Judith Brin Ingber on International Exposure

Photo by Alex Apt

Pardon me but Who Knows One

or two or three elements that make up an Israeli dance today? Perhaps the following is a cavalier list but several commonalities came to mind after watching both big and small dances presented at Suzanne Dellal’s International Dance Exposure Festival Dec. 7-Dec. 11, 2016. We saw over 30 dances so I can say when costuming men, the dance pieces often showed them bare chested and bearded (Yoram Karmi’s “Sounds Like Yourself”). Women could be bare legged but sox are permitted. These are not the usual look in dances I know of in the US.

 Of course dancers could wear something very casual, like shorts and a muscle top (Rotem Tashach’s “It’s All Good”) or jeans (Adi Boutrous’s “It’s Always Here”). Make sure to include dancers standing on their heads a lot, which appeared in many dances, as if to say the world is upside down, I suppose. Very fast rolling was also a feature of many dances, no one occupying a given place, perhaps.

 The exception to the above costuming was Orly Portal’s “Swiria” –with her interpretation of north Africa and the Mizrahi Moroccan traditions, as if to show us women under  the moon in gorgeous costuming. We saw shifting shapes like sand dunes , the women’s gowns in blues and beige colors, had Gigantic scarves billowed upwards and added belts with layers of fabric were strategically placed in the back, enhancing the sensual, female shapes.  Once costumes and a dance like this were considered too folkloric instead of part of the theater dance tradition, but here we saw a gorgeously staged dance that was entirely different than the others.

 There was one dance with a great sense of humor– something very hard to achieve choreographically.  Or I wonder, was it just a relief when we saw Andrea Costanzo Martini’s “SCARABEO, Angles and the Void” compared to so many of the other harsh and alienated dances?  Martini showed two men tentatively reaching out to each other—with the dilemma of whether to continue, given there was that male attraction.  It was delightful, carefully constructed, with clever use of a collage of music, timed with apt movement in a kind of Charlie Chaplin way.

Frustration was another common element. It might show up as frustration of being ignored, or in the case of Adili Liberman’s “Living Pathological Museum” it was seen in a period piece depicting what Freud’s beloved 19th century French “neurologist” Jean-Martin Charcot researched: the pathology of young hysterical women.  I thought it an odd illustrated lecture for the Festival , but then, I saw how often frustration played out in other dances, choreographed seemingly more about today The contortions from hysteria weren’t so far-fetched.

Yasmeen Godder in her “Common Emotions” asked the audience to join in and help with the dance as did Anat Grigorio in “Memo” or Yoram Karmi’s “Sounds Like Yourself.”  I began to feel it was manipulative. Godder’s backdrop looked less rag-tag and her costuming of strange creatures seemed more planned and effectively constructed than in the past.  The set, a colorful quilt of fabric suspended by huge colored cords that allowed it to rise and fall, took on its own personality. It had kind of holes/windows allowing us a voyeuristic view of audience members as they came up to participate in the dance.  Throughout the dance, audience members were encouraged to join in and often many left their seats to go in clumps behind the colorful fabric. The audience members eagerly joined in, and followed instructions of Godder’s dancers. Whole herds of audience members would grab a hand and run in a line, or sit in a circle and talk to each other (about what we couldn’t tell) … to extend the expression of what Godder apparently wanted. I found myself resenting how easily and how eagerly people wanted to be looked at, wanted to participate, without thinking what were they joining up to do, to show perhaps our herd mentality these days, unwittingly following the wrong leaders. Was she saying we could get ourselves into hopeless trouble in the guise of joining up?

 There is one concept that I’m stuck with as seen in several dances.What’s accepted by some and despised by others was shown so effectively in the following about the problem of Israel’s borders…

In the beginning there could be a confined area, perhaps defined by masking tape of the floor.  This I first saw in Oren Laor and Niv Shenfield’s award-winning duet “Two Room Apartment” several years ago; they applied the tape to the floor to delineate their two-room apartment.  We saw it this time in Yossi Berg and Oded Graf’s tour de force “Come Jump with Me”. (Granted there was a big variation in the use of masking tape between the two dances). We see Yossi Berg and the other winsome dancer Olivia Court Mesa spelling out “Mts” and “sea” with pieces of masking tape, the “mts” also delineated with the tape on the backdrop and sea –in case you don’t understand — shown on the floor with blue masking tape for the seaside and then regular colored beige tape for other borders. The small space was slashed yet again with a diagonal line of beige tape.

