The Floor Is Flat, Let’s See What We Can Do With It

Choreographer Rotem Tashach’s new work began with thoughts on human evolution.

The colors of twilight were descending on Tel Aviv last week as Rotem Tashach opened the door and apologized for the mess in his apartment, which he was soon moving out of. The living room and balcony were jam-packed; a visitor’s eye was drawn to a large canvas resting in the corner, an abstract drawing Tashach made when he was not so busy with dance. A quick glance at the pile of books revealed a selection including Foucault, Plato and Freud, atop other immortal thinkers. “I’m going crazy,” said the choreographer, 36, a bit dramatically, when I asked how he was doing. In addition to the pressure from working on “Paved Life/Hayim Merutzafim,” his new piece, which will be performed on Saturday at Tel Aviv’s Tmuna Theater, his grandfather died a few days ago − and of course moving is not much fun. “Everything is concentrating into a specific moment in time. It’s hard to cope with everything at the same time,” he says. “But I hope that in another two or three weeks things will be more manageable.”

In the past few years Tashach has created quite a few works, while formulating an intriguing stage language that combines texts sharpened by illustrative movements. “Metamorphoses” ‏(2008‏), “Israelika” ‏(2009‏), “Corporpolis” ‏(2010‏) and “Hudud” ‏(2011‏) were presented at festivals at Tmuna; “Monuments” was part of the Curtain Up festival in 2010, and last year “Polished Concrete” was performed in the Israel Museum’s Nekudat Maga Festival.

Paved life - Bachar - 15.3.12
David Bachar

Despite his high output, Tashach says he had a rough period, due in part to what he calls his “shaky psychological system,” but mainly because of the difficulty of supporting oneself as an independent choreographer in Israel.

“I ostensibly provide a livelihood to five dancers,” he says of the new production. “I’m a kind of economic engine, but I’m not making anything from it. When there was no money coming in, part of my teaching salary went to the dancers. It’s depressing and frustrating.”

A few days earlier, on a particularly rainy night, Tashach presented “Paved Life,” his first full-length work and his biggest so far, in terms of the number of performers, to a small audience. The interesting group of dancers includes the Australian Sharon Backley and the Chilean Olivia Court Mesa, as well as Daniel Gal, Tsuf Itschaky and Omer Astrachan ‏(who recently replaced Karmit Burian, who was involved in the creative process but decided not to perform due to her advanced pregnancy‏).

The performance, which last slightly under an hour, consists of a sequence of changing groups. The rich textual dialogue, in multi-accented English, covers the stage with sounds and makes you forget there is no music being played. At the edge of the space is a minimalist lounge for the dancers who are not in a given segment. The dancers are full partners in the creative process ‏(and obviously so‏) and maneuver skillfully between talking and choreography, with the mix between the two often providing another critical and humorous layer.

The long process, nearly a year, imbued the work with considerable volume, but the birth pangs were difficult. Tashach did not make the cut this time for Curtain Up, a framework that provides a comfortable production cushion, but he says there is also a problematic side to it: “They wanted to see a totally finished product right away, even before you have decided whether you’re frying a doughnut or baking a quiche. It’s part of the distorted system of dance curation in Israel; they want a product immediately and don’t give you any time for the process. It leads to the creation of uninteresting works and I don’t blame the choreographers for it, because they don’t even get a chance to try,” he says. At a certain point it was unclear if the work would ever make it to the stage eventually, and the dancers worked for a while without pay. In the end, Tashach managed to raise money from other sources − the Culture and Sports Ministry and the Jewish-American publisher Martin Peretz, a supporter of Israel and of dance. “He gave me around 80,000 shekels for the work,” he says. “The show could not have gone on otherwise. The Culture Administration [in the Culture and Sports Ministry] gave me 7,000 shekels, enough for about two months of limited work.”

Where the sidewalk ends

Tashach agrees that “Paved Life” is likely to seem much less political than earlier works of his that clearly dealt with issues like life in Israel, experience, Zionist ideology or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It looks much less political,” he says, “but actually deals with politics on a much larger and more universal scale.”

Recently, Tashach explains, he became interested in human history and the spread of mankind across the earth over the last 70,000 years, an interest that led him to understandings about modern life.

“Most people don’t have prehistory in their frame of reference,” he says, “they don’t know what we looked like as hunter-gatherers and that our life today is a lot worse than theirs was. There are a lot of misconceptions. I discovered that we were healthier, taller, worked much less hard, that there was not only a single model for sexuality and family, that community life was very satisfying and the body suited the biology. Today our bodies don’t correspond to the biology.

