The Responsibility That Comes With Freedom

Though her company has reached the pinnacle of the British dance world, kibbutz-raised choreographer Jasmin Vardimon has brought her company to perform here only once in 15 years. This month, she'll be back, with a dance that has already raised some political hackles.

"When we talk about cancer, we tend to talk about an invader, an outsider that attacks our body," says choreographer Jasmin Vardimon. "It's much harder to recognize that cancer cells are actually cells that our body has produced. Like any other cell created in our body, it is part of ourselves. In the same way, what intrigues me in observing our society is precisely those things we have trouble identifying with and saying that they are us, a part of us, of our body, our home, our society we live in." Vardimon's latest work, "7734," which premiered at the Brighton Dome, in England, in 2010, will be coming to the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv for two shows at the end of this month. This is a dance-theater piece for nine participants that runs almost two hours and combines movement, speech, music and video footage. It takes place on a stage that features a watchtower and endless piles of clothes - elements that immediately arouse Holocaust connotations. The same goes for most of the situations portrayed in "7734," which involve figures of oppressors in uniform and of oppressed in rags.

"It begins with looking at the human being's capacity to produce brutality and inflict cruelty on his kind, and at the way this has been expressed in history - things such as genocide," Vardimon says in a telephone conversation from her London home. "I looked at it in the broadest sense, but it also became caught up with a personal place: with looking at a personal memory that was passed down. The work deals with the concept of inheritance of memory, pain or guilt."

A scene from '7734.'
Tristram Kenton

Vardimon was born and raised in Ein Hahoresh, a kibbutz in the Hefer Valley that was founded by Polish immigrants and took in many Holocaust survivors; she was in one of the first student groups to visit the death camps in Poland back in the 1980s. In general, she says, growing up in Israel, she naturally absorbed the stories of survivors.

As a dancer with the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, Vardimon was part of the original troupe performing "Aide Memoire," Rami Be'er's famous work from 1994 about Holocaust remembrance. She was also very close to Yehudit Arnon, the company's founder, an Auschwitz survivor who left her footprint, as Vardimon puts it, on her new work.

"Preoccupation with the memory of pain, or in general with the issues of memory, has been with me for a long time," the choreographer continues. "As an artist I often dig down inside myself and search for things, and with the dancers I work with there is also a process of research and excavation. What I am basically looking for in this whole process is honesty. I have no interest in popularity; I want to be honest with what preoccupies my head or my being at that time. I believe these are subjects that were inside me for years. I never thought I would create a work that dealt with the Holocaust; it always seemed utterly distant, and somehow here it is."

The title of the piece is a sequence of numbers that, when turned upside down, spell the word "hELL."

"A terrorist can seem from another point of view like a freedom fighter, depending on which way you look," she says, by way of explanation. "I wanted this work to be without a name, without an identity, just a number, like a tattooed number of a prisoner in the death camps who lost his identity. And the specific number can also express the date July 7, 1934, a time when there were already actions taking place against Jews in Germany."

Some time after she began working on "7734," Vardimon was invited to take part in a production of the opera "Tannhauser," by Richard Wagner, at the Royal Opera in London. She was tasked with choreographing the half-hour ballet that opens the work. The process of delving into Wagner's work and reading the writings of the composer, who was known for his fierce anti-Semitism and great influence on Hitler, increasingly became entangled with the work on her own new piece.

'Not here to cause suffering'

At a certain point she decided to integrate into the beginning of "7734" the overture of "Tannhauser," on the background of which a male dancer in a suit stands with his back to the audience and "conducts" a pile of colorful silk cloths. From these emerge a scantily clad woman and man, who perform a stormy lovers' dance.

"The choice of this overture is not random." Vardimon stresses. "It is an overture that celebrates life, love and creativity. And the choice of Wagner derived from the fact that he represents for many the ability of that creature, the human being, to create a work of artistic genius but also produce racist writings filled with hate and destruction."

As Haaretz reported recently, however, Wagner's music will not be heard in Vardimon's upcoming local performances of "7734," because Hanna Munitz, general director of the Israeli Opera, has demanded that she replace it with other music.

"At a certain stage, after the Israel tour had been scheduled, the opera informed me that I would not be able to include Wagner's music at the beginning," Vardimon says. "This is a matter I grappled with at length. I learned that there was no way they would allow a work that includes Wagner to go on their stage."

For her part, Munitz says that even though there is no law in Israel that says you cannot play Wagner's works - there is "a question of responsibility and obligation." In the past she was interested in putting on operas by Wagner, whose works have been boycotted, and to that end held a public discussion in 1998 to see if the time had come to allow such performances here.

"There were screams and heart-wrenching cries in the auditorium. I have never attended a more emotional event," Munitz recalls. "And so I decided that so long as I was here, it would not happen. I am not here to cause people suffering."

