Pedaling Twice as Fast Just to Stay in Place

'The Inconsistent Pedaler,' a collaboration among Israeli author Etgar Keret; his wife, the actress and director Shira Geffen and the U.S. dance theater troupe Pilobolus makes its local debut.

Pilobolus in “The Inconsistent Pedaler.” A bicycle is at center stage, with a man in what appears to be a clown suit standing on its handlebars. Behind him are five people, their upraised arms holding fist-sized rubber duckie bath toys.
Grant Halverson

There’s one in every family, the person without whom the entire structure would collapse — the “organizing axis of the family,” as Israeli author Etgar Keret puts it. It was around this figure that members of the U.S. dance theater troupe Pilobolus, in collaboration with Keret and his wife, the actress and director Shira Geffen, created “The Inconsistent Pedaler.” The entire piece takes place in the surreal atmosphere that typifies Keret’s writings and his film collaborations with Geffen. But how does you translate textual or cinematic ideas into dance?

“That’s the kind of question I had,” Keret says, disclosing his difficulty with the new-to-him medium. “How do people die in a dance piece? Does the dancer fall dramatically onto his side? I’ve always been interested in narrative, characters, language and dialogue, so I’ve never related to dance. This work posed a great challenge: On the one hand, Shira and I didn’t want to do ‘Swan Lake,’ and on the other, we didn’t want to give up on telling a story onstage.”

“The Inconsistent Pedaler,” which had its world premiere in June 2014, in the United States, will have its Israeli premiere on Wednesday, January 20, at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, followed by two performances there on Saturday and one at the Jerusalem Theater on Monday, January 25. The program includes five works in all, all but one of which are part of the company’s International Collaborators Project.

The executive producer of Pilobolus, Itamar Kubovy, an Israeli director and playwright now based in New York, notes that among the company’s collaborators, in addition to Keret and Geffen, are the Distributed Robotics Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman and the magicians Penn & Teller. Each collaborations must begin with finding a common language and with solving the problem of translating one medium into another while respecting both and without falling back on a simplistic interpretation. Which brings us back to “The Inconsistent Pedaler.”

“’The Inconsistent Pedaler’ is the story of a girl, that’s her role in the family, the way she pedals the bicycle operates all its members, on the level that if she stops everyone will lie on the ground motionless. It’s a piece about someone who discovers how to work with others so they’ll move in harmony, and that is also in a way our experience working with Pilobolus,” Keret says.

“The family idea Etgar describes tied in to an idea we’ve had for years, that the entire theater, the lighting and the electricity, would come from one person pedaling on a stationary bicycle,” says Kubovy, speaking by telephone in New York. According to Keret, the work process was a very open one. He and Geffen came twice to work with the group, making comments and suggestions. “Many of the suggestions we made to the man who portrayed the grandfather were based on my own late father,” says Keret. “He became my father in many of his characteristics.”

Keret’s most recent book, “The Seven Good Years: A Memoir,” has not been published in Israel, and no Hebrew edition is in the works. While that has not affected its success abroad — it made The Guardian’s 10 best biographies and memoirs of 2015 list, and it was translated into Persian — it has led to criticism of Keret in Israel. He and Geffen were also attacked verbally for expressing empathy for the Palestinian victims of Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

“The left-right political divisiveness does not facilitate discussion,” says Keret. “It’s like being a soccer fan, when you’re a fan of a team you don’t really care what the other guy thinks, you care about winning. In many left vs. right confrontations, I feel as if it’s a confrontation between something that’s logical and something that I don’t understand.

A rehearsal of "The Inconsistent Pedaler." From left: Pilobolus executive producer Itamar Kubovy, Etgar Keret, Shira Geffen.

“The story of Breaking the Silence is like that. The defense minister gets up and calls it a contemptible organization. He’s followed by the prime minister, who demands that the leader of the opposition condemn the organization. I see it in a very simple way. There’s an organization that says all kinds of things about the army. The army is the strongest organization in the country and if what they say is untrue it can sue Breaking the Silence. It’s as if the public security minister were to give a speech in the Knesset and say that [Israeli crime boss] Shalom Domrani’s organization is a contemptible organization, and then Bibi [Netanyahu] were to stand up and demand a condemnation of Domrani. If he’s a criminal and there’s evidence of that - arrest him. If not, don’t incite against him.”

At the time, there was a big uproar around you and Shira.

“I annoyed people when I wrote an opinion piece against the slogan ‘Let the IDF win.’ What does that mean, ‘let’? It’s like let the pregnant woman have a seat on the bus, let the child go around you. The combination of aggressiveness and victimhood creates a contradiction that may be interesting emotionally and spiritually, but it’s illogical. I’m not a political person. Until a few years ago I didn’t go to demonstrations. I really dislike writing op-eds, but when you feel that people around you are being attacked for opinions similar to yours and the voice representing your beliefs is heard less and less, you feel obligated to say or write something.

“My father was a genuine Jabotinskyite, and one of the first songs I knew as a child was the Beitar [Revisionist youth movement] anthem. The line that most impressed me in it was ‘Silence is filth, worthless is blood and soul.’ The way I understood it as a child was that staying silent is not, as many think, ‘doing nothing.’ Silence is also an action, a choice for whose results you are ultimately responsible.”

Etgar Keret in a rehearsal with Pilobolus of "The Inconsistent Pedaler."