By Wendy Perron
This trip to Israel, March 9 through 17, was with Andy Teirstein, our fearless leader; Pam Pietro, associate director of Translucent Borders; Cari Ann Shim Sham, our trusty video documentarian, and myself. We are all on the faculty of Tisch Dance.
You cannot walk ten yards in Israel without encountering a discussion about the Israeli/Arab conflict. As you go deeper into Israel, you realize that there are not just two sides to any argument, but many. There are Arab Israelis, Arab Jews, Christian Arabs, Russian Israelis, Ethiopian Jews. Artistically, this provides for a luminous diversity.
The real work of this trip took place at the Eco-Art Village near the town of Modin. But I will get to that later, because other wonderful things happened first. Andy brought us to performing artists who are already crossing borders of cultures and languages. The richness came in the combination of talking and engaging, giving us a multilayered experience.
System Ali is a hip-hop band in Tel Aviv made up of Israelis, Arabs and Russian immigrants. We’d seen their very cool video online so we were psyched. The band’s first performance was on the roof of a bomb shelter ten years ago, and they’ve been playing clubs, etc., ever since.
On Friday, March 10, two guys from the band—Neta Weiner and Mohammad Mograbi—met us on a street corner in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv. They led us up an outdoors staircase to a bare space belonging to a community center. Neta and Mohammad sat on a sofa and rehearsed quietly for the workshop they were about to give for a local group planning an arts festival. Neta played accordion and made beat box sounds with his mouth while Mohammad rapped in Hebrew or Arabic and sometimes both. The accordion was gentle but evocative, slightly plaintive. It’s a beguiling combination. I got the impression that these two, from very different backgrounds, easily fell into the same groove musically.
We took part in their workshop. To kick it off, Neta and Mohammad performed two or three songs where both Hebrew and Arabic were heard, thus being inviting to most people there, The participants, including Pam, Andy and me, were sitting in chairs around the periphery of the room. (Cari Ann set up her video camera in a corner.)
Mohammad led us in a physical warm up, loosening the wrists with interlaced fingers as he had learned in Judo, moving on to quick arm stretches. To loosen us further, he had us rub our faces, raise our voices and then swat it all down with one loud yell, as though getting rid of something menacing.
Then we all stood in a circle. Neta and Mohammad invited each person to add a vocal sound to the steady beat that Neta kept on the accordion. This grew into a series of exercises, culminating in us each reciting a couple of sentences about a place that has good memories and another place that has bad memories. Again, we went around the room and kept it in rhythm. I wished I understood Hebrew.
Seeing the rapport between Neta and Mohammad as they co-led the workshop—listening to the other’s sounds, always thinking/feeling how they can fall in with each other—was a joy. It’s tempting to present their partnership as an example of peaceful coexistence, but apparently the term “co-existence” has taken on a meaning of normalizing the enormous tensions, an impression they emphatically do not want to project. What I saw between them was an active desire to understand, converse, and collaborate—not necessarily to co-exist peacefully. In fact, they said in an interview afterwards that they fight all the time. They met in a Judo class ten years ago and developed a deep trust. Mohammad says he doesn’t always agree with Neta but he respects him. I imagine this is true of the other ten members of System Ali as well, and that’s why they feel at home with each other.
When Andy asked Neta about audience response to their performances, he joked that someone always gets angry at them—for all being on the stage together, or for not co-existing enough or for co-existing too much.
With the historical influence of Arab music, American music, Sephardic music, Jewish refugees from Arab countries as well as immigrants from Russia, System Ali has access to many musical tones and shades. But Neta still loves klezmer music, which he described as crying and dancing at the same time.
Side note: Musicians always appreciate Andy’s curiosity and musical range. Neta remarked later, with delight, that in the vocal part of the workshop he noticed that Andy had slipped into a perfect Tom Waits voice.
Music and Theater, Haifa and Galilee
On March 13, Ofer Yaakov, new to me but warmly remembered by my colleagues from the last Translucent Borders trip to Israel, drove us to visit three people: Taisir Elias at the University of Haifa, musician George Sama’an in his home, and Pablo Ariel at the Galilee Multicultural Theatre.
