Profiles of six independent choreographers
By Gdalit Neuman
When Ohad Naharin, artistic director and principal choreographer of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, instructs his dancers to “groove” during their morning Gaga class, he wants them to tune into their body’s distinct rhythm and follow the flow. Naharin invented Gaga as a means of training his dancers to become “available” to movement possibilities and choices with regards to textures and timings. That kind of daily practice motivates a particularly keen, curious and creative individual. It’s no wonder so many Batsheva alumni go on to choreograph professionally, including headliners Hofesh Shechter and Sharon Eyal.
Below is a roundup of six independent dancer/choreographers who performed for Batsheva and are active on the scene today. Their tenure with the company ranges between one and a dozen years, and all credit this time not only for providing excellent physical training, but also for giving them tools by which to experiment with composition early on in their careers. Most took their first steps in choreography through the Batsheva Creates annual showcase in which Batsheva dancers, from both the main and junior companies, are encouraged to present original works. Additionally, Batsheva dancers are very much involved in the creative process as collaborators in Naharin’s creations. “He provides us with tasks, and we create a lot of the material,” explains Noa Zuk. “One begins to develop [choreographic] skills even as a dancer in the company.”
These choreographers recognize their time at Batsheva as formative, even if their current work hardly resembles Naharin’s distinct style. “It certainly influenced me,” states Yossi Berg. “It’s a major part of my history … I feel like it’s a part of my DNA.”
As former longtime rehearsal director for Batsheva – The Young Ensemble, Hillel Kogan recently freed up time in his schedule to focus on his independent work. He still travels the world teaching Gaga and setting Batsheva works on other companies as assistant to Ohad Naharin, but now he journeys just as much to showcase his latest piece, We Love Arabs, which recently toured in Europe and the United States.
We Love Arabs, which premiered at Intimadance in Tel Aviv in 2013 and won Kogan the title of “most outstanding artist of 2013” by the Israeli Dance Critics Association, is a tongue-in-cheek critique of Israeli society. “I laugh at myself as a Jew, as a dancer, as a yefe nefesh [a common Hebrew term for intellectuals, artists or leftist-leaning liberals living in Tel Aviv],” Kogan said during a recent interview.
In We Love Arabs, Kogan portrays a sensitive Jewish Israeli artist invested in the co-existence project between Jews and Arabs living in Israel. At the start, he describes how he recruited Adi Boutrous, a young Arab-Israeli dancer, to work with him, and throughout the 30-minute piece manages to reduce his interaction with Boutrous to an embarrassing series of stereotypes and clichés, all the while trying his best to give “the Arab-Israeli contemporary dancer” a platform by which to express himself. The entire fiasco ends with a “breaking of the [pita] bread” between Kogan, Boutrous and the audience, hinting at possible peaceful relations in the future.
Kogan’s oft-parodic style demands a quick audience with just as sharp a sense of humour as his. “It’s important for me that the audience understands my intentions, and that nobody is insulted,” he says, adding that this rarely happens, either in Israel with Jewish and Arab audiences, or abroad.
The choreographer’s gift for comedy, theatre and text extends to his other works, including 2011’s Rite of Spring. With references to well-known versions of this iconic work, among them Pina Bausch’s and Maurice Béjart’s, in addition to political and specifically Israeli imagery, Rite of Spring is another piece that demands an educated audience.
One of the more veteran Batsheva dancers, Noa Zuk left the company in 2009 after a satisfying 12 years. “I wouldn’t have stayed so long if I didn’t feel I had room to grow,” she explains. “The connection with Ohad and the work and the spirit was always there, even before Gaga was called Gaga. There’s something very human that I connect to because I feel that’s how one should dance.” Prior to working on a new piece with a company abroad, she insists on teaching the dancers Gaga in order to establish a common language.