“Basically, in the piece I explain how much our physical lives are undisciplined, limited and pathetic compared to prehistoric humans. You can’t crawl in the bank, dance in the cafe or climb buildings. If you want to climb, you go to a climbing wall built specifically for that purpose; if you want to run, you have to go to the beach or the gym. You don’t have the freedom to do what you want with your body, there is intense imprisonment of the body and that’s the most political aspect of the work.”

His studies began with “The Smooth and the Striated,” the essay by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari that posits two categories − layered and organic − that comprise everything in the world. belongs to one of these two categories. Prehistory is organic, explains Tashach, whereas history is layered. After reading the essay he began thinking about tiled floors, a layered element created 10,000 years ago, after the agricultural revolution, that totally altered human movement.

“The sidewalk makes our steps identical in terms of quality and form,” he says, demonstrating “whereas walking on rocks or a climbing a slope − organic movement in a three-dimensional environment − is rich and varied. When you walk on grass you feel how the muscles work differently, and how the body is built for this kind of setting, and not for a two-dimensional setting, which causes a lot of displeasure, pain and injuries. Man is made to be physical. The lack of physicality leads to the drying up of the body and to all of our physical ailments and problems.”

What is the solution?

“Dance is a solution to a certain extent, because it entails within it the statement, ‘the floor is flat, let’s see what we can do with that.’ Dance is a laboratory for producing the maximum from the flat floor.”

How do you translate these complex ideas into text and movement?

“I use a choreographic perspective to view the world beyond the stage, the street, the bed, waiting room, bus station. I see how people behave in these places, ask questions and create a dialogue. I bring the dialogue to the studio. It always starts with a discussion of some kind of problem, some movement issue. This time it was the flat floor, that’s where it all started. The discussions among the dancers deepen and are poured into the dialogue we write and then we try to think of how demonstrate this with the body.”

Tashach was born in Haifa, moved with his family to Yavne when he was eight, and moved to Tel Aviv at 18. He studied dance at the Bikurei Ha’itim community center and danced with Muza and with Anat Danieli’s dance companies. He has a bachelor’s in art history from Tel Aviv University, a master’s in interactive communications from New York University and a master’s in fine arts from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. He went on to focus on choreography.

He says that while he goes into the dance studio with “a lot of philosophy, history and politics,” but “because I don’t have formal training in these fields, it’s very eclectic. Happily for me, at the start of my studies at Tel Aviv University, I met Dr. Orly Shevi,” who now teaches visual arts at the University of California San Diego. “She steer me to the most relevant article, artist or movie. It could be Santiago Sierra, Georgio Agamben, Michel Foucault or Deleuze.”

In a notable segment of “Paved Life,” the dancers move near the ground, burrowing into each other in an intimate manner and sighing. Later on a discussion about sex and physical contact develops and is combined with scenes where Gal guides the optimal choreography of a sexual act.

Tashach says his interest in the subject stems from “the feeling that our physical life is limited and known in advance. I feel that we are very poor when it comes to contact and physicality. The need for contact, intimacy and sex has become separate, categorical and emasculating. Once I slept with someone and at a certain point he told me, ‘what you’re doing is too intimate; this is just a hook-up.” Tashach says he became very aware of this issue after he started dancing. “Dancers are constantly massaging each other, rolling on each other, lifting each other and embracing. You are very satisfied physically and it makes you a happier person. When I didn’t dance for a few years, I felt a drop in my level of happiness and an increased need for sex, because I missed the contact. I realized how happy I was when I danced with people and touched on a daily basis. It satisfied me a lot more than sex.”

Hostile environment

The text in Tashach’s previous works were in Hebrew. Although two foreign dancers perform in Paved Life,” he says the decision to use English is primarily for “opportunistic reasons.”

“I want to take this to the International Exposure Dance Festival,” at Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center, and hope it will travel beyond Israel. Both because it’s fun, and a sign of success and involves travel, and on a more basic level, because choreographers support themselves with foreign tours. The choice of English is also more appropriate for me politically speaking, because I really don’t like this thing called a nation.”

Why did you decide not to include yourself in the cast this time?

“Because it’s very hard to see a work from the inside. There are things that from the inside you adore because they’re great and from the outside you see it and think they’re not interesting. I also don’t like how I appear; I hate the way I talk. It’s connected to my psychology. I grew up in a very hostile environment; they really didn’t like me for being gay.”

But it wasn’t a sweeping decision to stop performing completely.

“No, but for this performance it was the right decision. It’s an ambitious production, an entire evening. I felt I had to be on the outside from an artistic perspective, to observe, filter and refine.”

Are you worried that sometimes you overdo the amount of text?

“I always have the concern that it will be too much text and that people will get bored, not follow or not understand. But I relax when I see the people watching the performance and physically feel their curiosity. You feel and see whether someone is intrigued or not, and that reassures me. Every time I’m amazed all over again to discover how much the text draws people, helps them to understand what they’re seeing and makes them to think.”