A well known figure in world music, Taisir was conducting a small group of students from the University of Haifa and the Academy of Jerusalem plus a community youth group. Among them were a pianist, a violinist, trombone player, two oud players, three women singers and two male singers. What struck me was the quiet presence of the women singers, aglow with devotion. The first song, with its melancholy tune, captured my heart. After that the pace picked up. It slowed again for the fourth song, an Arab-language version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.”
In keeping with what became a theme of this trip, Andy asked the students what traditions and instruments they had played at home. Serena, the pianist—and Taisir’s daughter—said she grew up with both classical music and Arab traditions. She recalled that her father would be working on new combinations of piano and Oud. Tama, the young trombonist, said he too started with classical music but also studied trombone and Hebrew songs. One of the oud players said he listened to Beethoven; the other cited Flamenco. One of the singers said she listened to Hindi songs. The violinist, an American named Samantha, said she grew up with all kinds of music.
Taisir himself studied violin as a child but also played Arab music at parties. However, he told us that when he was growing up, Arab music was not taken seriously in academic institutions. So he studied classical music at the academy in Haifa—and “fell in love with Western music.” He started to look for universal elements, common to both. He could use the oud as something of a common element. “I believe the oud speaks many languages,” he said. “I don’t try to make the oud into a cello or a sax. I preserve its character, its features. But I also like to add things… I can open my ears and borrow things that fit my music.”
He feels music not only crosses borders in terms of language and sound, but also in terms of peace: “I believe music can tear down walls…I cannot create music with you if I hate you. If you are a Jew, Arab, Muslim, etc., you are a human being, and I love human beings.”
Later we visited George Sama’an in his home in Haifa. He played many songs on the oud for us, his voice full of life. He’s a salt-of-the-earth, Zorba-the-Greek–type character. I saw pleasure, sorrow, and eagerness cross his face. Andy showed his curiosity in the oud, and George was delighted. As George played and sang, he looked Andy in the eyes as though serenading him. They were playing together, George on the oud and Andy on banjo, creating a harmony of different cultural sounds. Without a shred of self-consciousness, George said “I love you” to Andy. Maybe this could only happen because we were in his home. For that moment, Andy was his son.
A special bonus for our driver, Ofer: He relayed a request from his wife for George to sing a particular song. George complied, while Ofer, incredulous at his good luck, videotaped him on his iPhone. The next day, he couldn’t stop marveling at how he’d lived in Galilee for 20 years but it wasn’t until our NYU contingent came along that he actually met George.
Ofer, who is a park ranger, had other interesting things to say. He described being a 19-year old soldier commanded to break into Palestinian homes in the middle of the night to search for bombs and guns (which they sometimes found), and take away a father or brother who were judged to be terrorists. He could see the families were terrified, so he would bring candy for the children. He knew it was traumatic for the family but he said this type of operation is also traumatic for the soldiers.
We visited the Galilee Multicultural Theatre, which seeks to go beyond words by using movement, music, puppets, and objects. Director Pablo Ariel demonstrated one ingenious scene in a puppet show: An object that looks like a violin, after a few minor adjustments, transforms into a chicken.
Pablo is from Argentina but is devoted to life in Israel. He feels strongly that Arabs and Jews should both be represented in his theater. For a recent performance piece, he gathered stories of Arabs and Jews who have called Galilee their home for many years. He then made a recording of their voices to accompany audience members on a tour of Galilee.
This retreat, which doubles as the home of the well known Vertigo Dance Company, is in Elah Valley (known as the place, in biblical times, where David fought Goliath). The three days we spent there became a peak experience for us because we—a globally constituted group of about 12 people—worked together in very focused ways. It didn’t hurt that this is a beautiful location, geographically and spiritually. With two large studios, four “mud rooms,” and outdoor showers, the compound is ecologically correct, which added to our savoring of nature and collaboration.
On the first evening, Andy asked people to speak about themselves and their home. I remember only that Sahar Damoni, a young Arab dancer, said she didn’t have a permanent home, so home was her body.
The next morning we participated in warmups from various traditions. Ian Robinson, a Tisch alum who had just left Batsheva Dance Company after seven years, led a brief gaga warmup. This exploratory form, developed by Batsheva director Ohad Naharin, activates every part of the body. I’ve done gaga in both Tel Aviv and New York and have always noticed how dance-ready my body feels afterward. Then Merigha Abubakari (a.k.a. Yaya), the master dancer/musician Andy had connected with in Ghana, led a full-out, skipping and weaving warmup including simple partner work with yelling in each other’s faces—much more fun than it sounds. Right away our bodies were yanked into a different culture. Yaya was not following a fixed routine but basically improvising, and we ended by crouching down and slapping the floor. Then Sahar showed us spinning techniques based in Sufi tradition.
