Post-modern Dance Gets a Triple Tribute

Ruth Eshel
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From Anna Halprin’s 'Parades and Changes 2015.'Credit: Maayan Hotam
Ruth Eshel

Three performance artists collaborate in the new program by the Vertigo Dance Company, entitled “Vertigo Global.” The repertoire consists largely of works by the troupe’s founder, Noa Wertheim. The first work is by Wertheim herself, who performs “Noa,” a solo that she choreographed. The second is “Stable,” by Sharon Fridman, the artistic director and choreographer of a Madrid-based company. And the third is Anna Halprin, whose work, “Parades and Changes 2015,” is a reprised version of a 1965 work by the “artistic guide and mentor,” as the company’s website describes her. (Halprin, now 95, worked with the Vertigo company on the updated version of the work.)

The bond between Halprin and Fridman lies in their connection to post-modern dance (as distinct from the hyphen-free postmodernism that dominates Israeli dance today). Halprin, who taught in California in the early 1960s, influenced an entire generation of choreographers. “Parades and Changes” has withstood the test of time; even those who are not familiar with the history of dance and are unaware of the important place she and this work occupy in the development of this art form, will be captivated by it.

The most striking element lies in the new way in which she defined dance as voided of mannerisms and projecting identical importance on each tiny everyday movement, thereby rendering it magical. Dance aficionados who don’t know the works created back then, half a century ago, are likely to be favorably surprised. During the late 1970s and 1980s, when post-modernism reached Israel, nearly all the works created by independent choreographers drew inspiration from its ideas. But at that time they contained a gimmick element. In works by Halprin – the primary source for this form of dance in Israel – the directness and unencumbered conciseness shine forth.

Wild counterpoint

In the Vertigo performance, a dancer in a suit and tie stands on the stage and gives directions to dancers who have been planted in the audience. They stand up and, according to instructions he gives by moving his fingers, they speak, go silent, slow down and increase the speed of their talking. It’s a Babel of languages, a wild counterpoint that morphs into a kind of sketch of a multivocal work. The dancers then proceed to the stage, return to the audience and take the stage again, forming small groups of different sizes and standing, attentive to one another, like musical notes that create a chord.

Nowadays, what we saw and heard could serve as an exercise in composition, but at the time the work was created, the possibility of a dancer speaking, or even just walking onstage and standing still, letting the body “speak its piece” by its sheer presence, was highly innovative. As was the toppling of the barrier between stage and audience.

Afterward, the dancers start to shed their clothes. The movements we ostensibly know so well are slowed down, prolonged, and the dancers are rapt, as though exploring and discovering the different relations that emerge, only to be erased, between body motion and pieces of clothing. They seem to be solving riddles, as though they don’t know, and we along with them, that beneath the jacket is a shirt and beneath it the skin and the human casing that covers the torso.

Having divested themselves of the outer layers, they are ready for the next stage. Rolls of thin brown paper are spread across the floor. Each dancer in turn picks up the paper, creating a spectacular pageant of huge sails. They start to tear the paper, generating noise that acts as a sound design, and then hurl the papers into the air. The shadows of the flying paper, screened on the back curtain, heighten the sense of spirituality. Finally, the dancers collect the stacks of papers and hold them close to their bodies, then advance toward the audience as though bearing an offering to the gods. A contemporary ritual, and the audience in the hall roars.

Sharon Fridman, a former Vertigo dancer who established a dance company in Madrid, now returns to share his artistic approach with the Israeli troupe. His work is based on the technique of contact improvisation, a hallmark of post-modern dance. Created for people who are not dancers and based on a conception of anti-technique in relation to familiar types of dance, contact improvisation augments the everyday and personal responsibility. In group work, which is done amid constant movement, the dancers maintain physical contact, surrender to it, use their body weight and discover how far they can rely on one another. Surprising solutions of movement are found, and virtuosity of a new kind arises, so it’s not surprising that many choreographers make use of this technique in segments of their creations.

In this case, the whole work is grounded in the technique. According to the program, the work’s underlying idea is “everyone together in support and each a little different.” The movement solutions are rich, and the eye wanders among the pairs of dancers. I was enthralled when a group of dancers performed the same movements together, as the complexity of the changing movements in all their subtleties acquire a clearer form in unison.

The most intriguing part of the work arrives at its conclusion, as waves of dancers hurtle across the stage at full tilt, knocking down one of the dancers in the process. He tries to get up, but newly formed clusters of dancers knock him back down as they pass by. It’s a stark contrast to the group support that was forged earlier. The association I had was with the Wilis, the spirits of jilted women in the ballet “Giselle,” who trap men and force them to dance until they die of exhaustion – whereas here the dancer who has been brutalized is not allowed to get to his feet and go on dancing.

Rounding off the program is a short solo work that Noa Wertheim created for herself, as a present for her 50th birthday. It’s a gift that every veteran dancer would be delighted to receive. Wertheim returns to the stage, to let body and soul re-experience the thrill and the applause.

The Vertigo Dance Company stages “Vertigo Global” at Kibbutz Yagur on May 4 (04) 984-8172; in Carmiel on May 5 (04) 988-1111; and at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv on May 6 and 7 (03) 510-5656