Emanuella Amichai Puts Her Father's Poetry Into Motion

The latest creation by the dancer-performer-artist, who says she was inspired by the work of her late father, the poet Yehuda Amichai, distills through women's performance and wordless tableaux the concept of female body image.

Emanuella Amichai’s new work of dance theater, “Losing Its Meaning,” deals with the female body image by bringing together a pole dancer, a contortionist and a bodybuilder. But what occupies the dance, video and performance artist most is conveying without words what is hidden in the poems left behind by her father, the poet Yehuda Amichai.

When Amichai wishes to express an idea, her palms begin moving in the sculptured motions of a dancer, and the body and especially the shoulders carry on the line of thought. This can sometimes make matters difficult for those in the audience whose world is limited to words, and she is forced to transcribe herself.

During our meeting at a cafe in central Tel Aviv, the performer in Amichai took over the conversation on more than one occasion. And it occurred to me that in a moment she would hurl her body backward, and the next moment would raise her feet up, outstretched high above, as in an image from “Interior. Bar” − her bitter-funny dance video piece from 2006 ‏(which she created and directed together with Naama Nissim‏).

“Losing Its Meaning” had its premiere last month at the B7 Fringe Festival in Be’er Sheva. All the participants in this work in progress, which distills through women’s performance and wordless tableaux the concept of body image, the professional work they do in various areas of body art, including a pole dancing, contortionism and bodybuilding, and more. A preliminary version of one of its tableaux was shown this year at the A-Genre festival at Tel Aviv’s Tmuna Theatre featuring pole dancer Neta Lee Levy ‏(herself the subject of the documentary film “Pole, Dancer and a Movie,” from earlier this year‏). Due to an injury, Levy was replaced by another dancer, Danielle Itzhaqi.

An earlier Amichai work, “The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener,” is still on at the Tmuna Theatre. This piece presents a slightly more narrative deconstruction of the model of femininity. It is a stylized and meticulous fantasy about female despair in 1950s’ America, with the shiny kitchen and fashion of the period. This show premiered in full at the 2011 Acco Festival for Alternative Theater, where it won awards for best movement design, set and choreography. Moments etched in memory from that show include carefully dressed women, one of whom suddenly is wallowing in blood, and another of whom bangs her head over and over against a tabletop. In “Losing Its Meaning” the sadness and despair are more indirect.

Earlier in July, at a rehearsal for the new show, in a pitch-black auditorium at Tmuna, Olga Kurkulina, former national Israeli bodybuilding champion in the “most feminine” category ‏(which is concerned with sculpting muscles, not pumping them up‏), slowly raised her arms. She is very tall, deeply tanned, and her body was sheathed in a small two-piece leotard. With dreamlike music playing and in the shimmery stage light, she resembled a winged goddess moving slanted wings. The motions accentuated the movement of muscles as though in slow motion. A moment later, she turned to the side in a characteristic but stylized pose taken from the field of body sculpting.

Every once in a while during the rigorous rehearsal, Kurkolina, a vivacious woman in her 40s, found refuge in movements familiar to her and did a parody of bodybuilders. Next to this sun goddess, Amichai looks like a china doll: pale-faced and freckled with curly, fair hair. When she demonstrates and sculpts the movement anew, Amichai’s motion takes on the context of her being a dancer in body and soul.

Amichai found Kurkulina while she was doing research for the work. She was looking for women in various areas of body art, seeking to investigate their body language and the world in which they work. The pole dancer Neta Lee Levy was her first find. The second was Gina Ben David, a bank clerk who became involved in performance art after retiring. “The image is of a woman in a space,” Amichai says, “and I explore how solitude leads her to work with the body.”

Kurkulina, who is originally from Ukraine, says she came to body sculpting only a decade ago, after 20 years in track and field; she recently retired from competition. The project being shown at the B7 Fringe Festival is not her first foray into the world of theater arts and acting: This past year, she appeared alongside Jim Carrey, as a body sculptor in a Hollywood movie, “Kick-Ass 2,” which will be coming to Israeli screens soon.

Another interesting encounter for Amichai involved Eugenia Vorobieva, a contortionist who has worked with Cirque du Soleil, and with a circus performer and a jazz dancer. The new work’s only male performer appears in a scene that simulates lovemaking between him and one of the women. What unites participants, aside from physical occupations, is their willingness to go to extremes, or as Amichai puts it, “the wish to lead the body to the very edge of its ability, sometimes even at the cost of harming it.”

She uses the movement-based world of the various women as raw material for her choreography. The piece is political in the sense that she deconstructs the cliches of the fixed concept and the connotations of the women’s various occupations − as part of a sport that verges on the bizarre, in the case of Kurkulina, the art of seduction, in the case of Itzhaqi, or grotesque and circus-like in the case of the contortionist − and transfers them from a marginal if not dark world to a world in which they are considered art.

Amichai does not address the exploitation and debasement that lie in wait for the pole dancer, or for any woman in the seduction industry. But she undoubtedly expands our perception of how we are used to experiencing and looking at the body.

