category I would of course include venerable choreographers like Yasmeen Godder and Arkadi Zaides, whose work I had previously known. But I was delighted to discover the cerebral antics of those like Rotem Tashach, whose choreographic (somewhat!) lecture-demonstration comparing the power of artistic performance with the real-life human disaster scenarios. A brilliant, if quirky, critique of art engagé. There were so many levels of irony that my mind raced to follow his twists and turns and in the end, he almost convinced me that the sitting in a theatre pales in light of the drama of the dire events unfolding in the “real” world.

Frank sexuality and bold gender politics also predominated in so much of the work, as if another form of resistance to social and political conservatism. It was interesting to have discovered that in Israel these showcase events, along with the exportation and touring of artistic productions are immensely well-supported in by foundations, NGOs, institutions and private donors as a strategy to show the world how its artists represent a progressive and humanistic force within their society. The same might be said of Québec, Canada, where I live, in which support for the arts (in this case with public funding) is continuously increasing in the belief that it is the artists who are defining a contemporary Québécois identity.

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