Vanishing Acts: Waiting in Limbo with Maguy Marin, Nidaa Badwan, Gaza, & Lutèce

marin umweltCompagnie Maguy Marin in Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt.” Photograph by and copyright Christian Ganet and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI/AV on December 11, 2015, in the wake of the November 13 massacre in Paris of 130 innocents from France and around the world on the café terraces, outside the stadiums, and in the Bataclan concert hall by a bunch of cowards. For an update on Nidaa Badwan — who is no longer waiting in limbo — click here.

PARIS — One of the endurance tests of a work of art is its malleability over time. When I first saw Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt” 10 years ago in its Paris premiere at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, if the choreography was dense, its spirit was still unrelentingly slapstick, with nine performers taking turns surging rapid-fire — solitary, paired, or in triplets — from the opening between three lateral walls of mirrors, le tout, mirrors and humans with their various props (baby dolls, turkey drumsticks, army helmets, guns, aprons, foliage, blonde wigs, laboratory jackets, pills, buckets of dirt…) buffeted about by wind machines as they engaged in everyday human interplay and gestures from kisses to fights, with the occasional flashing of fesses and genitals tossed in to remind you it was, after all, European modern dance. Even the bombastic score — played by a single strand of twine which crossed the downstage from one spool to another, caressing the strings of three prostrate electric guitars en route — didn’t perturb the frothy demeanor of the movement. What outraged me was that where no one had walked from the same theater during a Wim Vandekeybus spectacle the previous week which projected graphic images of children being tortured and killed, 40 spectators fled “Umwelt,” the more optimistic work. On Friday December 4, though, at the opening of the reprise of “Umwelt” on the same stage, I started sobbing at the first appearance of the performers. With their bright pedestrian outfits and variety of human shapes and ages, in their frantic running back and forth, fighting against the torrential currents of the wind and lost in the confines of the buckling rows of mirror-wall centurions, they seemed to be the 130 innocents killed November 13, discombobulated and disoriented over what had just happened to them, trapped in this antechamber like Captain Kirk hovering between two dimensions, juggling the detrius of their lives on Earth until we the survivors could set things right. At the moment, the verdict is still out, as we too seem to be hovering like Kirk between two worlds — or at least two worldviews, that of trepidation and fear and that of persevering hope.

On Thursday, I returned to the Place de la Republique, where previously, reading a note *whose message I didn’t agree with* implying a causal relationship between these senseless murders and Western intevention in the Middle East (Da’esh attacked us first!) — I was nonetheless heartened to see the statement, and that no one had taken it down, because this is the France they want to destroy, the France which embraces debate and disagreement and dissent. In the United States, striking workers are kept a block away from the workplace they’re picketing; in France, they actually occupy the workplace, and police aren’t called in to clear them out. (These rights aren’t a given; workers died for them.) At the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie right now, as part of the first biennial of photography of the contemporary Arab world, an entire floor is taken up by an exhibition on the disastrous effects of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip in 2014, particularly in polluting the area’s water supply. The MEP is an institution of the city of Paris. A similar exhibition would never happen at a municipal museum in the United States, or if it did, Israeli lobbyists would insist on a counter-exhibition postulating a false equivalence of victimhood. It’s institutions like these — vaunting free speech, and a wider opening to Arab perspectives than anywhere else in the Occident — that protected France for so long from the terrorists, with their lying attempts to justify their actions as vengeance for mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims. And it’s this France which the terrorists want to destroy. To them — horrible as this is to say — it’s not so much the body count that matters, as how we react to the blood-letting and whether they succeed in dividing us and getting us to modify our values, or at least our interpretation and implementation of them.

Shepherding the reaction is new terrain for a president who was elected above all to address economic challenges. So far — while there are those on the far Left here who might disagree with me — the response, particularly by the patient interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, has been considered and tempered, given the unprecedented circumstances the country faces, *and* the crucial regional elections he must supervise at the same time and that, if the far Right takes three to four of the new 13 super-regions in Sunday’s second round as they have a good chance to do, could weigh heavily on the 2017 national elections and the fate of liberty, fraternity, and equality in a country that swears by them. So the following is offered not as back-seat driving, but as the perspective of a foreigner who doesn’t want to see France lose what in a way, we all feel a ‘proprietary’ stake in (and should not imply that there are not Frenchmen and women who feel the same, up to and including the president).