Eventually children’s suckers were dropped in two areas, and then spread all over, Berg rolling in the mess, spreading clutter everywhere and the tape as border stuck to him as he rolled in such a clever way that he upended the very borders he had laid down. The tape stuck to him and by the time he rolled and rolled and stood up with the borders simply gone, the tape now encircled his body to give himself the look of a wounded person literally medically taped up, as if a sling pinned his arm to his wounded body, Israel, too, a veritable wounded site for living.

The floor could start out clean but then in several of the dances it got awfully messy. Naharin used this in his older dance “Yag” which was recreated for us the last night of the performances with a stunning rendition by Batsheva Dance Company. We see Chinese fortune cookies laid out in a careful line and crushed as other cast members in the dance walked over the cookies (perhaps the first dance to show a messy stage?) In Ella Rothschild’s “Flood” she manages to show us the destruction of civilization with the debris she pushes and drops and strews with toes and body all over the site of her dance– the detritus includes old plastic bottles, an architectural section of a Roman column on its side and crumpled papers until we wish for a push broom.

Anat Grigori’s messy stage is the result of her offers of brush and paints to audience members seated all around her; she dirties her floor of run-ways made from unrolled white paper.  Those invited to paint her, turn her into something more and more sullied, until her pathways are a mess she can’t ever really clean. Ensemble Ronit Ziv also shows us a messy stage, in the effective and moving dance transformation of the plot set to Shay Agnon’s short story “Three Sisters.”  

The arresting look of the messy floor comes in again with Niv Shenfeld and Oren Laor’s new “You Happy Puppet.” A trio starts out in white t-shirts, bare legs and shorts, on a very pristine white floor surrounded by blue neon foot lights. It’s a glaring stage, in fact.  A good deal into the dance the dancers dab themselves with black and red paint, turning their white t-shirts and hair and floor into a mess. The stains make us confront a seeming site of a terrorist attack that can’t really be cleaned up as they continue going about their business. They achieve a stunning theatrical metamorphosis and instead of the light entertainment we are treated to at the beginning we witness something very horrifying,

Violence permeates so many of the dances. It becomes a serious presence, effect, and subject for many of the choreographers. Maybe we see it first in the way dancers are posed against each other, shouted at, even pummeled but still, in a theatrical way.

There’s a violence in the way a character begs for response and gets nothing (Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s “OCD Love” or Bobbi Jene Smith’s “Harrowing” which she danced with Or Meir Schraiber) or a dancer pushed beyond any level of normal endurance, such as jumping rope in “Come Jump with Me” showing off stamina beyond imagination… Is the violence of repetition standing for how much people are pushed in Israel? And what about sound? Another element of violence is how a soundscape for dance is often used–as if the audience too is being punished listening to unmitigated sounds as if a torture in some prisoners’ cell to see when we too might give up.

What would we give up?  Is the fantasy that we’re watching a dance that is trying to express the Israeli political situation? Arkadi Zaides has one way, using the Camera Project of B’Tselem – The Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories as he credits the films used in his work “Archive.” A different approach to violence I appreciated in Rotem Tashach’s dance  “It’s All Good” where he poses how are we to respond to violence of real crisis like the Syrian war and its refugees pushed finally to look for sanctuary on the other side of the Mediterranean. As he explains in his dance, which also has the fiction of lecture (at the beginning, using the bloodless way old-fashioned art lectures describe a tragedy by pointing out rather, the triangular composition of the figures, minus noting any emotional quality by the painter). We see photographs flashed on the back wall. They are from the news coverage of over-crowded boats, with people tipped and pushed into drown before reaching the shores of Greece. He asks the audience rhetorically what are we to do in the face of real photos showing us what is truly happening all around us? He juxtaposes the photos with the supposed violence of the Titanic film posed by Hollywood, staging passengers drowning versus the reality of escaping refugees. Tashach mentions actual names of dances and choreographers of a recent generation of Israelis with the intent to somehow bring up these difficult issues.  But it was done with an image of dancers reaching out towards each other as if that were enough in the face of reality?

We’ve become used to violence, which is all around us in the movies, on TV, and unfortunately, in incidents of terrorism in too many cities around the world.  But what has happened to us when we’re watching non-mediated violence in a dance? Is that the right solution? I, for one, don’t accept artists who skip digesting their own ideas about violence.

