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Dissonance in dance
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Dissonance in dance

Israeli choreographer draws on historic and contemporary conflict

Due to the very real sirens outside, tomorrow’s performance of Mad Siren is unfortunately cancelled….” read the notice choreographer Idan Cohen sent out last Nov. 17. More than 1,500 rockets pummeled Israel during that week before a cease-fire was put into place on Nov. 22.

For part of that week, the pre-show announcement at Suzanne Dellal Dance Centre in Tel Aviv, where Mad Siren was to have made its Israeli debut, added to its request that audience members turn off their cell phones: “Ladies and gentlemen, in the case of a Code Red alert” — an incoming-bomb siren — “the performance will be stopped and the house lights will come on. You can proceed to the bomb shelter or choose to remain in your seats.”

How ironic that a piece with the prescient name Mad Siren was forced to cancel precisely because of the madness of bombs and sirens.

“Conflicted,” is how Cohen described his feelings upon hearing those sirens in Tel Aviv. While they signaled immediate danger, they also meant something far more personal — and political — for him. “My heart was in two places,” he said: “not just in my chest area, but also within the borders of Israel and outside the borders of Israel.” He saw the misery and devastation that those missiles wrought on both sides of the conflict.

And he wasn’t surprised that a piece he started working on in 2010 and premiered in 2011 in Germany was once more devastatingly relevant. This weekend, Cohen brings his company to Rutgers University in New Brunswick to perform Mad Siren, which isn’t about Operation Pillar of Defense or any of Israel’s recent military maneuvers. The work, performed to Mozart’s solo piano sonatas, draws much inspiration from the essence of the music. The choreographer suggested that the piece follows a transformative process drawing the performers out, from passive listeners to active players — dancing, falling, tumbling, chattering — in a climate in which Mozart and the wail of sirens compete.

Cohen, who grew up on Kibbutz Mizra in northern Israel — where Israel’s best-known choreographer, Ohad Naharin was born — studied piano from the time he was about six. Dance came later, after a stint in art school. As a teenager he followed his older sister into dance class on the kibbutz. He spent his army years in national service rather than the military, teaching art to underprivileged children by day and taking dance classes in the evenings. “I wanted to serve my country,” he said, “but for personal and political reasons, I did it in a different manner.”

Eventually he became a member of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, based at Kibbutz Ga’aton, performing and touring the world before setting out to find his own artistic voice and create his own dances.

Cohen credits the kibbutz movement for supporting a dynamic artistic community in Israel. “If you look at kibbutz society and social structure, you can find an interesting combination of work ethics and values and opportunities for individual growth…,” he pointed out. “There are clear, specific demands for building a community, supporting the land and the kibbutz life, and at the same time there are opportunities for leisure and self-actualization.”

Mad Siren is a meditation on the nature of art and the creative process that takes its inspiration from Mozart and Cohen’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who escaped Vienna at 16. “She grew up on classical music, and it was a significant part of her life, as well as mine,” Cohen said. He noted the dissonance she struggled with in acclimating to Israel’s geography, culture, and the political climate, all so very different from the Europe of her youth. “I find both the connection and the disconnection between a European cultural aesthetic that created these sonatas and what we bring to the studios in dancing them,” he said, adding that that gap “creates a canyon that is dangerous to cross, scary,” just like the piercing sound of the sirens.

And while for many, particularly in Israel, those sirens in Mad Siren feel elementally current, for Cohen they reflect back, too, to his grandmother’s wartime experiences. “Within these beautiful quiet sonatas, when we get to this political situation and we’re living in danger,” Cohen notes, “we can’t overlook the past that has led us here.”

The choreography is distinctively modern, the women in colorless shifts reaching, tumbling, writhing on the floor. The stage is filled with natural elements — leaves, sticks, and birds’ nests — elements that remind him of the landscape of his own childhood on the kibbutz, and maybe, Cohen allowed, they come from his father’s influence as a biology teacher.

While contemporary dance in Israel has become exceedingly popular worldwide, most Israeli choreographers refute the idea that the political conflict plays any role in their artistry or output. Cohen is an exception. There is something about the Israeli-Arab conflict that creates a unique approach to dance in Israel, he said. “As artists we live with and within the Israeli political climate and Israeli culture that creates a dissonance that makes its way into the artistic sphere. In dance that experience creates a different type of movement language.”

“I don’t think we can separate anything from the politics of the situation we live in,” Cohen added. “What we are being fed is what we produce.”

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