Israeli Choreographer Has His Duck in a Row

Yoni Soutchy, whose latest work, "Duck," is being performed this weekend in the Clipa Aduma festival in Tel Aviv, was a boy who wanted to dance but was forced to play soccer, a young man who was rejected by his father when he came out as gay.

A man stands before a soccer ball but doesn’t kick it. He walks around it, bursts out laughing and then bursts into tears. He cracks sunflower seeds, walks up to the ball again but still doesn’t kick it. Now, in women’s clothing and dancing dirty, he approaches the ball one last time and crumples to the floor in tears. And so, for a full 20 minutes, the man avoids the ball in front of him. The man is Yoni Soutchy, 36, a dancer and choreographer, and the work, “Songs and Goals,” was the first dance he created for Maholohet: SummerDance 2010.

Soutchy, who won the 2011 Shades of Dance Choreography Competition, which like Maholohet takes place at Tel Aviv's Suzanne Dellal Center, brings familiar themes to the stage - homosexuality, family, love and sex - in a very direct way, as if without artistic filters.

Thus the man who is not kicking the ball, Soutchy says, is a representation of himself, the boy who wanted to dance but whose father told him to play soccer and the man whose father could not accept him when he came out as gay.

His new work, “Duck,” which will be performed this weekend by Oryan Yohanan and Michal Gil as part of the Clipa Aduma festival, at Tel Aviv's Clipa Theater, shows the theme of repression in a starkly direct form: A woman impersonates a duck in movement and dress, another woman shoots, force-feeds and otherwise abuses her. At the end of the piece, the battered duck dances like a dying swan. This year's festival, which runs from February 22 to March 5, showcases visual performance art from Israel, Germany and France.

“I feel different on the local scene, mostly because dancers sometimes have a hard time accepting my mentality,” says Soutchy about his style and his place on the Israeli dance scene. “Sometimes I tell them, ‘Hipsters, get real.’ At the most recent Curtain Up Festival, for example, I never got past the stage of filling out the forms. They claimed I didn’t meet their criteria,” Soutchy says, referring to the annual Suzanne Dellal festival for independent choreographers.

When Soutchy talks about mentality he is mainly referring to his childhood. He grew up in the working-class Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kfar Shalem, the son of an Egyptian mother and a traditional Yemenite father. He has one sister and two brothers. The eldest, Ben Soutchy, is serving a prison sentence after having been arrested by United States law enforcement. Soutchy will not discuss his brother’s case but notes that the work that earned the Shades of Dance prize was dedicated to and named for his brother, “Ben.”

Soutchy says his father made him go to synagogue as a child and he hated every moment. Nor did he like school much. “I was thrown out of every conceivable school,” he says, “because I was nuts, but in a different way than my brother. I came from a criminal neighborhood where people fought with fists and knives, but I knew I didn’t want to be a criminal. As a teen I used to go dancing at Penguin and Liquid; I was the neighborhood hippie. I danced from first grade, in the dance troupe of the elementary school in Tel Hai.” Did kids give him a tough time for being effeminate? “I was lucky because my brother was the biggest tough around. Ben Soutchy was the scariest guy on the block. When I mentioned his name no one dared pick on me.”

At 16 Soutchy began going to Ma’an, a teen aid center on Mazeh Street in Tel Aviv, where he heard about Bat Dor, the private dance school directed by Jeannette Ordman, the head of the dance company of that name. He decided to attend until his army service, unaware of the special Israel Defense Forces program for performing artists, and served for two years. Within a couple of days after being discharged Soutchy was accepted to the Muza Dance Company, at the Bikurei Ha’itim Center in Tel Aviv, and stayed for three years. The company folded a few years ago.

“I came from Bat Dor with a really distorted education and the Royal Academy of Dance approach. At Muza they hammered away at my plié and told me to be ‘a human being, not a dancer.’ That’s where I got lessons in acting, Aikido, Tai Chi, acrobatics and the Feldenkrais method.”

Muza was a repertory company, and so Soutchy worked with many choreographers, including Niv Sheinfeld, Iris Nice, Margalit Oved and Ido Tadmor. In 1999 Tadmor offered him a spot in his company, where Soutchy went on to dance its entire repertoire, including “Gomorrah,” “Sima’s Pot,” “Behemot,” “Cell” and “Neta.” He and Tadmor became lovers, making them an item on the local dance scene.

Soutchy says it’s hard for him to talk about being gay, mostly because of his family. “I don’t feel that I belong to any community,” he says, “and I don’t wage battles for my identity. Ido, for example, is amazing in that sense. Maybe I need to mature some more Oh, all right, take me out of the closet,” he finally adds. “I started with Ido. We were insanely compatible. He understood that what I really needed was family and I felt that he was a radical. During the entire period of our relationship my father didn’t speak to me at all.”

The relationship with Tadmor eventually ended and Soutchy left for Amsterdam, where he took part in many dance projects. Two years later he returned to Israel and Tadmor’s company. But in the meantime some changes had occurred. The group’s home, Beit Mikhrazim, was destroyed in a fire and its funds had been embezzled, leading the Tel Aviv municipality to suspend its funding. The company was in dire economic straits and closed for good in 2005. Soutchy stayed until the very end.

“Ido was an artist who employed many people, had many performances and managed the entire administrative side of the profession,” Soutchy says. “But we’re artists, not businesspeople. Some choreographers are total bureaucrats and therefore succeed. It really bugs me: The people who manage dance in Israel are academics and bureaucrats.”

In 2006 Soutchy decided to stop dancing. He felt he’d become a slave to the profession. He completed an undergraduate degree in dance instruction at the Kibbutzim College of Education and also created choreography for the Israeli dance competition television series “Born to Dance.” In 2010, he created his first duet, “Love Slave.” His second solo work was “Songs and Goals.” Soutchy says it speaks about his father, “who expected me to be really macho. But I’m sensitive, about as sensitive as one gets.” For last year's Intimadance Festival he created “Dinner,” a duet for Soutchy and Oryan Yohanan.

Your themes - soccer, sunflower seeds, the Mizrahi experience, neighborhood toughs – are rare in the dance world.

“The depth of the dancers is my depth, but I choose not to put it out there. I’m quick, I throw things out there, I don’t really let myself get stuck in their heaviness. I really do feel different in this landscape.”

Did you participate in last year's choreographers’ protest?

"No, I’m no hero. I was glad it happened, but I didn’t play an active role. But I completely agree with them. We live like dogs. When I create a dance a lot of people get paid because of me, and I’m the one who’s left without a dime.”

This year Soutchy was accepted into the Israeli Choreographers’ Association, and intends to submit a proposal to the Curtain Up Festival soon. This year, for the first time, he is also applying for government funding.

“My dream is to be as big as possible, a choreographer with his own company, salary and home. I’ve eaten too much shit and I’ve also had periods of deep depression in my life.”

Why did you call your latest work “Duck”?

“The duck is a creature that wants to stay at home and take no risks – not succeed but also not fail – and merely exist. People turn animals into furniture or eat them. In the final analysis, people are predators. This is one of the first pieces I’ve created where I really don’t care what people will say about it. I’m willing for people to hate it, to say that I’m an idiot. That’s where my language is, my imagination, my influences. That’s how I think we relate to one another. The duck is in all of us.”

Nir Kafri