Returning to the Place de la Republique Thursday December 3, then, I found the monument around which the notes have been posted below the votive candles encircled by barricades which made it impossible to approach closer than 100 meters, and thus no longer possible to read the declarations which were the main souvenir compelling Parisians and visitors to hover there in silent contemplation. The two discrete national police officers patrolling the place had been augmented to 20, with a fleet of vans standing nearby. There was a reason and even a noble motivation for this; on the previous Sunday, some demonstrators had reportedly trashed some of the mementos, so that the police were there to protect the shrine and prevent further damage. Still, it made me sad that, at least at this site, it was no longer possible to link ourselves in solidarity around the WORD, the word which has been precious to France and Frenchmen and women since Descartes, since Voltaire, since Moliere, the Chevalier de la Barre, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Sand, Zola, Jaures, Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir and right up to modern scholars and philosopher-pundits Stora and Onfray.

gazaGaza, Beti Hanoun, April 2015: A girl from Beti Lahia leads her little brother to a water distribution point. In June the U.N. described the devastation in Gaza  following Israel’s 2014 invasion as “unprecedented.” According to the U.N., Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians among whom 551 were children. Hamas killed 72 Israelis, including 67 soldiers and five civilians. Photo copyright Massimo Berruti, who received the Prix Photo AFD / Polka for his work. Courtesy Maison Europeenne de la Photographie.

The second decision which saddened me — even if I understand the well- intentioned reasoning — was that to temporarily suspend free Wednesday late afternoons / early evenings at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie. The reasoning is evident; a magnet for the (mostly) young (less likely to have the resources to pay for a ticket), cosmopolitan, hip, and decoratively dressed, of all cultures, this is demographically exactly the type of event that was targeted on November 13. Popular and crowded — even if the MEP carefully monitors capacity — with several floors and essentially one exit, it’s obviously a vulnerable assemblage. Still, the contemporary Arab world photography exhibition is the perfect counter-argument to the terrorists’ (false and duplicitous) recruiting tool that the West is out to harm Muslims and Arabs. Andrea & Magda’s “Sinai Park” shows the deleterious effects of, among other factors, Daesh’s terrorism on tourism investment in the Sinai. And the Italian photographer Massimo Berruti’s “Gaza: Eau Miracle” shows the calamitous effects of Israel’s 2014 invasion of this occupied territory on the area’s water supply, particularly in his photos of Gazan children searching for water amidst the rubble. In other words, the high visibility of both the biennial in general and these exhibitions in particular proves the contrary of Daesh’s claims as regards France. Perhaps MEP could take a cue from Theater de la Ville director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who, in the face of restrictions on school outings following the declaration of the state of emergency, has promised to bring the artists to the school so that the theater can continue its ambitious education programs. MEP could, for example, bring a slide-show version of Berruti’s award-winning work to French schools, including the banlieus or suburbs.

The MEP room devoted to Berruti’s Gaza work also featured, in continuous loop, a France 24 television report on the devastating effects of Israel’s Gaza invasion, part of which was a featurette on Nidaa Badwan, a Gazan artist caught between two extremes. Prevented by Israel from leaving Gaza, frowned on by Hamas’s “morality” police (who even beat her after arresting her for an outdoor performance) because she dresses like, well, like any Belleville artist, and distressed by the dilapidation that confronts her every time she goes outside, the 28-year-old artist decided to create her own cocoon in her 9-square-foot bedroom, lining it with egg-carts to diminish the outside noise and taking a series of self-portrait photographs (illumined by rare moments of sunlight). When the director of the Jerusalem French Institute read about Badwin’s book based on this project, “100 Days of Solitude,” in the New York Times, the institute organized an exhibition in East Jerusalem. When it came time for the opening, Israel refused to issue her a visa.

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Gaza Artist Nidaa Badwan captured — and free — in her home and studio. Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

I think of Badwan, armed only with her beret and her camera, determined to make her art even in the face of extremes on both sides. And it occurs to me that if she can persist and create a niche in a space of liberty smaller than even many Paris apartments, maybe we can maintain ours, and liberate Noemie Gonzalez and the other 129 November 13 martyrs from their limbo.
PS: Taking my lunch yesterday abreast of the Ourcq canal in the suburb of Pantin, right outside the Paris Peripherique, I noticed a motorcyclist in a municipal uniform stopping by each of the trees and lowering his vacuum…. to suck up dog poop. We here are much more comfortable preserving beauty than fighting destruction. We are finding our way. So when the Canadian militant Naomi Klein gets up, as she did earlier this week in Paris during the climate conference, and invites her followers to defy the State of Emergency’s prohibition of demonstrations, having the gall to call the government’s ban “draconian and opportunistic,” I want to say: You are a guest here. (And one who has been welcomed on the public media waves.) We are not here to help you sell your books. Please take your self-promoting defiance elsewhere while we work this out, in our fashion.

nidaa badwan new roomNidaa Badwan in the “New Room” — as this photo is called —  and studio accorded to her by Italy after this story first appeared. Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan

American stories: From civil wars to civil rites: Moving beyond John Brown with David Dorfman & Camille A. Brown

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2009, 2019 Maura Nguyen Donohue

(First published on the DI on July 16, 2009 and re-published today thanks to DI Co-Principal Sponsor Slippery Rock Dance this  piece is  one of the more than  2,000 Flash Reviews of performances, books, cinema, and art from around the world by 150 artist-critics covered by the  DI/AV since 1998. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of the DI Archives, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. To support the DI/AV’s ongoing work, please make a donation today by designating your gift through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Camille A. Brown performs this Saturday and Sunday at the Joyce Theater in New York.)