“These artists challenge the mainstream and our concepts of what is beautiful or sexy,” she says. “I am interested in how the body is perceived in old age, [and] in sexual relations. There is something impressive in the total way these women become enslaved to the body, to the point where they become their bodies. And then the body loses its meaning.”

Amichai’s manner of working is reminiscent of “ready-made” artworks, which she describes as “the very placing of the body in the context of theater, rather than in sports competitions like bodybuilding, or in a strip club. Seeing the body at its low and high points, in its poetic moments and its cursed moments, in its aestheticism and its ugliness, in what is troubling.”

Being the daughter-of

Amichai, 35, lives in Tel Aviv [with her 5-year-old daughter], but apart from her husband and father of the child. She declines to discuss the recent separation, saying that she is still adjusting to her new status. She grew up in Jerusalem, studied ballet and classical dance from an early age and attended the high school of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. After graduation, she abandoned the dancer route and gradually switched to the field of performance art.

A turning point came in the wake of her studies at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, where she lived with her family after her father was invited to be a guest lecturer at New York University, but wound up getting sick and being hospitalized. After three months of studies, she went to Europe with her partner at the time, Shai Ben Shabat, a fellow student of the Adler method, to perform in the streets as a duo, a very powerful experience that made her desire to do theater clearer.

Upon her return to Israel, Amichai went on to study at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, and later film and theater at Tel Aviv University. Her body of work is impressive, particularly for the many worlds she has mastered: choreography, performance art, dance theater and video art.

The death of her father in 2000 was a formative event in her life, which connected her to poetry as well. When she was in her second year at Nissan Nativ, two years after his death, Emanuella staged a performance project incorporating his poems. “It was still fresh, I needed to communicate outward, to explain to people. It wasn’t easy.” Later on, her works were more coherent, she says. Such was a dance-theater evening she put on two years later, also based on Yehuda Amichai’s poems, which she entitled ‏(following a poem title‏) “Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”

She put that show on only twice, both times in Tel Aviv. “That was enough,” she says. But it paved the way for a wave of shows and video pieces, spread over the past decade, that address the poetry in a nonverbal manner.

She was 21 when her father died; when she was born he was 54. “My memories of him are largely nonverbal,” she says, like “walks together on Shabbat. But he was very present.”

Did being the daughter-of ever bother her? Is that where her tendency to stick to a wordless world comes from?

“I was born into that reality,” she says. “I understood his importance only after his death. As a child and an adolescent, I was in my own world. I didn’t read his poems.”

After Amichai’s death, his poems became a source of consolation to his daughter. “It began as early as the shivah,” the week of mourning following the funeral. “Thumbing through the books. As if through the poems, I could ask him questions I couldn’t as a child. After all, he wrote his life in the poems: loves, disappointments, everything. And I had an intimate acquaintance with these materials. When I read, I felt that it was my world.”

She says that at home, the poet Amichai was not treated with sacred awe, and therefore she felt no compunction in treating his poetry artistically. Later on, she created another show, under the artistic direction of Natan Slour, called “A man in his life,” which she puts on at high schools, and which involves reading from the poems and recounting memories of her father. “I read love and war poems to 11th and 12th graders,” she says. “The moment you don’t turn the poetry into something sacred, there is suddenly a readiness to listen. It could be that it’s my handling of it,” she adds with a smile.

Her access to poetry paved her way to poetry-theater festivals, which became a genre in their own right in the performance-art world. She defines her pieces as “delivery of a poem by monologue or brief scenes, some more movement-based, some theatrical.” The beginning was a video dance piece based on her father’s “Love poem,” which was first presented as part of a larger project in which 14 different artists created video pieces based on poems by Yehuda Amichai. That was screened at cinematheques and subsequently at festivals.

An even more interesting video piece is “Christmas in Huntsville,” which she created in 2010, based on a poem by the German poet Jan Wagner. It is a stylized and meticulous piece that surprises the viewer and is typical of the type of works Amichai produces, in which familiar, workaday reality harbors cruelty. In the first tableau we see a pretty, young woman, well dressed and made up, sitting and reading from an old book of poetry in a white and cold-looking room. When the picture expands, you see a man sprawled in his own blood on the floor. She created and directed the piece for an art workshop in Berlin including Israeli video artists and German poets, and later it traveled to various countries.

The past two years have been very productive. In 2011, the same year she put on “The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener,” the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s In-House Festival put on “The Day Martin Buber Was Buried,” a theatrical reading based on a radio play by Yehuda Amichai. Both shows were warmly received.

Amichai teaches in the theater department at Hebrew University, the Goodman Theater and Acting School in Be’er Sheva, in various workshops, even at the Haredi College of Jerusalem. Currently she is thinking of putting a group together that would work not as an ensemble but rather as a model that would allow her to create alongside artists from her range of arts.

Her father’s poems are with her always. “Poetry is home,” she says. And despite this, the die was cast years ago: “My world is body, sound and movement. I feel that this is the right way for me to express myself. I understand poetry as an image. It doesn’t have to be narrative, it can be abstract. But it is something I have found in my father’s poems. A very concrete anchor, which makes floating easier. I feel this visually. And therefore in my eyes the word has great power.”

Gali Eytan
Fritz Cohen / GPO