"After lengthy deliberation and conversations with people whose opinions I value, I decided that out of sympathy and sensitivity toward the local audience in Israel I would replace the music," Vardimon says. "Generally, making a concession is preferable to a superfluous war. Hanna Munitz knows the local audience much better than I do, and I elected to listen to her considerations. The artistic process is full of concessions, and this specific concession does not stem from cowardice, but rather from sensitivity to others.

"Besides, there is much more to this piece than Wagner. One part of the piece is an adaptation of a short story by [Israeli-born writer] Avner Shats, 'Photographer.' The story talks precisely about this point, about an artist's right to offend or be insensitive, and his role in society. The context in which it is presented can also apply to Wagner. I feel that the very fact that the subject even arose shows that there is an ongoing discussion about the connection between art and politics, which is a central element in the work. I could have said that I would not put on the show, but I realized that it actually throws a light on the problematic nature of the relationship between politics and art."

Instead of the overture, she says, "I am looking at many works by 'sanctioned' Nazi composers, as I call them - these you are allowed to play in Israel, such as Carl Orff or Richard Strauss - but I haven't yet found the right substitute. I am putting quite a lot of time into this, and am sure that the result will not be far from the original."

Eponymous troupe

Today, Vardimon, 41, sees her childhood on the kibbutz as "a magical period, when there was still communal sleeping arrangements. There was a feeling of freedom, but I remember the equation that was always written on the blackboard in school: 'freedom = responsibility.' And that is something that as a child growing up in such communal quarters you learn very quickly: that you have to be independent in a lot of things. From a young age I was very independent and initiated all sorts of projects."

Her father, Nadav Vardimon, was the artistic director of the Tzavta cultural center in Tel Aviv, and as a child she went to a lot of plays. She began dancing at 14, after doing athletics and gymnastics for years.

"One day they brought us a ballet teacher to help us grace our movements," she recalls. "She told me that I must start dancing, that she was inviting me to take classes with her. And indeed it was through her that I got in to it, bit by bit." Later on, even before Vardimon was drafted for military service, Yehudit Arnon, the founder of the Kibbutz Contemporay Dance Company, was impressed by her skills and invited her to join her company when she was released from the army. She spent five years in the Kibbutz Company: "Many choreographers worked with us there. We did works by Mats Ek, Daniel Ezralow, Susanne Linke and others. It was a very special experience for a young dancer to be exposed to so many choreographers and different ways of working. Later on Rami [Be'er] became the house choreographer and put on his works. There is where I actually began to create; when there was spare time I created a piece for a few of the company's dancers."

In 1995 she won the British Council's "On the Way to London" competition in Israel for young choreographers, and received a scholarship to attend a continuing education program at The Place dance center. There she encountered the British dance scene, primarily through the then-director of the center, John Ashford, who had been one of the judges at the contest in Tel Aviv. She ultimately settled in England in 1997, after dancing in various works in France and Switzerland.

"One of the reasons I left Israel was that I was interested in more theatrical work," she explains. "When I danced with the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, the demand was almost entirely physical; there was no theatrical, emotional or intellectual engagement. I was looking for a place where I would be able to question and understand, not just perform. I wanted to convey an experience and also undergo it.

"At a certain point I realized that to go through that experience, I'd have to create it, and that is basically where my own process of creating got started: from looking to find more theatrical work. My engagement has always been theatrical, because I love theater. In a way I prefer to watch theater than dance. I feel it's much closer to me," she says.

Asked about Pina Bausch, Vardimon says the late dancer-choreographer had a primary, albeit distant influence on her: "The first dance performance I saw in my life was by Pina Bausch, when she put on '1980' in Israel and afterward 'Cafe Muller.' When 'Nelken' was performed in Caesarea, my dance class was asked to arrange the flowers on the stage. I was 14 or 15 years old, and had just begun to dance. I remember that we stayed to watch a rehearsal and talked to the dancers."

Some 25 years have gone by since that experience in Caesarea. In the meantime, after moving to London, Vardimon went on to become an associate artist at The Place, and after a time began receiving regular government support, which enabled her in 1997 to establish her own troupe, which has 12 dancers and bears her name. Its repertoire now includes 10 works, among them "Justitia" (2005 ), "Park (2003 ), "Lullaby" (2007 ) and "Yesterday" (2009 ).

Since 2006 Vardimon has also been an associate artist at Sadler's Wells theater, which has regularly showcased her increasingly large and expensive productions, with their complex sets and challenging staging demands.

Indeed, set design is an essential part of Vardimon's works: She explains that even before she begins working with the dancers, she has a clear picture of how the stage will look. For one of her pieces she positioned them in a courtroom setting that is switched alternately (by means of a revolving stage ) with a crime scene; in another, the stage became a city park; and a third work was set in a hospital. The set design for her works is usually done by artist Guy Bar-Amotz, the company's associate director, Vardimon's partner and the father of their 7-year-old daughter.