NEW YORK — David Dorfman is a messy guy. A subversively messy guy. Not his army of superhuman dancers, nor his luscious, sweeping choreography. Not his design team, nor his vision. Not his workshops for corporate outreach, nor his master classes for athletes. Not his chairmanship of the Connecticut College dance department, nor his stewardship of one of our most important companies — his own. His is not an untidy craftsman, but David Dorfman is a messy artist. Messing with things in disarming, informal, personable, personal, complicated, volatile, well-meaning, demanding, unpleasant and thus deeply, vitally, importantly, and inherently American ways. He will not provide easy resolutions for the violence and chaos of our historic and contemporary foils. But, once again, with “Disavowal,” seen at Danspace Project, he remains ever loyal to banging away at our hostilities in a constant search for our shared humanity.

In “Disavowal,” Dorfman takes famed abolitionist and “race traitor” John Brown as his springboard. For the full Flash, click here.

Monkishness: For Monk’s 40th, a Birthday Chorus of Choreographic Royalty

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2004, 2019 Chris Dohse

(To celebrate two decades as the leading online voice for dancers and  number one source for exclusive reviews of performances from around the world, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Archive. Among the 150+ critics who have honored the DI by making us the vehicle to share their perceptions of the art which is so dear to them, we’re particularly elated to have been able to feature the incisive, articulate, ambidextrous, and electrifying observations of Mr. Chris Dohse. To find out how you can obtain your own copy of the 2,000 Flash Reviews of performances, books, cinema, and art from around the world covered by the  DI/AV since 1998 for as little as $49, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Today’s encore of Chris’s piece, first published on November 23, 2004, is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance. To learn about Sponsorship opportunities at the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. And to make a simple gift, in Dollars or Euros, via PayPal, just designate your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

NEW YORK — In honor of the 40th anniversary of Meredith Monk’s creative output, Laurie Uprichard, the executive director of Danspace Project, assembled a stellar group of post-modern choreographers to create new works set to Monk’s music. If you traced these choreographers and their influences and resumés and their similarities to other dancemakers, then connected those names, lineages, mentors and proteges to Monk, you’d have the material for a fabulous avant-garde drinking game.

Each choreographer in the “Dance to Monk” program, seen November 20 at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, did what he or she is known best for doing. Like flavors in a broth that has been reduced for thickness, the qualities of their choreographic minds were magnified in unpretentious works that existed primarily to celebrate Monk’s genre-defying compositions. But in each dance, an appreciation of Monk’s person also abided. Aligned with the generosity and humanity of Monk’s own works, any sense of one-upmanship was absent. These ended up being minor works for these major artists, but each was significant as an historic record of the kind of impact one mind can have on her peers. Infected by Monkishness, the choreographers allowed rare sides of themselves to come to the surface. So for instance, we saw an uncharacteristically humane Molissa Fenley, a positively humble Bill T. Jones.

In Fenley’s trio, “Piece for Meredith,” we saw the impassive, somewhat chilly gaze, the imperturbable carriage, bird-like arms and crab-like legs, and formally formal forms that Fenley has built a repertory from. But set against the ethereal voices of Monk’s work from “mercy,” we also saw three lovely women who looked at times like figures on Golgotha in a liturgical dance: supportive, caregiving and reverent. When they bowed to the three sides of the seating area separately, a kind of depth to their spatial relationships became present that had been hidden within the material. Fenley’s style was suddenly lit in a much different light.

Ann Carlson’s “Flesh,” a previous commission for Oakland’s mixed-ability Axis Dance Company, questioned the quality of the inert body as two women in electric wheelchairs stacked able-bodied dancers in a heap downstage like so much firewood. Wearing nondescript jumpsuits and goggles, the cast might have been spelunkers or skydivers or explorers on an Arctic tundra.

Three solos were performed by their creators. Sean Curran was light in his loafers in “St. Petersburg Waltz.” Curran’s explosive aerials and petit allegro belied in some way his characterization of a hesitant, avuncular Eastern European folk dancer. But his snapped-to gestures, bowler and wistful shrug quickly revealed his storytelling heart.

Dana Reitz rocked from foot to foot like an obsessive rebirther or Trager therapist in “With Meredith in Mind,” and her white tunic glowed in the space with the purity of a healer. Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting rose to the challenge of Reitz’s history of innovation with designers. Tai chi simplicity gave way to immediacy, and Reitz’s gestures began to look like urgent sign language. With her arms chattering against the assured rhythm of her weight changes, her direct, rather shining demeanor cut through. The piece became not about what she was saying but about who was doing the talking, and why, and why we wanted to listen.

