This Israeli Arab Artist Doesn't Want to Be Labeled ‘The Arab Choreographer’

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Adi Boutrous. 'My preoccupation is contact, how people touch each other.'
Adi Boutrous. 'My preoccupation is contact, how people touch each other.' Credit: Moti Milrod
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

Two duets, one male and one female, comprise “Submission,” a new work by the young choreographer Adi Boutrous. In both, the viewer, like the dancers, finds himself almost suffocating.

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Despite its name, “Submission” is almost devoid of moments of calm or acquiescence. Just like a terrible war, in which the sides refuse to let up and put the conflict behind them, here, too, the battle – the one between the dancers moving across the stage – takes place almost without a break.

It was a burning afternoon in early August in the rehearsal hall in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, and the air conditioner wasn’t up to the challenge. Which made for almost ideal conditions for viewing this work.

Choreographer Adi Boutrous at a rehearsal.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

When the two female dancers, Anat Vaadia and Stav Struz, move across the floor, producing a sense of danger and aggression, sweat and sexuality, the viewer pants with them. The male half of the performance, danced by Avshalom Latucha and Boutrous himself, is no different in terms of its energy level, its sense of danger or the feeling it gives the audience.

Questions about gender and gender roles, conflict and the chances of escaping it, sexuality and what it can or might entail, all flood the brain. But for Boutrous, these aren’t the only issues under consideration.

“My preoccupation is contact, how people touch each other,” he said. “This interests me in my work. I think about how people touch each other when I watch a dance, and in general. I’m interested in how people share a common space and how they act within it.

From a performance 'Submission' by Boutrous.Credit: אריאל תגר

“As a member of a minority, how I define my identity and how I experience it is the same as what you saw in the work,” he added. “What happens on stage is connected to how I feel, which can be violent and manipulative and linked to conflict, but can also be gentle and inclusive and supportive.”

Questions of identity

Boutrous, 29, is one of the most interesting independent choreographers working in the field of contemporary dance, and not just because of his unusual biography. “Submission” is the fifth work he has choreographed since he began in 2012.

The piece had its world premiere at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv as part of the center’s international dance season. The work was financially supported by the Dellal Center, and by the prestigious Theatre de la Ville in Paris and another French sponsor, La Faiencerie-Theatre Cinema.

It has been a long and interesting road for someone who began dancing seriously only at age 18 and received his first professional instruction at 19, an age when most dancers are finishing their training and joining troupes. Boutrous, whose parents are Christian Arabs from Nazareth, grew up in Be’er Sheva, where his parents moved due to his father’s job as a pipefitter. In recent years, his family has lived in Omer, a small, largely Jewish town outside the southern city.

In short, Boutrous has lived almost all his life in a Jewish environment. Unlike his siblings – he is the youngest of five – he doesn’t read or write Arabic. But questions of identity arise in all his works, even, or perhaps especially, when he’s trying not to be a standard-bearer.

Boutrous in action.Credit: אריאל תגר

“I grew up in Be’er Sheva, I don’t look Arab, and it’s something the people around me don’t immediately know about me,” he said. “Therefore, they feel comfortable with me, comfortable talking with me, telling me things.

“On the other hand, I hear and feel the racism everywhere and I see how people talk about my ethnicity, about Arabs. I’m aware of what people think about Arabs, how Hollywood portrays Arabs and how we portray the figure of the Arab everywhere.

“This violence and tension, I feel them, and they are expressed in my work. I couldn’t create a work that was completely gentle and utopian.”

Was the work intended to be a narrative, or do you understand it that way retroactively?

“It’s retroactive understanding. I don’t want to be a standard-bearer, to be ‘the Arab choreographer,’ but in any event, people will understand me that way and look at me through this prism, certainly in Europe.

“In my early works, I tried to speak about my Arabness and bring it to my work. Over the past two years, though, I’ve reached a stage where I want to calm down, where I want to lower the flag.

Choreographer Adi Boutrous at a rehearsal. Credit: \ Moti Milrod

“My research, this work, began from the body, from the physical. After delving deeply into it, after developing the images that suddenly came to mind, after everything, I understand that it does talk about conflict, about balances of power. I understand that I’m not capable of not addressing this, because I analyze reality and understand it through a political framework.

“Everything I see, I see through this prism. Even when I look at a work – especially if it’s mine, based on an improvisation that I create – there’s no doubt that it’s not disconnected, even if we don’t talk about politics in the studio at all.”

What made him mad

Boutrous’ creative conflict is understandable. When he talks about politics and the way it enters his work, his choreography acquires additional meaning that probably wouldn’t have occurred to anyone were it not for his identity and his unique circumstances.

As he himself says, Boutrous is one of just three Arabs active in Israeli dance (the others are choreographer and dancer Sahar Damoni and dancer Ayman Safiah). This in itself puts a heavy burden on his shoulders, and that too found expression in his early works.

“What Really Makes Me Mad,” his first work, from 2012, dealt with his relationship with his romantic partner, dancer Stav Struz, and their relationship with their surroundings as a mixed Arab-Jewish couple. “Homeland Lesson,” created in 2013 for the Suzanne Dellal Center’s “Shades in Dance” program, dealt with leaving his lively family home and moving to a quiet one-room apartment in Tel Aviv. “Separately Trapped,” from 2015, dealt with the growing political extremism fomented by that year’s election campaign.

That was a turning point for him. First, he began working with dancer Avshalom Latucha, and a creative partnership developed. That’s also when he decided “to abandon the big narratives and the flags.”

“It’s Always Here,” his next work, which will be performed next month at the Biennale de la Danse in Lyon, was his first attempt to create something that began with the body and movement rather than with a political message. But it was in that very work that the messages actually became clearer.

“Somehow,” he said, “the investigation of the body accomplished that very act of returning to identity – my identity as a dancer, with a technical language and certain movement capabilities that are identified with me, and also the environmental context, how I experience my environment, inclusion and intimacy. It became more political and more honest.

“I realized that I don’t need to talk about it, but rather to do it. In my previous works, there was a text. But at some point I understood that I didn’t need to talk about it, but to experience and investigate it with the body. The body is a tool that has knowledge, and it also knows how to reflect this. All I had to do was investigate the body, and when I investigated it, my real identity got expressed.”

So is “Submission” more of a political work or a gender-oriented work?

“As we worked, we realized that we were dealing with masculinity. Masculinity in Israel has a certain meaning, it has issues. How do you raise sons here, young boys, who at age 7 or 8 already have to be men? Who watch pornography, go to the army and work on silencing their feelings, but suffer violence that’s reflected outward?

“I want to expand not just the definition of masculinity, but also what men do in dance. My encounter with Avshalom is powerful and combative; it involves a lot of manipulation. But it’s also inclusive, close, homoerotic.

“These principles are also found in the women’s duet, even though the choreography is different. It involves physical attrition in an endless cycle, a violation of what is seen as feminine or masculine, and homoerotic tension. But ‘submission’ to me means giving in, recognizing reality as it is and understanding that I can’t change the way of the world.

“Nevertheless, it’s also an associative work, and it invites the viewer to interpret it as he pleases. When I watch it, I can’t see this tension in any other way than as part of the conflict we inhabit.”

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