Danielle Agami/Ate9: Exhibit B
Hillel Kogan: We Love Arabs

Lincoln Hall, Portland State University, Portland, OR; March 21, 2015

Dina McDermott

Adi Boutrous held by Hillel Kogan In 'We Love Arabs'.   Photo © Gadi Dagon

Adi Boutrous held by Hillel Kogan In ‘We Love Arabs’.
Photo © Gadi Dagon

When I read that Hillel Kogan’s dance theatre work “We Love Arabs” involved “Jewish and Arab religious identity, national symbols and hummus,” I was intrigued, bemused and somewhat apprehensive. This is a hot, historically explosive topic. How could it possibly be addressed in dance? Israeli dancer/choreographer Kogan, who is also rehearsal director of Batsheva Dance Company, took on this challenge in his male duet at Portland’s White Bird Dance Series on a mild spring night.

“We Love Arabs” begins quietly with a lone male figure in a shadowy pool of light. It’s Kogan himself, in a one-legged balanced, eyes downcast in a meditative pose. Slowly, the pensive moment dissolves and as the stage is bathed in bright light, he walks downstage, starting to sculpt the air with small gestural movements, speaking concurrently, narrating and describing his movement as he goes. We’re not sure if he’s a dance teacher instructing an imaginary class, a lecturer giving a speech on dance aesthetics, or merely an artist spouting stream of consciousness.

As Kogan’s facile body carves and oozes through the space, his arms pushing, his back rippling and compressing the air, he muses “Sometimes I push against space, sometimes the space pushes against me. Sometimes the space resists me, sometimes the space feels positive, sometimes negative. The negative spaces, the spaces that resist me- I know these spaces belong to an Arab.” I assumed he meant the land of Israel had once been occupied by Arabs. What could be a controversial statement is used instead to set a metaphorical framework for the rest of the work.

Kogan wants to include an Arab dancer to make the space harmonious and to remediate this “negative” spatial energy. He invites his former student and Arab friend, Adi Boutrous onstage to dance with him. I say “with him”, but as it soon becomes obvious, Boutrous becomes Kogan’s movement puppet or lackey. To keep their identities clear, Kogan invites Boutrous to write a star of Star of David on his T-shirt , and then reciprocates, drawing the familiar half-moon, star and crescent of Islam on Boutrous ‘s forehead. Adi clarifies his identity and muddies the waters, by stating meekly, “I’m Christian.”

Adi Boutrous and Hillel Kogan in 'We Love Arabs'.  Photo © Gadi Dagon

Adi Boutrous (left) and Hillel Kogan in ‘We Love Arabs’.
Photo © Gadi Dagon

The audience guffaws at the inadvertent cultural confusion. Kogan orders Boutrous to stay on his half of the stage, teaches him a dance phrase, then proceeds to coach him mercilessly, barking corrections – “more pelvis, explosive energy…MORE, MORE!” He coerces his friend to do a headstand as he holds his legs up with one hand, then proceeds to lengthily lecture the audience on the fine points of choreographic structure while he remains balanced on his head.

Boutrous finally launches into a sinuous, break dance-y solo, which Kogan grudgingly praises. Through this entire ordeal, Boutrous retains the hangdog, mournful, yet eminently patient mein of the perennial victim. He obediently attempts to fulfill all the movement tasks that Kogan foists on him. Dance folk in the audience giggle knowingly at the image of Kogan as control freak – many of us have endured hours of rehearsal under the tutelage of a dictatorial choreographer. The pretensions, sarcasm, irony and power gap inherent in these relationships are all played out onstage, in a playful, yet thoughtful way.

Nearing the end of the piece, the men engage in a series of cantilevered lifts, slung over each other’s shoulders like a seesaw. Their relationship has become more egalitarian and cooperative. In the very last sequence, in an attempt to cement their somewhat common Mediterranean heritages, a bowl of hummus is brought onstage. They ritualistically smear each other’s faces with it as the audience cackles. They then proceed to the audience. A large wedge of matzo is carried in, and the duo slather hummus onto bite size portions, feeding them in turn to each person in the first row. We are left with almost a sacramental image, an attempt to create commonality and community.

Dance is about control-control over one’s body, and in the case of a choreographer, control over other human beings-their movement, their postures, their very thoughts. The larger metaphor presented here is that beyond the foibles of the dance world, the “space” that is controlled by the state of Israel includes many Arabs. Like a choreographer controlling their dancers, Israel is mired in its dicey challenge, to navigate its role as powerful Middle Eastern state, U.S. ally, and a space where many disparate groups are attempting to live together in unlikely harmony.

In the post-show question and answer session, Kogan commented on his point of view and role as a choreographer, to “dream that you can make a difference in art…creating a bubble where we can sink into a fantasy that we can change the world. Artists have actually made big changes in the world.”

Hillel Kogan has created that rarest of birds: a politically charged piece which is subtle, clever, thoughtful, humorous and pithy, a  piece that is relevant and relatable. In his “dream,” Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas could sit together down together and watch this piece. What would they think? Would they laugh, would they understand? Would art indeed, be able to “change the world?”

Fellow Israeli (but LA-based) choreographer Danielle Agami’s “Exhibit B” is less successful. The dancers were all beautiful and technically accomplished and shared a common training in Gaga, a somatic movement practice developed by Ohad Naharin. However, the individual tableaus and movement sequences did not cohere into a finished piece. I could not “locate” the characters or place them in a context, and the droning, vaguely Middle Eastern music and blood- red stage flooring did not aid in deciphering a theme.