Friday, February 19, 2010

Idan Cohen-Dancing Israeli Identity: Looking Backward, Looking Forward

American University-Katzen Arts Center
February 18, 2010

A good dance lecture-demonstration is not easy to find. Inherently, its formula can be fraught with problems: a forced and contrived sharing of ideas, too much talk and not enough movement; all choreography and no framework. Finding a balance in this format is tough, and American University succeeded with Idan Cohen-Dancing Israeli Identity: Looking Backward, Looking Forward. This evening had it all: a brilliant, eloquent and generous choreographer in conversation with a thoughtful, passionate professor and historian (too often, a rarity in academic circles).

Dr. Nina Spiegel began by taking the audience on an informative journey exploring some general aspects of Israeli culture, while accenting the expression of it through dance. In one session, it is impossible to relay everything that makes a people unique, but the main point that I took from her lecture was the strong presence of dualism in Israeli culture. The audience then was able to see a tangible example of this dualism as Idan Cohen took the stage in an excerpt from 3 pieced swan, op. 1.

The short sequence that Cohen performed was a staccato myriad of animal-like choreography. He so integrated crawling, rolling, and arching into his movement vocabulary that at times, he appeared to be a true member of the cat, reptile or amphibian families. In the middle of his solo, he also introduced some more fluid passages, still strongly linked to animals, but of a very different quality. Here we saw circular head rolls and serpentine massaging of the spine playing against the still present angular motions. All the choreography shared a very strong element of grounding; a passionate yearning for connection to the earth.

Cohen and Spiegel then reflected on this work as well as other dances shown on film, relating all to Israeli culture. It was thrilling to see two scholars committed to discovering and sharing these connections. The most interesting analysis (for me, anyway) was how dualism -which we learned is deeply rooted in Israeli culture - is evident when comparing 3 pieced swan to the original and quintessential ballet, Swan Lake.

Spiegel highlighted several differences between Cohen's piece and the traditional Swan Lake, observing how these contrasts spoke to dualism. First, she presented the discrepancy in expectation versus production. For Cohen's musing on Swan Lake, he chose to retain the original music. When 3 pieced swan is performed, Spiegel noted that the audience is not expecting the movements that appear onstage. The adherence to the original score suggests certain choreography, and the reality of his piece does not meet these assumptions. Second, she pointed out the tension between community and the individual. In much of the classical Swan Lake, largely populated celebratory scenes erupt into jubilant group dances of the village and the court. Cohen danced his excerpt as a solo, and later in the evening, we saw that usually this piece has only three dancers. Spiegel argued that this is a far cry from the dozens of bodies onstage during most of Swan Lake. Last, the space between male and female was considered. Of course, the main role in Swan Lake is danced by a woman, and in Cohen's solo, a man became the primary character. I agree that challenging the gender roles in Swan Lake is another dimension of difference and duality. But, when dissecting this particular topic, reference should be made to the choreographers who have examined this issue before, specifically Matthew Bourne.

I did feel that the acknowledgement of sameness between 3 pieced swan and Swan Lake was missing from the discussion. In academia, there is often an assumption that sameness is not as valuable as difference. I don't believe this is so. I also don't think that these similarities detract or erase the presence of duality in Cohen's work. Swan Lake comes from a dualistic place, and Cohen explained that the starting point for his piece was this original story. With being conceived from the original, degrees of sameness with a strong presence of duality should be expected and commended.

Groundedness was the first characteristic of similarity. Earlier, I described the excerpt from 3 pieced swan as being drawn to the earth. On the surface, the ballet version of Swan Lake appears to be the opposite: vertical, airy, and light. I understand how lifts and pointework can give that incorrect impression. In truth, ballet is incredibly grounded. One of the best ways to describe ballet technique is that "you must have your down to have your up". Every lift, every turn, every releve depends on feeling, using and giving in to the floor to achieve the desired result. So, yes, the modern and ballet choreography are very different, but the impetus and the strength comes from the same place: the ground. Another point of sameness is the messiness of Swan Lake. Again, on the surface the ballet version conjures beauty and love, while 3 pieced swan seems rooted in the rough and unkempt. The classic is actually a dark, ugly story about captivity, control, longing and death. I don't leave Swan Lake saying "how beautiful"; I leave Swan Lake saying, "how sad". Underneath the costumes, the sets, and the choreography, both works illustrate a similar darkness and loneliness.

These two works are in consonance as much as they are in dissonance; and both states of being are interesting ruminations on duality.

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