`If you want to be heard, it's better to be a man'

Dancer-actress Nitzat Abba deconstructs the body language of Israeli women in `Femininity Under Fire' in Holon this weekend.

The woman in the uniform pounds the podium with her fist - a ridiculously tiny fist. It doesn't make enough noise, but the message gets across: This woman is no wimp.

Her hair tightly pinned back, the speaker stands and declaims in a tough voice a text devoid of meaning - something about "the situation" - which manages to sound rousing. She continues to jab the air with her delicate-looking fist, as a means for rounding off the ends of sentences, and finally her authoritarian display begins to look pathetic.

From time to time she speaks imperiously to her assistant, whom she calls "Sweetie." The latter - how embarrassing! - is showing the wrong slides: "Just look beautiful and say nothing," "All women are whores," "Men love blondes." These chauvinist cliches are projected - as if by mistake - on the wall. The speaker apologizes and continues. As the speech goes on, we begin to be reminded of someone - the intonation, the way she turns her head to the side for emphasis - yes! Of course! It's Limor Livnat.

Nitzat Abba, 30-something, a dancer and actress, has a sculpted sort of face that she can use as she pleases. At the start of "Femininity Under Fire," to be performed today and tomorrow at the Holon Theater Women's Festival, Abba presents a woman with a split personality: There's the Iron Woman (lips clenched, eyes hard and staring fixedly) - and her obverse, the seductress (pouting lips, misty eyes). This comes about when the careerist speaker who opens the performance segues for a few fumbling moments into a mannered, overdone femininity. She strokes her face absently with fingers tipped with red lacquer, she opens the topmost button on her blouse, and her voice drops to a whisper. But she immediately returns to control mode with its clipped speech.

"I am Limor Livnat," confirms Abba in conversation, glad that her impression of "a woman who succeeds in looking and sounding masculine" worked so well. Livnat was Abba's inspiration for the idea that Israeli women's body language is not natural and easygoing. "She's a woman with good features who presents herself as super masculine," she explains. "Once in a while, a feminine smile escapes her, and her dimple shows. But she catches herself right away, suppressing her femininity and resuming the masculine tone."

Having worked with movement and body language since her childhood, Nitzat Abba confesses she never stops looking at people, especially women. And where most people would look at unique facial features, at beauty, or other external qualities - height, narrowness of hips, a paunch - she notices entirely different things: the way people hold their bodies, how they walk, inadvertent movements.

Her private survey is also comparative. When she goes abroad, Abba watches European or American women and plays the guessing game that every Israeli plays overseas, wondering which ones might be Israeli tourists. She says there are telltale signs. "I watch how random women walk and talk on the street," she says. "There's something sort of liberated about the Israelis, but it's fake. Their hand movements are too pronounced and they talk too loudly. They take care not to sway their hips so as not to be thought too sexy. And they never touch their bodies when they talk, unlike foreign women."

Abba has decided that "while women elsewhere feel free with their bodies and let themselves show their femininity in a way that here would be thought blatant, the body language of women in Israel isn't natural. It ranges between extremes of repressed and introverted femininity under a veneer of masculinity, to a very extroverted femininity that's equally artificial."

In contrast to the woman who adopts a masculine coarseness, she says, is the image of Pnina Rosenblum. "Even she, the symbol of sexy womanhood, moves stiffly, tensely," says Abba. "Her body language sends the message that she doesn't flow naturally with the image she is presenting."

Purposeful manipulation

In recent years, Abba studied and worked with the alternative theater group led by David Maayan (until it moved to Shlomi). "Femininity Under Fire" is the first performance she has done on her own, incorporating the two principal areas of her work, movement and drama, with text by Ravit Ferera. It is also quite pretentious: Aside from dancers and actresses, it also features a group of girls and young women, students in the dance classes that Abba teaches.

The performance is given to people who have bought tickets to other performances, as a kind of warm-up act. Admission is free. Awaiting those who are intrigued by the title - the venue seats an audience of only about 30 people comfortably - is surely a different sort of experience. Even if the pace is too slow and the performance a bit too crowded with images and content for the abbreviated time frame (some 30 minutes), the performance Abba has created is certainly intriguing.

It takes place in a long, narrow studio, the nonstandard dimensions of which Abba employs in presenting action in several loci. First she presents a series of "clips" - a gallery of popular images of women including an earth mother, a belly-dancer, Lolita and a beauty queen - which she deconstructs and critically reinterprets. Another figure is present throughout and adds a subversive element: an androgynous photographer who is supposedly documenting the performance, but simultaneously participates in (or disrupts) it. The dancers and actresses on stage also appear in video clips portraying other images, like women driving a tractor.

Abba is aware of the density of images; she says it's a purposeful manipulation, aiming ("like bombs falling on your head") to get your attention, to provoke.

Thus, for instance, after the Iron Woman finishes speaking, the lights go out and the audience turns around in order to look at a new figure, a Venus wrapped in gilded cloth, reminiscent of a beauty queen. She is purposely fat, "not a Twiggy figure with the flat outline fashionable today," and moves with caressing motions, while Abba herself wears gilded high heels and measures the length of the walls, groaning in pain as she walks.

This picture blacks out and the action moves to a kitchen with a real family in it: A mother with a day-old baby who is teaching her introverted daughter how to prepare food for her hungry brother, who doesn't lift a finger. Chopping vegetables and slicing bread, the mother passes on feminine traditions in the spirit of "look beautiful and say nothing."

The dance numbers with Abba's students, some of them 10 years old, others in high school, portray the confusing passage that girls go through on the threshold of womanhood when they join the army, where sexual differences are less distinct. Maybe that explains something about the problematic body language of Israeli women, about that tension they emanate, comments Abba; maybe even something about their femininity in general.

The sensual movements of the young dancers in "MTV Style" look especially blatant. Later, however, over the skimpy garments, they don a kind of uniform of their fathers' masculine shirts, and proceed to march left-right-left.

"In that part, I wanted to convey the exaggerated influence of MTV and those clips of strong, mature women like Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez, who emanate sensuality and an up-front sexuality," says Abba. "When I was an adolescent, we wore oversized clothes to hide our developing figures. Now, it's not like that. They wear body shirts and low-hung pants, as skimpy as possible. But they grow up too fast. Then all that sexuality is cut off in the army."

Abba relates that when older students of hers who are now in the army come to visit, she doesn't recognize them. "Their body language and the way they speak become masculine. It's true they won't stay that way their whole lives, but something does stick: If you want to be heard, it's better to be a man."