Vardimon says that she comes up with a major work once every two years, on average; she devotes half a year to creating it, and then a year and a half to intensive performance tours. Since the beginning of 2012, Vardimon's company has appeared with its latest three productions all over Europe; meanwhile, she directed and choreographed a new opera, "Home," at Covent Garden by the composer Graham Fitkin, which premiered a few weeks ago.

Despite manifold cuts in cultural budgets in Britain, Vardimon's situation is only improving: "A year ago there was a reorganization here of all the funding from the Arts Council, and there really were very big cuts. There were things that shut down or were cut, and others got an increase in their budget. We were on the lucky side and our budget was expanded for the next three years."

Furthermore, the Jasmin Vardimon Company had for years been wandering between rehearsal spaces, like most of the dance troupes in the UK, but a few months ago moved into its new home in Ashford, outside London.

"To get a space of your own in England is unusual," says Vardimon. "This is something we worked towards for a long time. I work with very large sets, and it's hard to deal with them in a rented studio where you have to clear out at the end of the day. Our space right now is very big, 15 by 19 meters, with a 7-meter-high ceiling, lighting, sound, a sprung floor and all the means necessary for creative purposes."

The new space is located in a center that has a swimming pool, gym, sauna and whirlpool bath - all at the dancers' disposal. The premises also house a series of educational activities, including a training program in dance theater.

Coming home again

Vardimon is not in the habit of reading reviews of her work. "It doesn't interest me. If they're sent to me then I read them, but I don't seek them out."

Why is that?

"Dance criticism in England is usually very brief, it doesn't get much room [in the media] so for the most part it is very superficial and deals with describing the show and what the critic liked or didn't like. In the small space allotted to it in the press, the writer cannot develop anything deeper. As an artist, I put a lot into researching and thinking about the various meanings of every text, musical work or anything else. When the review amounts to a visual description, it exudes a feeling that what we create is merely a physical thing, visual, and has no meaning beyond that. I am far more interested in reading expanded and intellectual writing about works, but unfortunately that almost only exists in the halls of academia.

"I'm not interested in dealing solely with visual aesthetics. As a viewer, if I wanted to see pretty movements in space, I would settle for watching my washing machine when I do the colored laundry. That always creates a lovely and harmonious movement, something that is almost impossible to rival. When I go to the theater, I want to be engaged on a more emotional or intellectual level."

After a performance of "7734" in Austria, for example, a total silence descended on the hall, she says: "There was a feeling that the audience was having a very hard time applauding. Many came up to us and said that they couldn't because it was hard for them, they were very emotional. I think that it was an audience that identified with the legacy of the guilt, a largely Austrian-German audience. Elsewhere responses have been mixed: There were enthusiastic viewers and others who took it harder. Many times people came up to us at the end with tears in their eyes, which is something that didn't happen with the other works."

Now, after it has been performed also in England, France, Italy and Croatia, "7734" will be staged here on May 24 and 25. Vardimon says it is important to her to present the work in Israel, particularly because of the charged topics it deals with. Maybe, she admits, that is why she gave in to the Israeli Opera on the issue of the Wagnerian segment.

Even though Vardimon has been working abroad successfully for 15 years, her company has appeared in Israel only once before, in 2010, with "Yesterday."

Despite your success overseas, it seems like you are not well known enough in Israel.

"Compared to our volume of performances abroad, I have barely appeared in Israel, so of course we're not known. And this is at a time when there are countries where we perform every year, such as France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece and Norway. We constantly go back, and have built up a public there over the years."

Why have you barely performed in Israel?

"It feels like there is a certain resistance to bringing Israeli choreographers who have made it abroad. I was told quite plainly in the past that there is concern that it will encourage yerida [a loaded term for Israelis 'descending' from the country]. That seems to me a very narrow and incorrect view. By the same token, you could see an Israeli artist who performs and is a success overseas as a kind of cultural ambassador. Everywhere we are introduced they mention that I am an Israeli choreographer who works in Britain. As you know, I am not the only Israeli choreographer who is successful abroad and rarely comes to Israel.

"For me it's a pity, of course. There is a very big public of family, friends, kibbutz people - I would really like them to see my works. And naturally it is important to me to expose my work to the general Israeli public and I am curious to see how it will react to it."

Is there any chance you will return someday to live and work in Israel?

"Sure there is. We talk a lot about the possibility of returning to Israel, especially since we've had a child. At the moment, what we would be giving up is very great, in terms of the support I get in Britain and the space that I have. Serious work went into getting to this place, and I am very glad of this support and recognition. Obviously if there were to be the same recognition in Israel or an opportunity for a similar framework that would enable me to continue my enterprise - we would certainly consider returning."