Culture Fop / Whisky and 'Oyster': How to Acquire a Taste for Dance

Yes, contemporary dance can be pretentious. But it can also be deliciously grotesque and sublime.

I know, I know. Dance is scary. And by "scary," I mean it can come across as pretentious. Contemporary dance in particular. Like contemporary visual art, it often features that maddening mixture of I-could-have-done-that simplicity and inscrutable high-minded theory. And there’s nothing worse than not getting something. So we stay away.

But like many things, dance is an acquired taste – and one worth acquiring. Nobody starts with a single-malt strongly peated Scotch whisky, for example. You ease into it with an agreeable blend, maybe mixed with something sweet, and then you get more curious and experimental.

Same with art. The key is to find the right entry point and not to give in to one bad experience. And since today is International Dance Day, why not start now?

International Dance Day was founded in 1982 by the dance committee of the International Theatre Institute and April 29 was chosen to anchor it, because it’s the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre, an 18th-century dancer largely credited with giving ballet its narrative structure, which paved the way for the types of dance performances we know today.

So you’re cordially invited to help Jean-Georges celebrate his 286th birthday and (re)discover dance. The party is called the Tel Aviv Dance Festival and it lasts all of May. The host is the Suzanne Dellal Center, Israel’s elegant home for dance in the heart of the artsy Neve Tzedek neighborhood, comprised of wide white plazas, a nifty network of tiny canals and a spattering of citrus trees three minutes from the Mediterranean.

Nearly every night, you can catch top-notch Israeli companies, rare foreign imports, revivals of modern dance classics and fresh premieres. In celebration of the month-long festival, over the next few weeks Culture Fop will profile interesting voices in Israeli dance, recommend audience-friendly fare to help the neophytes among you get your feet wet and riff in general on the peculiar and elusive beast that is contemporary dance and dance in Israel.

Don’t be afraid. I’m here to hold your hand.

For starving audiences, eco-friendly 'Mana' from heaven

Tel Aviv is the epicenter of dance in Israel, so most dance companies are based here – and if not here, then in Jerusalem. But a handful of companies have opted to go off the grid and set up shop in unlikely locales. There’s Liat Dror and Nir Ben Gal in Mitzpe Ramon, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company up at Kibbutz Ga’aton in the Galilee and Vertigo Dance Company in the Elah Valley between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Vertigo celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2012, which, in dance years, makes it a veritable veteran. Co-founders Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al, partners in real life, and their team of lithe and limber dancers live in an eco-art village co-founded by Wertheim and her three sisters. In addition to the dance troupe, the village is home to an interdisciplinary performing art center for Torah study and chicken coups.

The company’s 2009 work, “Mana,” has been oft-seen in Israel and toured all over the United States last year to rave reviews. If you’re nervous about dipping your toes into the contemporary dance waters, or have a partner who’s dragging feet to join you, “Mana” is like easing into the shallow end of a black-bottomed pool.

Which isn’t to say it’s not deep. Just that the mesmerizing music, athletic dancing and dramatic set are captivating enough to keep you afloat. Like all good contemporary dance (or art or music or whatever) “Mana" satisfies on an aesthetic level while suggesting something mysterious and even troubling beneath the surface. But no need to flounder in search of meaning. While it’s there if you want it, it's mostly up to you to define, so you can't really be wrong.

Vertigo Dance Company at Tel Aviv Dance at the Suzanne Dellal Center:

“Mana” – Wednesday, May 1 at 9 P.M.

“Vertigo 20” – Tuesday, May 28 and Wednesday, May 29 at 9 P.M.

A precious 'Oyster' worth diving for

A few weeks ago, the Fop deemed Ohad Naharin, the renowned choreographer of the Batsheva Dance Company, the Quentin Tarantino of dance. If we keep running with the cinematic comparisons, we’d have to say that Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak are the dance world’s equivalent of Tim Burton.

Of course, that parallel has been drawn so many times in reviews of their work it’s as unoriginal as Johnny Depp in pale white makeup and a freaky grin and Helena Bonham Carter with mussed up hair and a corset.

Still, the reference is apt for many reasons, not least that “Oyster,” the much-loved show from Pinto and Pollak (again real life partners, which seems to be a peculiar Israeli trend), got its name from Burton’s quirky little book of poems and illustrations “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories.”

“Oyster” premiered in 1999, and 14 years later, it’s still going strong, having recently completed yet another spin around the world last year. You could say it's to contemporary dance what "Fifty Shades of Gray" was to literature (and I mean in the sense of unexpected success not quality).

Burton also comes through in the show's darkly comic visual splendor, a kind of vaudevillian circus in a Victorian underworld. The quirky characters, most of whom have some physical limitation, were inspired by the 1920s film “Freaks” about sideshow acts, according to the choreographers.

But carnies aside, the work of Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, of which “Oyster” is the quintessential example, is Burtonesque because of its sense of wonder. In Burton’s best works – think “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas” – he conjures fantasy worlds that are as hellish as they are beautiful, populated by fragile outcasts who just want to be loved.

“Oyster” captures that potent mix of the grotesque and the sublime. It is a dance – or piece of theater or, more accurately, genre-defying piece of art – that is both other-worldly and undeniably human.

Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak at Tel Aviv Dance at the Suzanne Dellal Center:

“Oyster” – Thursday, May 2 at 9 P.M. / Friday, May 3 at 2 P.M. and 9 P.M.

“Gold Fish” – Saturday, May 11 at 10:30 A.M. and 12:30 P.M.

Gadi Dagon