In addition to residencies and commissions abroad, Zuk, in collaboration with her partner in art and life, musician and multimedia artist Ohad Fishof, are active on the Israeli scene. Their latest work, Garden of Minutes, which premiered in 2015 at the Curtain Up festival in Tel Aviv featuring four former Batsheva dancers, certainly hints to her Batsheva roots aesthetically, all the while invoking novel strategies. Zuk and Fishof are fascinated by the relationship between movement and music, and in Garden of Minutes they gave themselves the unusual task of allotting each movement a specific sound. “Traditionally, a ‘poetic gap,’ or space, exists between the movement and the music and we decided to glue them together, obsessively. In film that [technique] is called Mickey-Mousing.”
The same task inspired Nothing III, a 2013 solo performed by Canadian dancer Sahara Morimoto at Dance Matters in Toronto last spring. The 10-minute piece, which features an original electronic score by Fishof, brought to mind cartoon films in terms of quick timing, whimsical costuming such as yellow rubber gloves and red shorts, an imaginative storyline that involves a lonely sculpture and, at times, abrupt or elastic movement qualities.
In Doom Doom Land, a duet with Zuk’s former Batsheva colleague Erez Zohar, which premiered in Jerusalem in 2013, it is the dancers who vocalize the sounds on which the movements fall. Inventing a world of her own, here Zuk explores an imaginary language, as well as rituals, customs and gestures.
Idan Sharabi, who trained at Juilliard in New York, is a highly skilled, instinctual performer and a young choreographer with a unique voice. Following a four-year stint at Nederlands Dans Theater, where he had the opportunity to hone his craft in choreography in addition to performance, Sharabi returned home and danced with Batsheva for one year. He officially formed his group, Idan Sharabi and Dancers, in 2012.
Sharabi’s diverse choreographic interests include an extended exploration of notions of home, which resulted in three works, all premiering in 2014 — Makom (Place), Ours and We Men — in which Sharabi searches for a “gender home.”
In Interviews (2014), a work in constant development that also questions issues of identity politics, Sharabi draws inspiration from discussions he had while sitting in various bomb shelters during the month-long conflict with Gaza in the summer of 2014, as well as conversations with his dancers during the creative process. “These recordings,” Sharabi writes on his website, “provide a framework for the dancers to interpret and share their own experiences.”
Sharabi’s dancers are an integral part of the creation. “If I can direct the dancers to open up to who they are in essence — that’s interesting,” he told me in an interview near his home in Jaffa. “Sometimes they just need one word, one inspiration, and they open up completely and you see their soul, the vulnerability — that’s what’s beautiful.”
Vancouverite Nicolas Ventura, whose kinesthetic intelligence, physical virtuosity and natural sense of play complement Sharabi’s aesthetic, appears regularly in his work. Sharabi’s mostly improvised duet NOW (2016), which Ventura performed with him in Israel this past summer after Sharabi toured it in Canada as a solo, draws much of its inspiration from the audience, whose interaction and intimate connection to the performers provides impetus for the dancers’ creativity.
Before spending four years dancing for Batsheva, Ella Rothschild was already a seasoned performer with the distinguished Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company in Tel Aviv. Rothschild began composing dances for Batsheva Creates. “It’s a safe space,” she explains. “It gave me an opportunity to be playful, even if that meant going over the edge.”
Rothschild often works in alternative spaces. Site-specific installations such as Dood (2011), in which Rothschild transforms into a ghostly Victorian figure inside a deserted building in the ancient port city of Jaffa, and Rapunzel (2015), in which a children’s playground magically turns into the princess’ castle, are theatrical and whimsical.
In 2014, she began an ongoing collaboration with Japanese dancer and actor Mirai Moriyama on Judah, Jesus with soy, a duet created and performed in Tel Aviv on the occasion of Japan Dance Week. The piece was inspired by the late Japanese writer Osamu Dazai’s story Heed My Plea, which is a fictional monologue by Judas. Picking up where they left off, the artists created Judah, Christ with soy in Japan in 2015 as a full-length work featuring dance, live music and text, and performed it as an installation in Tokyo last winter. Flood (2016), which investigates the effect of a major disaster on the individual, is another installation and collaboration, this time with Israeli visual artist Nivi Alroy.