Finally, I got to do what I had been envisioning for this globally mixed group: Simone Forti’s Huddle, a 1961 “dance construction.” This involves seven or eight people forming a supportive mound over which each person, one at a time, climbs and then descends. In this structure, every single person is a necessary part of the whole.
All of this served to get us used to each other in a flesh-and-bone way. Then Andy and I placed people in small groups and asked them to share something of their creative practices with each other. They were to show their colleagues a phrase or a style, and make a short piece. We stipulated that they had to come together in unison or by physical contact at least once in the piece. All four groups had about half an hour to work on this.
What came out of this simple assignment was beautiful and varied: a quartet, a duet, a trio, and another quartet.
First we went outdoors to see what Noa Wertheim (director of Vertigo Dance Company and a co-founder of Eco-Village), Sahar; Timna Jahoda Kligler (young American dance artist living in Israel) and well known musician Yair Dalal, had worked on. (Dalal, a Jew exiled from Iraq whose first language is Arabic, helped define the modern Arab Israeli, or Mizrachi sound.) They performed a seamless circle dance that revolved around Yair, who was playing violin. Toward the end, the three women fell out of the circle onto the ground. Yair kept playing, revolving in a circle, lowering himself until the stem of his bow touched the earth.
Then we came inside where Adi Sha’al (Noa’s husband) and Yaya, made a duet with Andy playing the violin. They started about five yards from each other, moving their hands as though washing their faces. They pointed toward each other until their fingertips met, like two electrical currents. Yaya suddenly jumped into Adi’s arms. It was such a charged moment. Adi had studied contact improvisation and was ready for anything. We all felt that there was an immediate, intuitive partnership between these two men.
For the trio, Kendall Old Elk, a Native American (Apsaalooke, or Crow nation) who lives in Berlin, worked with Cari Ann and Leia Weil, an American based in Israel. Cari Ann introduced the practice of writing Haiku, so they each read a short nature poem they’d written. Then Kendall pounded his drum as the two women danced. This trio didn’t have much cohesion. (The night before, when we were all introducing ourselves to each other, Kendall had said that his top priority was to preserve his tradition, and we all respected that. Thus it was no surprise that he was less enthusiastic to enter into a collaboration. Later that night, he participated fully by performing some of his native dances, dressed in full regalia.)
The last quartet was a beauty. The players were the Palestiniabn singer and actress Amal Murkus; Ian Robinson; Neta Pulvermacher, a well known Israeli choreographer who has taught and choreographed in the U. S.; and Pam. It started with Amal and Ian lying on the floor in spoon formation, Amal in front, Ian mostly hidden behind her. As Amal sang a beautiful love song, her hand moved across Ian’s hand. I cherished this moment because it seemed to be a clue to how comfortable we all were with each other.
Somehow, in the mere half hour allotted for this little study, these four had made a recording of their thoughts, beginning with the words “I imagine.” This was Neta Pulvermacher’s very fertile prompt. Ian’s taped voice said, “I imagine I am with my grandfather again.” The recording brought each person’s inner thoughts to the fore.
There is much potential for some of these studies to blossom into substantial works.
On the last day, Andy led a structured improvisation. He gave us the following three prompts: Home, Stepping into spring, I see my beloved. After we made dance or music phrases to these words, he had us walk to a new place in the studio. Then he gave us a different set of words: I’m in trouble; I’m in exile; I’m lost. We danced our own sequences while the musicians played, sliding from a light tone to dark. We did not plan any of the words to be in sync with each other or with the music. But we all noticed that for the word “exiled,” Sahar had slipped outdoors. As she seemed to be signaling us from just beyond the windows, we understood something about her loss of home just by witnessing that one impulsive act.
This trip reminded me that home can be a place where you love someone who joins you in music or dance, it can be a place where you feel comfortable enough to argue, it can be a place you feel shut out from, it can be a place you are ordered to invade, and it can be your own body.