Israeli Dance Company Puts a Brand-spanking-new Twist on Folk

Mor Shani and the Inbal dancers have created a melting pot of folk dances through the ages. While some elements of ‘Simple Dance’ fall short, overall it’s a refreshing piece, complete with violent moves bordering on the erotic.

Ruth Eshel
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Inbal Dance Theater in 'Rikud Pashut' ('Simple Dance').
Inbal Dance Theater in 'Rikud Pashut' ('Simple Dance'). Credit: Tomer Zmora
Ruth Eshel

The stage of the Inbal Dance Theater and Arts Center has been designed as a laboratory for experiments — the floor and rear wall in stark white — in order to “rethink some of the basic essentials that make up the idea of folklore, to look upon banal forms with a fresh eye and see them as caches of new knowledge and together imagine the folklore of tomorrow” (from the program).

To this end, choreographer Mor Shani and the Inbal Dance Theater performers have created a new dance, “Rikud Pashut” (“Simple Dance”), based on a repertoire of familiar everyday leaps and movements, employing the folk dances of different cultures and adopting a variety of uses of space typical of folk dances (such as rows and circles). But this “simple dance” also shakes off the traditional folk dance structure, as well as any cultural or national affiliation.

A melting pot of folk dances through the ages, “Simple Dance” aims to transcend nationalities and cultures. It calls to mind the early 20th-century choreographer Rudolf von Laban, who also sought to counter traditional folk dances by creating a socialist folk dancing of workers in their various occupations.

Here, instead of national costumes or costumes representing a particular trade, as in Laban’s dance, the dancers wear regular clothes and running shoes — to represent the present day. Perhaps also in the spirit of the times, the new dance is a nonstop physical challenge, a continuity of leaps; a kind of aerobic dance of body sculpting that goes on for a long time and could test the limits of the body’s physical capacity. I ask myself, if this is a new dance work, then why be so heavily focused on the legs? Perhaps it would have been better to take on the entire body, all its various parts, as the focus of study, and to take a new egalitarian view that might focus on a different body part? But the slightly predictable choice has been made.

The dancers come onto the stage, each holding his or her gym shoes, like a sports team taking the field. And without these shoes they probably wouldn’t be able to perform the new dance without ruining the soles of their feet. As a group they put on socks, shoes, arrange themselves in rows, equally spaced, and begin: Hopping from foot to foot, then from two feet to one, and from two feet to two feet. Later, basic rhythms and stamping are added, with some of the leaps happening in the dancer’s personal space but mostly advancing as a group within the space.

Inbal Dance Theater in 'Rikud Pashut' ('Simple Dance'). Credit: Tomer Zmora

Animal instinct

The movement is identical to all and the sequence known to all, but the dancers seem to have a degree of freedom to execute the jumps in different directions. Sometimes the group stands still, one participant offering a variation of his own, like a soloist, and the rest repeat it. Sometimes a little bit of hand work is added, mostly as ornamentation, just so we don’t forget the arms exist. But there is no development of the subject. There is also a little bit of clapping and drumming on the body — again, as if only to serve as a reminder that the possibility exists.

At some point, the bloc of dancers divides into pairs, holding hands, and one can predict how certain dances are going to emerge — like the tango of one pair of dancers closely pressed together. After about 30 minutes the dance seems to conclude, with all the dancers collapsing to the floor, exhausted. But from this point of weariness, Shani sets out to learn what movement arises out of the body when thought is neutralized.

This reminds me of Anna Halprin’s workshops in San Francisco, where she would keep the participants running for a half hour until they were ready to collapse, and only then begin the creative process. Here, the dancers start to climb atop one another. Contrary to the previous order, here the motivation is animal instinct. It’s all about pushing, who will succeed, who will rule, who will survive — and it’s funny and sad all at once.

At times, the movement freezes — as if pausing to take a yearbook photo. These, too, would have been a logical end point for the piece, but Shani and the dancers continued to examine what happens to that bloc in very slow motion, movement that gives rise to situations in which one dancer’s mouth latches onto the garment of another and starts to pull it off, and all the dancers, whether by mouth or by hand, start peeling off their clothes, and the movement that arises inspires laughter and awe.

But the process is abruptly cut short — as if the choreographers were not brave enough to see that choice through and get to the point where everyone is left naked. If so, then why start the process at all? [The dance company reportedly barred two of its female dancers from appearing topless in this sequence over concerns about losing state funding.]

The work concludes with a scene in which a man’s hand, responding to gravity, drops with a loud thud onto the woman beneath him. He continues again and again, and there’s something erotic and ascetic, maybe even pleasurable about it. She alters her position, two more dancers join her to create a trio whose members are hitting one another. You expect the whole group to gradually get into this ecstasy of hitting but, as in the previous scene, the experiment is not fully carried through. And in a somewhat forced manner, the whole thing comes to an end with the dancers leaving the stage one after the other.

“Simple Dance” is an unconventional program and isn’t without its flaws (which mainly derive from stretching beyond what can be contained in a single program). But it has a real creative freshness and is enjoyable to watch, despite its length.

“Simple Dance” will be performed on September 29 at 8:30 P.M. and September 30 at 2 P.M. at the Inbal Dance Theater, Suzanne Dellal Center, 5 Yehiel Street, Tel Aviv. (03) 517-3711.