Jones ended the program in a haunting video projection made by Janet Wong. Equal parts whimsy and sadness and edited into the form of a duet with his ghostly naked self, the manipulated and halted shots began to suggest absence. When Jones tipped his hat and smiled, we could realize that his entire dance had been based on a simple bow, the signal that something has reached fruition. The impulse of that bow radiated through the audience when Monk came out to receive our gratitude (and to listen to us sing “Happy Birthday”).

20 years of stories not told elsewhere: When Blackface (& body) reared its ugly head onstage at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2006, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

From the Dance Insider Archives: First published on October 24, 2006. Today’s re-publication (to which the only addition is the term ‘lilly-white’)  sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of  2000+ reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, & books  from around the world by 150 artist-critics,  e-mail  paulbenitzak@gmail.com . 

PARIS — When racism rears its ugly head in a supposedly civilized setting, a sort of stunned, incredulous shock can set in. So it took me a minute Saturday night, sitting in my lush red orchestra chair in the ornate Paris Opera House, presided over by a colorful Marc Chagall panorama of the arts painted around the chandelier, to realize what I was seeing up there onstage, a few minutes into Serge Lifar’s 1947 “Les Mirages”: Two characters straight out of an “African” “tribal” “sacrifice rite” from 1930s Hollywood, clad entirely in black body suits, hands and faces included. Eyes and lips in a pronounced white, of course. Making bugaboo facial expressions and doing some sort of stereotyped to the nth degree savage dance — they stopped just short of scratching their crotches. (Just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, I checked the program after my premature but necessary exit: Ah yes, these would be “Les Negrillons.”)

What is this petrifying example of racist stereotyping doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the (lilly-white) Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn’t. Voila le problème.) (Incidentally — or not so — Serge Lifar was condemned for collaborating with the Occupiers after World War II.)

On my wall is the second edition ever of Paris Match, and the first to feature just one person on the cover: Katherine (or “Kathrin” as the magazine spelled it — they Frenchify everything here) Dunham. It’s dated April 1, 1949. I don’t know if Katherine Dunham was here in 1947, but if she was, and happened to find herself at the premiere of “Les Mirages,” she likely would have had a much more demonstrative response to offer than my polite exit from the theater.

20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere: Flash View, 9/12/2008 — Move, member, move: For Ailey dancer with Muslim name, rocky entrance in the Bosom of Abraham

By Omar Barghouti
Copyright 2008, 2019 Omar Barghouti

To celebrate more than two decades of telling stories not told elsewhere , the DI has been revisiting its archives. Have conditions changed at all since Omar wrote this piece? For a Palestinian perspective, check Diana Butto’s recent article in The Nation, published ahead of  last week’s Israeli parliamentary elections, and her post-election report on Democracy Now.  To read our re-post of Aimee Ts’ao’s 2006 interview with Israeli-American choreographer Ohad Naharin, review of his Batsheva Dance Company, and lesson in his Gaga dance method, click here. To check Omar’s profile of  Palestinian dancer Sharaf DarZaid, click here .

JERUSALEM — Israeli security officers at Tel-Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport Tuesday forced an African-American member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — by far the best-known touring company in the United States — to perform twice for them in order to prove he was a dancer before letting him enter the country with the company, the dancer told the Associated Press as reportred by MSNBC. But even after he complied, one of the officers suggested that Abdur-Rahim Jackson change his name. Jackson felt humiliated and “deeply saddened,” according to an Ailey spokesperson, particularly because his Arab/Muslim sounding first name, given to him by his Muslim father, was the reason that he was the only member of his company subjected to this typical Israeli ethnic profiling.

While still officially illegal in the U.S., ethnic profiling, described as “racist” by human rights groups, is widespread in Israel, at entrances to malls, public and private buildings, airports, etcetera. Israeli citizens and permanent residents with Arab names — or often just Arab accents — are commonly singled out for rough, intrusive and glaringly humiliating “security” checks. When I, an Israeli-ID holder, travel through the Tel Aviv airport, for instance, I always get stickers with the number “6” stamped on my passport, luggage and ticket. Israeli Jews, in comparison, get “1” or “2.” A “6” leads to the most thorough and degrading check of luggage and person. The smaller figures, in comparison, mean you get whisked through security with just an x-ray scan of your luggage. A couple of years ago, people like me used to get a bright red sticker, while Israeli Jews got light pink or similarly “benign” colors. Some astute Israeli officials must have been alerted that color-coding passengers according to their ethnicity and/or religion was too overtly apartheid-like, so they switched to the supposedly “nuanced” number coding. No wonder Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop and anti-Apartheid leader Desmond Tutu described Israeli practices as constituting a “worse” form of apartheid — it is far more sophisticated than the original version.

