Netta Yerushalmy and dancers in 'Helga and The Three Sailors'.  Photo © Ayala Gargit

Netta Yerushalmy and dancers in ‘Helga and The Three Sailors’.
Photo © Ayala Gargit

Joyce UNLEASHED (program 1):
Netta Yerushalmy: Helga And The Three Sailors
Hillel Kogan: We Love Arabs

New York Live Arts; New York, NY; March 17, 2015

Jerry Hochman

“Joyce UNLEASHED” is the umbrella for a series of programs presented under the auspices of the Joyce Theater that enables audiences to view emerging, ‘cutting-edge’ artists in spaces even more intimate than the Joyce Theater itself. Whether the artists that comprised the first of two Joyce Unleashed programs this spring at New York Live Arts are emerging or on the cutting edge is somewhat debatable even if one comes to a landing on what those terms mean – but the first dance of the evening was curiously interesting; the second was thoroughly entertaining.

“Helga and the Three Sailors,” is somewhat of a puzzlement. Choreographed by Netta Yerushalmy in 2014, it’s clearly a work of intelligence and creativity, filled with interestingly expressed, albeit somewhat isolated, ideas. It’s not restricted to one type of movement quality – it’s often painfully slow, like watching moving statuary, but there are moments of rapid-fire body motion. At times the movement looks quirky, at times Tharp-like, at times angular, at times slinky, at times balletic. And although a reflexive reaction to the piece’s style would limit it to being an example of post-modern movement for movement’s sake, it has a theme of sorts relating to the necessity, and (with apologies to Dali) persistence, of memory.

The piece opens with the four dancers racing to their positions. Three, wearing single color ‘jump-suits’ of red, blue, and brown, lay face-down. Yerushalmy, in a slightly different yellow costume, stands upstage. Immediately, a series of ‘home movie’ snippets are projected onto the scrim, comprising seconds-long sequences that are strung together and presented as a longer film clip, showing an unidentified young girl, presumably Yerushalmy, dancing expressively as children do – neither randomly nor limited by space or subject matter, but seemingly responding to some inner voice. These brief movement patterns are replayed repeatedly without interruption, as if a musical chord were being isolated and played back to deconstruct it, to remember it more accurately, or to isolate it as a memory pattern to sample at some future time.

Yerushalmy replicates the child’s movement pattern while moving downstage toward the audience, returning to her initial upstage position each time the film sequence is repeatated, and again reproducing the childhood movement. The whole idea is repeated with different brief movement expressions by the same child. In one sequence, Yerushalmy first turns her head toward the screen as if forcing herself to look at the image of herself to cement the movement correctly in her mind. The three other dancers remain semi-dormant throughout.

All this is an introduction to the more lengthy portion of the work that applies Yerushalmy’s movement ideas and memories via the three other dancers (Amanda Kmett’Pendry, Sarah Lifson, and Marc Crouillat) – the ‘three sailors’ – who I saw as visual extensions of her thought processes.

Eventually, the filmed sequences end, and the focus changes to movement forms that mimic the isolated, but repeated, sounds of Judith Berkson’s score, whether these are non-descript sounds, or sounds that resemble the squawks and wails of wild birds. As this continues, and although there are brief periods when there is no sound, the three dancers move individually or jointly as if not only replicating the sounds, but transferring them to some visual color balance. Through most of this time Yerushalmy squats or is spread across some offstage object, as if she was in deep thought and transferring the thoughts telepathically to the other dancers – although at one point she moves behind the scrim with her ‘real time’ movement now appearing as shadow memories of her childhood. The piece ends with Yerushalmy standing, her back to the audience, arms bent upward, as if trying to penetrate the scrim while the other dancers approach it, and her, moving concurrently with the call of the wild birds and of the choreographer’s memory and ideas.

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

Yerushalmy’s dance was greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm by the audience, although that may have been an indication that she was preaching to the choir. To me the piece displayed movement qualities that emerged from a foundation of experiences, presented in the form of semi-isolated ideas that use as their reference points remembrances of movement past as well as the nature of sound components and of color balance. This somewhat complex and awkward description reflects my difficulty appreciating the dance on a more than intellectual level.