Rothschild, who is currently in a residency at Howard University in Washington, D.C., often collaborates with artists from other disciplines and is an interdisciplinary artist herself. “My creations are built from many different parts. I want to create with everything — all materials and mediums fascinate me, though dance is where I came from and I’m first and foremost a dancer. I always experiment with movement first, but it’ll never end there.”
This is visible in her most political work to date, 12 Postdated Checks (2015). A large group work in which Rothschild is featured as an overbearing real-estate agent, here the choreographer tackles the housing shortage in Tel Aviv and the challenges faced by young people just trying to make it, a theme relevant to urbanites the world over.
Yossi Berg is one half of the Yossi Berg and Oded Graf Dance Theatre, which has been creating provocative, socially conscious dance for more than a decade, both in Israel and abroad. Berg was a dancer with Batsheva Dance Company from 1994 to 2000, during which time he choreographed for the Batsheva Creates series on many occasions, as well as for the entire junior company.
After leaving Batsheva in 2000, Berg became an original cast member in DV8’s The Cost of Living and performed for Israel’s Vertigo Dance Company and Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder; at the same time he was choreographing independently, prior to his first collaboration with Graf in 2005.
Berg and Graf’s theatrical formula, which often incorporates text, extravagant sets and inventive costumes, as well as otherworldly sound scores, frequently deals with identity politics. “We work with dancers from all over the world, so our approach is universal,” says Berg. “Our work talks about people, identity, geography and the body — Israeli bodies as well as international bodies.”
In BodyLand (2013), for example, Berg and Graf associate various body parts with the home countries of the five dancers, thus creating a kind of body cartography. “The question, ‘If I come from a certain place, what does that say about me?’ very much interests us,” explains Berg. Place is also a major theme in their most recent, and perhaps most political work. Come Jump with Me, a duet for Berg and Chilean-born Israeli dancer Olivia Court Mesa, which premiered in Jaffa in 2015, tackles issues of Israeli identity, complicated by such subjectivities as motherhood, gay culture and romantic love.
“We want to break down stereotypes. Many times the work doesn’t necessarily deal with Israeliness,” says Berg, “it deals with something much wider. We touch on Israel, but very quickly we blur those images and allow the body to enter a more poetic, alternative and pluralistic space.”
That strategy is perhaps the key to the work’s impact both locally and internationally, as well as the reason the company has been in demand since its inception.
Bobbi Jene Smith
A star dancer with Batsheva for 10 years, Bobbi Jene Smith has spent this past year pursuing her own choreographic interests. The Iowa native moved to Israel after working with Ohad Naharin as a student at the Juilliard School in New York.
In Israel, Smith had the opportunity to experiment with composition and present her work as part of Batsheva Creates. During that time, Smith began preparations for Arrowed, a poignant movement-interview performed with former Batsheva dancer, fellow American and Juilliard alum Shamel Pitts, who interrogates Smith at an accelerating speed. Since its 10-minute premiere in 2010, Arrowed has grown into a full-length work, has seen several cast changes and has even been adapted for film by choreographer turned filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall.
This past summer, Smith performed her new work, A Study on Effort (2016), as part of Toronto’s Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity. In this solo, Smith investigates physical, emotional and metaphoric effort via 10 specific tasks that ultimately question the relationship of effort to pleasure.
“Through the practice of Gaga, I have come to realize how endless sensations are,” Smith wrote in an email. “How contradicting. How two opposite sensations can exist at the same time. How they can attack and yield. Implode and explode. Decay and birth. Hold and let go. Disappear and reappear. As the threshold for pain expands, the ceiling for pleasure rises.”
Following a short pause, the second half of A Study on Effort consisted of a dynamic duet-conversation-collaboration with violinist Keir GoGwilt. Watching the interaction between these two articulate artists in such an intimate space as the Hearn’s studio-theatre was fascinating. Smith and GoGwilt projected sincerity and spontaneity as they listened closely to one another before making their next move.
The piece concluded with a sensitive imagining of what Smith called in a post-program masterclass “the effort of caring,” in which she delicately handles a small plant. She ends lying down on the floor, with the plant lovingly positioned on her bare chest, an image of both strength and vulnerability.
DI SPRING 2017