The Alvin Ailey troupe is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a multi-nation tour starting in Israel. Despite the above incident, the show was scheduled to go on as scheduled Thursday, and the company did nothing substantial to even protest this discriminatory policy to which one of its members was subjected, notwithstanding artistic director Judith Jamison’s statement to Haaretz newspaper that “We are here to irritate you, to make you think.” This only enhances Israel’s impunity. More crucially, by its very performance in Israel, regardless of whether one of its members was targeted by Israeli ethnic profiling or not, the group has violated the cultural boycott called for by Palestinian civil society since 2004 against Israel due to its persistent violation of international law and fundamental human rights.

Two years after that initial boycott call, a large majority of Palestinian artists and cultural workers appealed to all artists and filmmakers of good conscience around the world “to cancel all exhibitions and other cultural events that are scheduled to occur in Israel, to mobilize immediately and not allow the continuation of the Israeli offensive to breed complacency.” As with the boycott of South African cultural institutions during apartheid, international cultural workers and groups are urged by their Palestinian colleagues to “speak out against the current Israeli war crimes and atrocities.” Many internationally recognized artists and intellectuals heeded the Palestinian appeal for boycott; those included John Berger, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard, the Irish artists union, Aosdana, and Belgian dance company Les Ballets C. de la B. The latter published a statement  defending the cultural boycott as “a legitimate, unambiguous and nonviolent way of exerting additional pressure on those responsible.”

In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.”

If one were to replace “Republic of South Africa” with the “State of Israel,” the rest should apply just as strongly. Israel today, 60 years after its establishment through what prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes as a deliberate and systemic process of ethnic cleansing of a large majority of the indigenous Palestinian population, still practices racial discrimination against its own “non-Jewish” citizens; it still maintains the longest military occupation in modern history; it still denies millions of Palestinian refugees their internationally recognized right to return to their homes and properties; and it still commits war crimes and violates basic human rights and tenets of international humanitarian law with utter impunity.

Some may argue that, from their viewpoint, art should transcend political division, unifying people in their common humanity. They forget, it seems, that masters and slaves do not quite share anything in common, least of all any notion of humanity. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I recall the wise words of Enuga S. Reddy,  director of the United Nations Center Against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to criticism that the cultural boycott of South Africa infringed on freedom of expression, saying: “It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms… to the African majority… should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime.”

Humanity — and above all human dignity — is at the core of many of the works of Alvin Ailey. His company, and indeed all other artists and cultural entities that care about human rights and realize that art and moral responsibility should not be divorced at any time, are called upon by their Palestinian colleagues and public at large not to perform in Israel until justice, freedom, equality and human rights are established for all, irrespective of ethnic, religious, gender or any other form of identity. This is what the arts and academic (Ailey co-directs a degree program at Fordham University) community did as their contribution to the struggle to end apartheid rule in South Africa. This is precisely what they can do to end injustice and colonial conflict in Palestine. Only then can dancers named Abdur-Rahim, Fatima, Paul or Nurit be viewed and treated equally, without any profiling.

Omar Barghouti is a freelance choreographer, cultural analyst and founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel .

Out of the Mirror and into the Gaga with American-Israeli choreo Ohad Naharin, in performance and in his own words

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2006, 2019 Aimee Ts’ao

From the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager Archives, first published on November 10, 2006. Today’s re-publication sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, and books from around the world by 150 artist-critics, including Aimee Ts’ao, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Pull-quote from Hendrix added by PB-I. 

“Cover your mirrors or break them. Don’t use mirrors when you dance. Don’t use mirrors when you live. They are very limiting, they are an illusion.”

— Ohad Naharin

“I used to live in a roomfull of mirrors.
All I could see was me.
Well I took my spirit and I crashed my mirrors
Now the whole world is there for me to see.”

— Jimi Hendrix, as sung by the Pretenders

SAN FRANCISCO — Sometimes it is not just the performance of a choreographic piece that has an impact, but also the serendipitous events surrounding that performance that covertly conspire to reshape one’s perceptions of that first viewing. And so my recent experience with the Tel-Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company turned out to be far richer than I could have imagined before I walked into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater for the Thursday, October 26 performance of artistic director Ohad Naharin’s “Three.” The next day, both interviewing Naharin and participating in a company warmup gave me further insight into the performance and deepened my appreciation of these exceptional artists.

Granted, I had already been to YBCA the previous Tuesday night to see two films, “Israel Dancing,” a documentary by Czech television and “Boobies,” a dance choreographed by Inbal Pinto and performed by her company. The latter was so long and eclectic, or derivative, that you could use it as the sole visual aid to teach a course on the influence of every dance and theater style of the 20th century on current work. The former featured some interesting footage of various Israeli dance companies as well as interviews with choreographers. The one moment that lodged in my mind was Naharin saying, “Everybody should dance every day, for a few minutes at least.”