“We Love Arabs,” is one of those works of art that appears at first to be artistically self-effacing and relatively insignificant in the overall artistic scheme of things, and ends up being both a brilliant piece of theater and a guilty pleasure.

Hillel Kogan is a stand-up dancer. By that I mean he’s a dancer who presents a subject as a stand-up comedian might, but through gestures and movement as well as words, and through verbal, mental, and even physical interaction with his audience. The subject of his seriously comic piece is world peace – or at least peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in the same land. And like all great comedy, it seems improvised and haphazard, but it’s the rigidly unrigid structure of this hilarious, heartbreaking, and heartwarming piece, as well as its uncredited libretto, that makes “We Love Arabs” as extraordinary as it is.

“We Love Arabs,” has relatively constant movement, but that is as much a product of staging as of choreography in the sense of extended movement combinations. There are brief interludes of contemporary movement – those with his Arab partner in comedy, Adi Boutrous, or solo combinations for each, but here the ‘dance’ is primarily a dance of mental rather than physical interaction.

Kogan opens the performance by addressing the audience (via a head microphone), introducing the piece, and explaining and demonstrating his motivations in dance terms: how his body occupies space, and the space welcomes the movement of his body into it and within it. He moves like a limbed amoeba. It’s funny – but soon becomes comically serious as he talks about space that he finds does not welcome his body; that pushes back. At that point, of course, one realizes that he is not just talking about space in metaphysical terms, but land/air space, space jointly occupied by Jews and Arabs – Israel. And one understands that Kogan’s comic monologue is not an introduction to his dance, but a part of it.

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

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

Shortly thereafter, Boutrous wanders onto the stage. He’s given little to say (as opposed to Kogan’s continuing chatter), but his delivery is deadpan, and they’re little zingers. At one point Kogan decides that he needs to identify the two of them, and has Boutrous draw a Star of David on his [Kogan’s] shirt – with all the implications of that understood but unstated. Kogan then paints an identifying mark on Boutrous’ forehead, explaining that it’s the crescent that is affixed at the top of mosques. Boutrous then calmly states that he’s Christian. And in the course of the dance monologue, Kogan discloses that his family came from Russia. He asks where Boutrous was born. Boutrous, emotionless, says Tel Aviv. So it goes.

Although the interrelationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel is its nominal subject, “We Love Arabs” isn’t restricted to that. In his ‘deconstruction’ of the movement, Kogan also takes aim at orthodoxy in many forms – including hilarious indirect digs at ‘orthodox’ post-modern dance methodology and formality, and his own ‘position’ as director/narrator/apologist. The knowledgeable audience got it all. But the comedy never overwhelmed the subject matter; rather, as simply stated and delivered as it was, it was the serving spoon full of sugar that the made the message go down easily.

Kogan later discusses a national food that Israelis are known for – hummus, but acknowledges that thisis an Arab creation. He then spreads this Israeli ‘life force’, as he calls it, on both their faces, feeds it to himself and Boutrous with pieces of pita, and then passes the bowl containing it from one to the other as they meander over the same stage/land space – separate but still connected to each other by the land and the life force. At the end, Kogan and Boutros stand side by side. Kogan dips pita pieces into the bowl that Boutrous carries and feeds this ‘life force’sequentially to members of the audience, mimicking the Eucharist. Nothing is sacred; but everything is sacred. And the hummus life force is universal.

And after the audience exited, waiting for them in the lobby were complimentary glasses of wine – and pita pieces and hummus.

“We Love Arabs” premiered in Tel Aviv in 2013. It is wonderful dance comedy theater, but it’s much more than that. For one, it introduces a comedy team in the manner of a dancing Tom and Dick Smothers. More importantly, and whatever one thinks of the conflicts between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, or between one ethnic/tribal/religious group and another, it merits world-wide exposure. Maybe even a performance event before the United Nations. Or a Joint Session of Congress.