That’s how I see what happened in Mor Shani’s “Simple Dance” for Inbal Dance Theater’s dancers. Of course, choreographers expect their dancers to whole-heartedly devote themselves to what they’re asked to do, to give their all to the choreography. But is this right for dancers when one is put in a truly violent situation?

I didn’t think I would be stuck with this one image of violence after all the rich menu of dances I saw including Roni Chadash’s “Goofy and AniMa” which also left big impressions for their originality of solo movement.  But I finish with this: asking about the violence in one particular dance—which also had a light-hearted beginning. However, I refuse to accept what I saw.

At first, the dance seemed so exuberant; we see a group of kids dressed in sports clothes out for an apparent joyful run. There’s no accompaniment but the rhythms of their shoes hitting the floor, pounding out a unison rhythm and becoming more and more interesting as they ran back and forth, from corner to corner and back again. As they do their sweaty work-out, pieces of clothing are discarded. Their tempi pound faster and faster and one guy even runs part way up the back wall in a gravity-defying moment, still in rhythm.

You see a guy with no shirt, like I started out this essay, seemingly a casual guy, just one of the regulars. But then something untoward happens: the dancers start piling up on top of each other, climbing over one another, until the game turns their clamoring and scrambling in reality to something more and more dangerous. Dancers are pulling off each other’s clothing and dropping each other unwittingly from the tower of people, slipping from their sweat, landing on a knee or elbow or even unintentionally banging the floor with their head…the choreographer seems not to care if he’s putting them in true physical danger.

There’s no dramaturg, editor, or apparently, no dancer either to object to the dangers of falling or perhaps enduring an injury that could even cut short a career as a dancer.  A woman is placed on the floor in front of the awkward tower of bodies, lying on her side. A big guy separates himself from the group, looming over her bare thigh and he begins to strike her. The singular sound of his smacking her flesh repeats over and over as he forcibly slaps her. That’s the only sound as he lowers his big open hand exactly and forcefully.

I ask myself why must I watch this? So I decide to walk out–I see no point in a woman taking this. They are no longer dancers in a dance but a man willfully striking a woman. I didn’t stay to see what I later was told happened: their roles reversed and she slapped him.  This is not the point for me of movement in the theater, or movement in the hands of a choreographer.  Despite the grand notes about Mor Shani’s dance for Inbal, I argue that he in no way continued the ideas of Sara Levi-Tani, Inbal’s founder, nor did he find a way to mitigate what was written in the program notes nor did he deal with violence as a choreographer: “the functions of history and nostalgia in the act of dreaming a better future,” “(with) an invitation to look through fresh eyes at banalities …” “with the dancers Shani develops an enhanced sensitivity to the tension between tradition and progress”.  What in the world are they thinking is progress, using out-and-out violence in this way?

I believe they have thrown away any understanding of “what can be done with inheritance” through Shani’s work.

Instead of concluding with Shani, I end with kudos to the staff of Suzanne Dellal and what they presented for us. Instead of Shani’s repetition of misogyny, I circle back to the artistry of those mentioned above. I saw thoughtful, original dances where ideas and issues that were worked through—Roy Assaf’s “Adam” for the Batsheva Dance company a balm of images– so that new pictures and metaphors and meanings could be presented through many of the latest dances created in Israel.

International Exposure took place at the Suzanne Dellal Center as well as Warehouse 2, Studio Varda and Inbal Dance Theater on December 7-11, 2016.


Photo by Madeline BurtonJudith Brin Ingber graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in NY under the famed Bessie Schoenberg. After dancing professionally in NY she moved to Tel Aviv where she taught for the Batsheva Bat Dor Dance Society including apprentices for the Batsheva Dance Co. She also choreographed ‘How to Watch Dance’, performed by  Batsheva Dance Company for young audiences.  In the ’70s she was also the assistant to Sara Levi-Tanai at Inbal Dance Theatre. Her writing on dance in Israel appears in ‘The Israel Dance Annual’ which she co-founded with Giora Manor, in encyclopedias, book chapters, and in her seminal bookSeeing Israeli and Jewish Dance published in 2011 in the USBrin Ingber appears in the new award-winning documentary  “Mr. Gaga” as an early teacher of Ohad Naharin.  She continues to teach internationally (recently at the Prague Arts Academy and the College of the Western Galilee under Henia Rottenberg) & for universities (Faber lecturer at Princeton University). http://www.jbriningber.com