Now it’s Thursday night, as I take my seat after conversing with other critics, dancers, and a couple of my teachers in the lobby. It’s quite gratifying to see so many from the local dance community in attendance. “Three” runs 70 minutes, with no intermission. There are three sections (hence the name), which I later learn by searching online are called Bellus (beauty), Humus (earth) and Secus (‘otherwise’ or ‘to the contrary’ in the Latin legal definition; “this…not this” in Naharin’s more poetic rendering). They can be performed separately as well as together, I also read.

The opener, Bellus, is danced to a number of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” recorded by Glenn Gould. (I confess that I am a serious admirer of the late Canadian pianist.) Basically the dance begins with a solo section, then a second dancer enters and stands to the side. As the first dancer exits, the second continues with some of the same choreographic material as well as new phrases, while a third enters, then the second dancer exits and the third begins, and so on. There is a pas de deux and a section of ten dancers running and jumping in what I would call an imaginary primitive folk dance. In the final section the movement is both new and recycled from previous sections, but seamlessly woven together, befitting the nature of musical variations. For me, there is one exquisite section in which the dancers stand in a line across the stage facing the audience. Each performer gently raises his/her arms straight up, sometimes from the shoulder, sometimes only from the elbow, at varying times and at varying speeds. There is no readily obvious pattern, though the complexity increases; then they shift into new material that includes different gestures and epaulement (angling the shoulders), executed while they’re still in line. It is so utterly simple yet so profoundly deep and resonates with the spirit of Bach’s music in a mysterious way, visually reflecting its essence without being a slave to the notes, motifs or compositional form.

In Humus, to music by Brian Eno, nine women explore weight, balance and gravity, first in a very slow and purposeful manner then gaining momentum as they walk or run around the stage to another location for another exploration of the possibilities of their bodies.

It is the last part, Secus, that is the most substantial, both in length and choreography. Over the course of 35 minutes, to Ohad Fishof’s compilation of music (Chan Chan, Kid 606 and Rayon [mix: Stephan Ferry], AGF, Fennesz, Kaho Naa Pyar Hai, Seefeel, and The Beach Boys), the dancers go ever so gradually from the chaos of everyone doing something different to the entire ensemble moving in unison. One section has the performers in three groups. One dancer from each articulates a brief phrase or action, then goes to the end of the line while the next dancer does the step in his/her own personal way. Usually there are only two or three repetitions before the dancers move on to new movement phrases. At one point the women on the right turn their backs one at a time to the audience, jump straight up in the air and quickly pull their pants down and up, flashing ever so briefly their derrieres. The men in the middle also pull their pants down, again one by one, but facing the crowd while concealing their private parts between their legs, a la emasculated Ken dolls. In general, the choreography for Secus is brilliantly crafted, from the use of space, to the permutations and combinations of movement phrases and finally to the ominous ensemble marching around the stage, hunched over, grabbing the air and chanting the word “welcome” as the lights dim.

Rarely do I see such emotionally powerful dancers. They are not mere automatons replicating steps. They touch us in a profoundly human way because their movement is born from intensely personal depths.

Batsheva for re-postBatsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Three.” Gadi Dagon photo copyright Gadi Dagon and courtesy San Francisco Performances.

The next morning I meet Naharin at his hotel for an interview. We find a quiet corner in the atrium on the mezzanine and settle in. As we talk for more than half an hour, what follows are only a few main points of our conversation:

Aimee Ts’ao: You seem to resist being called an Israeli choreographer.

Ohad Naharin: It’s trivial information in terms of what I really do. Because [then] you put all the Israeli choreographers in one box. I think the community of choreographers shouldn’t have national, ethnic or religious connotations. I’m also an American citizen, by the way. So you can call me an American-Israeli choreographer. My grandparents were from Russia and Poland, so maybe you can call me a Russian-Polish-Israeli-American choreographer. Being Israeli is not even a race; being Israeli describes geographically where I’m from. It doesn’t tell anything about who I am or what I am.

AT: I’m reading a biography of Gertrude Bell called “Desert Queen.” She was a British woman who lived and worked in the Middle East from the 1890s through the 1920s. It’s all the same problems we still have today. Nothing has changed. It really reinforces for me that the world doesn’t really change that much in a very fundamental way.

ON: That’s reassuring too.

AT: But it’s sad on the other hand.

ON: Very sad, I agree.

