In the latest work by Gabrielle Neuhaus, "The Woman Who Didn't Want to Come Down to Earth," the Israeli choreographer and dancer touches the floor for only seven minutes. The rest of the time she is hung on clothing hangers, steps on water bottles, hops from the chair to the table, or employs other devices to avoid touching the floor.
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At a certain point, however, she becomes exhausted and, for seven tense minutes, gets down on the floor. Throughout, there's a disturbing picture of an older woman hanging on one of the walls, a picture that Neuhaus says hung in her childhood home and always terrified her. "Life is full of obsessions, and I find joy in exactness," Neuhaus says, in a soft voice.
Is her work dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder? "It's clear that the woman doesn't want to step on the floor because it's dirty, but on a personal level it is totally unconnected to cleanliness, but to childhood games that we played in my parents' house," she replies.
Neuhaus, 50, a mother of two girls, grew up in Bienne, Switzerland. She immigrated to Israel in 1991 to be with her Israeli husband, but since then has kept a fairly low profile in the dance world. The first two parts of her new work - "Hanging" and "Walking on Water" - have been performed separately, but this Saturday marks the first time all three parts are to be staged together, at the Clipa Theater in Tel Aviv.
Just not a ballerina
Neuhaus became involved with dance after high school, when she studied at private dance schools in Brussels and London. During this period, in the early 1980s, the popular streams in the European dance community were the classical and the neo-classical, and the pilgrimage sites for young dancers were Mudra, Maurice Bejart's dance school in Brussels, and the Paris Opera Ballet. None of these particularly appealed to Neuhaus.
"I wasn't interested in ballet shoes, it contradicted my outlook," she says. "When I was young I read Simone de Beauvoir and Helene Cixous; I didn't want to be an ideal woman or a ballerina, just an authentic woman." Her own feminist rebellion began back in high school when, as a result of her protest, the school dropped what had been a compulsory course for girls - sewing, cooking and childcare.
"Feminism enabled me to rebel against my family," she explains, adding that she grew up in a bourgeois Protestant household with strict values, to which she traces her interest in obsessions. Neuhaus took ballet lessons with men while in London, and while most dancers were flocking to audition for the large ballet companies, she focused on the independent dance scene, and even founded a contemporary dance company called Unlimited Dance. During her four years in England she made a living by, among other things, nude modeling, and was a member of a squatters group that broke into and occupied abandoned homes.
Swiss gal makes aliyah
When her British visa expired, she returned to Switzerland and found work on a fashion project with the dance group Ballet Contemporain Suisse in Geneva, which is also where she met her future husband, an Israeli sculptor. They moved to Zurich after she was offered steady work with the Zurich Dance Theater. There, Neuhaus experienced recognition and acclaim. "It was the first time I had ever gone on tour, which is the most enjoyable part of a dancer's career, and I worked with choreographers that I admired," she says. After four years she became pregnant; when her husband wanted to go back to Israel, she made aliyah. "It was hard to leave a steady job, which is so rare for a dancer to have, but I always liked new languages and I agreed to try."
The couple, who have since separated, landed right after the Gulf War. Neuhaus was indeed captivated by the mix of languages in Israel. "In ulpan I was one of the only immigrants who wasn't from the Soviet Union, and I came from a land where they speak French, German, Romansh and Italian," she recalls. "I was totally taken by peoples' different origins. It was as if I'd also immigrated to Russia, Asia and America."
During her 22 years in Israel she has managed the dance courses at the Ramot Hefer School on Kibbutz Maabarot, worked as a translator, and cooperated with fringe dance groups. She has kept far away from the mainstream dance scene, working instead with plastic artists like Anat Michaelis-Levy and singers like Anat Pick, and has appeared in alternative spaces and at major art exhibitions. She also cooperated with poet Anat Zecharya on a project called "As soon as beautiful," assembling a dress from rolls of paper which served both to cover and break down the main character. In a project with Anat Michaelis-Levy in 2004, she sewed cards together for 21 hours, and in the show "Do Not Disturb" at the Clipa Theater (2011 ) she crocheted a dress and then unraveled it. All her creations take their cues from the materials, she says. "I'm now looking for my next material," she says. "I've already fooled around with springs and metal cables, but they're expensive. I haven't worked with earth yet; perhaps I'll work with fire. I thought about cooking a huge pot of jam, but there aren't enough exotic fruits here."
Will her next work also deal with obsession and compulsion?
"There has been a measure of obsession or a Sisyphean aspect in all my works, sometimes in the actions or movements, and sometimes in the scenery or props," says Neuhaus. "But I haven't decided what my next show will be about."