Culture Fop / Sex and the Scientist

Weizmann scientists respond to a dig on their love life, YouTube is an unexpected muse and the gay community celebrates the politics of partying.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

Getting down and dirty with the Weizmann Institute

What’s more sexually charged: a science lab or a dance studio? At first glance, it’s a profoundly unfair comparison. Scientists, we all know from the TV show “Big Bang Theory,” are supposed to be geeks and dancers are supposed to be, well, hot and flexible. Choreographer Ohad Naharin, the internationally renowned artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s premiere contemporary dance troupe, drew the parallel last week and seemingly perpetuated the stereotype in an article that explored sexuality in dance in Israel.

“If you go into a lab at the Weizmann Institute and then into Batsheva’s dance studio,” he said when asked if Batsheva is a sexually charged place, “it could well be that the level of horniness is equal.”

In the context of the article, it didn’t come across as a wink and thumbs up. His point, in fact, was that they’re equally flat.

Naharin has a close relationship with the Weizmann Institute, considered one of the top multi-disciplinary research centers in the world: In 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Weizmann’s scientific council. This past October, the Batsheva Ensemble, the younger arm of the company, performed as part of Life Science Open Day. Hard to believe he’d throw the lab under the bus.

So what do Weizmann’s brilliant scientists think of the claim?

“I tend to agree with Naharin,” said a PhD student in biological chemistry. “You can certainly experience prolonged intensive looks at Weizmann labs and classes but I wouldn’t hazard to guess whether they’re not a figment of merciful imagination or the consequence of sleep deprivation.”

One student pointed out that because Weizmann doesn’t offer undergrad classes, the age range between grad students and young dancers already skews the stats a bit.  But, he said, that’s beside the point.

“Scientists are by default ugly,” he said. “Let’s not forget what Lord Wotton said to Dorian Gray: ‘The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid.’”

A biochemistry PhD, who said she thinks she’s the only one who wears mini-skirts in the building, called the institute “quite a frozen place” at first glance. “Everybody studies and works and goes home to the husband or wife,” she said. “[if] not always to his/her own.”

Let’s assume, though, that what Naharin meant was that the dance studio is as much a lab for exploration as the Weizmann Institute. Toned bodies are just the by-product of daily physical exploration and the studio is also a serious workplace, where the artist is on a perpetual quest for an elusive key to an as-yet-unknown truth, and not merely a Petri dish of hormones.

Similarities aside, a post-doc in computational biology said there’s really no comparison between the attractive Batsheva dancers and his lab work. “Looking at bacteria cultures anyone who’s tried it knows they’re not so horny,” he said, before qualifying the claim. “Well, except for the particularly studly bacteria.”

Fighting for the right to party

In the early 1990s, way before Tel Aviv was the “Best Gay City” in the world (according to a 2012 American Airlines survey) and before websites and smartphone apps made social connection and clandestine rendezvous between gay men as easy as ordering off a restaurant menu, the underground nightlife scene was the only cave of refuge in town. Shimon Shirazi quickly established himself as its master.

He was but one of several founding fathers of what would become a world-renowned nightlife scene, says gay activist and media personality Gal Uchovsky. But among them, he was the one who “made nightlife his profession.”

Thursday night at Beit Ha’ir, the former city hall-turned-municipal museum that just launched an exhibition documenting Shirazi’s influence on Tel Aviv nightlife, Uchovsky moderated a discussion with Shirazi and other major players in this world. The atmosphere was positively academic compared to the opening night party, just days before, which resembled one of Shirazi’s fetes except that everyone was wearing shirts.

The talk kicked off with a public disagreement between Uchovsky and Shirazi, longtime friends, about what style of language to use: the informal, subversive interchange of male/female pronouns oft-used in the gay community amongst close friends or the linguistically correct, if docile, conventions of gender-segregated Hebrew. The latter won out – because this is, after all, a museum and because not all of the audience would “get it.”

Scattered around the multi-story gallery space, which surrounds a huge interior atrium, were outrageous costumes that have appeared at each of Shirzai’s elaborately themed parties as part of his FFF series, ensembles that are one-part Bob Mackie and one-part Lady Gaga (but some of which were created while she was still in kindergarten).

What emerged from the conversation (and an artsy black and white video by David Adika that captured the revelry of the parties and Shirazi the man from a contemplative, at times seemingly lonely, perspective), was a sense of the community that was forged through these gatherings.

The raucous affairs, with Shirazi’s trademark impeccable attention to detail and theatrical flair, may be easy to dismiss today as part of famously hedonistic and gay-friendly Tel Aviv. But in their early years, the events were downright political for all the bureaucracy they had to fight, the police closures they endured, and their radical insistence that the gay community has a right to party too.

Night Stamp at Beit Ha’ir runs through April 6. 22 Bialik Street, open 11:00 AM to 2 PM. Entry fee NIS 40. Tickets available at the site.

YouTube’s theatrical debut

While for some, YouTube is a black hole of time, for others, the vast library of innovative – and sometimes painfully personal – videos is a treasure trove of inspiration.

“YouTube is like a huge pool full ideas and raw materials that stimulates an artistic dialogue,” says artist/choreographer/actress Renana Raz.

In 2010, Raz channeled the creative wealth of the site into an interactive multi-disciplinary concept called “YouMake ReMake,” in which artists take inspiration from online videos – some viewed by tens of millions, some by only tens of thousands – and respond to them live on stage.

Sometimes the live response precedes the video, leaving you perplexed and skeptical, like when a dancer stumbles awkwardly around until it’s revealed that his muse is an adorable tyke maybe 4 or 5-years-old busting impressive moves to some hardcore rap.

Sometimes the video comes first and the response offers an unexpected interpretation, like when a confused little lamb bounds from room to room of a house on screen before coming to life as a runaway bride on stage.

“I was always intrigued by many forms of art and as a choreographer I feel like I arrived home,” Raz says of the format. “This performance allows me to freely create without any boundaries of genres.”

When the concept works best, it dissects the clips and finds the darker side of otherwise harmlessly entertaining videos, such as a goofy Finnish disco lesson that, when interpreted on stage, becomes the embodiment of domestic patriarchal power. Or that innocent little lamb-cum-bride who is subsequently tied up, blindfolded and gagged just as a clip of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride in a room full of men comes on the screen, making the Haredi wedding ritual look like a frightening scene of sacrifice.

Friday’s collection of videos and their live performance counterparts had a strong thread of critical gender theory running through them – many explicitly addressed women’s empowerment or highlighted women’s vulnerability. Part of that is the result of a special Feminine Edition that was created for Women’s Day in 2011 and which was subsequently integrated into two existing editions of the show.

With “Gangnam Style,”the clip by South Korean pop artist Psy, becoming the most-watched video on YouTube and the first video in the world to reach one billion hits last month - it seems that the video-sharing website is indeed where today’s mass global culture is happening. “YouMake ReMake” mines these often peculiar and disturbing cultural riches and finds both the humor and the unsettling whispers below the surface.

You can catch YouMake ReMake at Kfar Blum in the way north this Thursday, January 17 or see it at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv on February 14.

Revelers at Shirazi's After Purim Party at the Haoman 17 Club in Jerusalem, 1999.Credit: Shmaya Levi
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A scene from YouMake ReMake, with live performer in the front and video inspiration in the back.Credit: Noam Hamou
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A scene from YouMake ReMake, which reimagines YouTube videos and sets them on stage.Credit: Noam Hamou
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A confetti moment at Shirazi's After Purim Party, Haoman 17 Club in Jerusalem, 1999.Credit: Shmaya Levi

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