(Later, responding to a follow-up question in which I ask his opinion on the Israeli occupation, the wall and Israel’s recent actions in Lebanon, he offers: “The current situation is not new, it shows ignorance on the part of our leaders and many people, and it is distorting the desire for peace. It is the same as what is going on with the current government in the USA. It is not stupidity, this ignorance is intelligent but a one-way one, in which our leaders react only to their own reflections while totally blind to what is really in front of them. It means that they are not in touch with reality — while possessing so much power they create innocent victims, unnecessary suffering, and a much less secure world.”)

AT: What made you start to dance?

ON: I don’t know exactly what you mean, but when I think of starting to dance, it’s starting to live. As long as I can remember I’m dancing. Not dancing in a classroom, but being very aware of my body, my weight, being aware of the pleasure and joy I got out of movement, of the extreme physicality and effort. I think a lot of how we dance today has to do not with just our training, it has a lot to do with how we grew up, our genes, and what we did since we were born, with our body development. Our weaknesses, our strengths, our sexuality, our intelligence, our awareness of the universe has a lot to do with how we dance.

AT: How did you arrive at developing Gaga [as Naharin calls the movement language he uses in daily company training]?

ON: In order to be able to talk about it, I have to decide to make it more systematic than it really is. I’ve decided to talk about two important points, or maybe three. The first point will be my back injury. More than 20 years ago I had a very serious back injury, where I shattered a disc and I was paralyzed in my left leg and I didn’t think I’d be able to dance. I had a serious operation, but I was already choreographing, so coming back from the injury I needed two things: to get my body to move a little bit and also to be able to give other people the keys to the way to move in my work. This process of finding keys for me and for my dancers brought me to deal with my weaknesses and efficiency of movement. I needed to be so efficient because I was so limited. I developed an awareness that had to do with finding where in my body I’m not hurting and where in my body I have unused muscles, unused movement. I discovered my explosive power, the efficiency of movement. I started to really be able to connect between pleasure and pain, and between effort and joy. At the same time I needed to articulate it because I needed to give it to myself and others. So it became a language and a method. That was one, then about ten years ago, almost as a joke I started meeting [with] a group of non-dancers, workers of Batsheva company who are not dancers [but] who wanted to dance. So I started meeting [with] a group of five people twice a week in the morning. Very quickly I realized in these meetings with non-dancers, I learned a lot about movement, movement habits, all the things I described before but in a new light because none of them had the ambition to be on stage. They just wanted to feel better, and to move better and to get stronger. So then Gaga became something that had nothing to do with performing arts, just had to do with the maintenance of your body. Healing your body, finding pleasure and joy in movement and nothing to do with ambitions to be on stage. That became a very serious thing in my life — working with non-dancers. Today we have a venue with hundreds of non-dancers who come to take Gaga classes.

AT: Is it possible for someone to start as a child and be completely trained as a dancer? Or do you need to supplement with other forms?

ON: Right now I think of Gaga as the higher education of dance. You do elementary school, high school and go to college. So Gaga is this part of your education. We do have schools which approach us to teach kids. I’m more interested [in working] with adults. This year we allowed Gaga to be in the curriculum of the performing arts school in Jerusalem. But that is for 17-year-olds and over, not for kids. All the people already have [dance] training. The important idea is to make people excel in the method they already know. It’s not to abolish or cancel or change their techniques. If someone wants to be a ballerina, then Gaga can help her to be a ballerina. You should come and take Gaga class with us. We do it before the show as a warmup.

AT: I wanted to ask you about your choreographic process. Is it something that evolved, that you started in one spot and then the more you did it, you got more ideas of how you work? Not the actual choreography, but your whole way of thinking about it.

ON: Evolved is the key word. It’s evolving. It’s a process that takes me to places I’ve never been before. Otherwise I would be bored with it. The sense of discovery is always there. I think it has a lot to do with how my relationship with my dancers evolved, too. They [have] become more and more meaningful contributors to the process, especially since we started doing Gaga as our training about four years ago.

AT: I wanted to ask about music, because it is obvious that it’s an important element for you.

ON: Yes, yes. There’s something about music and structure and order and mathematics. There is something particular about this Bach piece [“Goldberg Variations”] and the way that Glenn Gould is playing it that the beauty of it really comes from making the music very bare. It’s so beautiful without any decoration. You really feel how the structure of the piece and the rhythm and the logic of it actually can create all the emotions and transport you into this landscape. This music is also almost like the sound of a metronome. Something so clean and minimalistic about it. Somehow meditating with it brought me to create the system of lifting the arms [in the Bellus section], which is really different from the system of the music. But I still feel loyal to it somehow.

AT: You also have a sense of space.

ON: It’s space that gives me the reason I can dance. I consider the importance of space in my existence more than time. I feel time passes anyway. I have no control over time, but I have control over space. I can really change the space and create the space, but I cannot change time and I cannot create time. I’m aware of time, how long it takes to do something, and I make a decision how long I want to do something, but it’s more about how long it takes to go from one place to another and that has more to do with space than with time.

AT: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

ON: Every interviewer asks me that. Yes. Cover your mirrors or break them. Don’t use mirrors when you dance. Don’t use mirrors when you live. They are very limiting, they are an illusion. They have really stopped dance from developing as far as it could go without [them]. That’s for sure. Every time I come to a ballet company to choreograph, I cover the mirrors. At the beginning it is so difficult, but at the end of the process, the dancers are so grateful.
Much later the same day I arrive at the stage door of YBCA, wondering if trying to do the Gaga warmup is really such a good idea. Nearly two years ago, I was hit by a car while walking across a street. The whiplash from being thrown at least eight to ten feet still plagues me and I have had major setbacks from such minor events as picking up a flowerpot. The ballet classes I do every day are at least a known quantity and quality, but what am I really signing on for now?

On stage the company is getting notes from Naharin, and I watch the dancers run through several sections of “Three,” which I saw last night. Finally they get a 15-minute break before warmup and I continue my stretching even more as a prophylactic against re-injuring myself. I need not have worried. Gaga turns out to be very liberating. I can just tune into what my body is feeling and then figure out what it needs. I am listening deeply to what it is telling me about its limits, but it reminds me, too, that there are strengths. Watching Batsheva’s members doing Gaga also shows me why they are so powerful on stage, individually and as an ensemble. By the end of the warmup, my body feels looser and more fluid than it has for a long time. I am positively exhilarated. I’m a convert; I’m thinking about incorporating some of it into my daily routine. You might even say — I’m going ga-ga over Gaga.

Life for a ‘Luxury Item’ after 9/11/01

By Veronica Dittman
Copyright 2001, 2019 Veronica Dittman

First sent out to the DI E-mail list on September 15, 2001. Veronica Dittman is the founding editor of the Dance Insider, and without whom the magazine would not have been possible. 18 years later, Veronica, and you still bring me to tears. — PBI

Dear Dance Insider Readers,

There is a long-standing delicate matter between my respected friend Paul, the editor of this venture, and me. It consists of my defensive insistence that he not print any of my submissions without letting me approve his edits to them. However, in this case, I am trusting him to not let this be too personal, too self-indulgent, or too full of parenthetical notes (but Paul, don’t you think an occasional glimpse of the subtext can be interesting? like when someone’s slip is showing?). He’s asked for written responses from us New Yorkers, but like everyone here, I’m a little strung out and am aware that my judgment is probably wobbly.

We’re quickly learning to live in the aftermath. Phone lines are undependable, the subways are undependable, there are 90 bomb threats a day, we hear fighter jets overhead patrolling us but mostly we can’t see them, and the air quality is horrendous in places. Just the same, I took ballet with Marjorie Mussman yesterday and the class was well attended (she comes in from New Jersey!), and Stef tells me she took class with Zvi at City Center this week. Friends came over to my apartment last night, and after the now routine exchange of stories and impressions, there was much hilarity.

Among my concentric circles of friends, so far I’ve only heard tales of luck, escape, and relief, so I’m grateful. But then, there are so many people gone that it becomes impersonal. If ol’ Martha was onto something with the idea of collective unconscious, there’s such a big hole here that we all feel it. There are fliers made on home computers and posted on bus shelters and lamp posts everywhere, with a photo and phone numbers: “If you’ve seen this person, please call.”

At my worst, I’m scared to drink the water, I’m scared to breathe the air, and I practically hyperventilate when the train stops for a routine red signal. In an outburst of selfishness, I’m scared that I won’t be able to get to my doctor’s appointment on Tuesday, or that the doctor will be busy with some new disaster. The hardest part for me is accepting that now the structures and systems I’d taken for granted are vulnerable and impermanent. Everything will be different now, unstable. (For once, I would love to be wrong. I would love to think back on this in a year and see myself as a melodramatic alarmist.) It’s possible, probable, that there’s more horror to come, that we’ll live with it. I’m aware that so many other cultures have had to live with this fear, and have adapted, but I arrogantly thought we were immune here.

I find I’m hopelessly in love with the physical, and my tangled theology reveals itself. I’ve got the Apostles’ Creed promising “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting” and I’m drawn to these Zen Buddhist dancing skeletons meant to confront “the impermanent nature of material existence” so that freedom, bliss, and enlightenment can become possible.

After an initial impulse to run like hell all the way to my parents’ house in Wisconsin, I don’t want to leave. As Fran Liebowitz said in a radio interview this morning, “I need myself here, even if no one else does.” I also related to her identifying herself as a “luxury item”: my skills aren’t particularly useful right now. She pointed out that construction workers and nurses, who never get any press around here, are desperately needed, and it turns out that the stylists and designers are temporarily unimportant.

Sending out good wishes to you all,

Veronica