White Bird: Dance as a satirical medium

Hillel Kogan's "We Love Arabs" parodies the Israeli artist

During Hillel Kogan’s We Love Arabs I was laughing out loud, doing my best to suppress actual snorting in the presence of others. And I wasn’t alone. All about me, gales of laughter were tumbling toward the Lincoln Hall stage where Kogan and Adi Boutrous were performing, the second half of White Bird’s New Israeli Voices in Dance program.

What were we laughing at? Well, yes, there was more than a smidgen of slapstick for starters and parodies of modern dance stylings. But the comedy went beyond the physical, or rather, the physical was entangled with the verbal. Kogan provided a running commentary, first of his “philosophy” of dance: “I feel wherever we are in space absolutely defines how we should move,” he says, as he does a rather extreme series of movements. And then during his interaction with Boutrous, who was summoned to help him deal with some particularly difficult space: “The space that is rejecting me belongs to an Arab.”

Adi Boutrous, left, and Hillel Kogan in "We Love Arabs"/Gadi Dagon

Adi Boutrous, left, and Hillel Kogan in “We Love Arabs”/Gadi Dagon

We know that this ground is difficult. Some might go all the way to “impossible” or “intractable” or “beyond help.” Others think the answer involves war, maybe even thermo-nuclear war. Never fear, I’m not going to go into all THAT here. Kogan knows he doesn’t need to, either. But in the course of “We Love Arabs” he manages to contribute useful observations about life these days in the Middle East in an entirely original way—using his “character,” a Leftish Jewish artist trying to make peace with his space.

Adi Boutrous and Hillel Kogan/Gadi Dagon

Adi Boutrous and Hillel Kogan/Gadi Dagon

Naturally, he’s unsparing of the artist, whose first act is to have Boutrous emblazon a star of David on his shirt and then to mark Boutrous’s forehead with a Crescent (or “croissant” as he calls it). Boutrous says simply: “I am Christian.” That doesn’t deflect Kogan. The rest of the dance establishes how deeply implanted the orthodoxies of “identity” are in Israeli society, the stereotypes and the rigidity, even among the creative Left. Which doesn’t sound funny at all until you see Kogan and Boutrous in action. Let’s just say that it contains more than a little sexual subtext and ends with more fun than a bowl of hummus has any right to provide. And you get the idea of how wonderfully both Kogan and Boutrous can move, even in support of satire.

I’m not much of a recommender, when it comes right down to it, because how could I possibly know what you’d like? But I’m having a hard time imagining an ArtsWatch reader who wouldn’t get a kick out of “We Love Arabs.” Seriously.

The evening started with Danielle Agami’s Exhibit B, a world premiere. Both Kogan and Agami have history with Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s leading modern dance company since its inception in 1964 (Martha Graham was one of the founders), and its artistic director Ohad Naharin. Exhibit B was commissioned by White Bird, its 32nd commission during its 17 years as the city’s leading dance presenter, a remarkable investment. It’s episodic, driven by Middle Eastern-inflected techno dance music by Omid Walizadeh, and illuminated by Portland lighting designer Jeff Forbes. The eight dancers in the company, Ate9 Dance Company, which now calls Los Angeles home, are all interesting—different shapes (from the long-limbed Micaela Taylor to more compactly assembled, powerful dancers), different personalities, different movement dynamics.

I found Exhibit B beguiling, with a gesture system that seemed vaguely Middle Eastern (fingers arranged just so, for example) and a mix of unison (“You know what unison means?” asks Kogan of Boutrous in the second half), solo and group dancing that clumps and dissolves fluidly. But it also had its disturbing moments. I’m thinking of an early section that began with a dancer throwing herself onto the stage floor from the wings, landing in a motionless heap, only to be dragged off the stage by another dancer. Over and over again. Agami understands the power of repetition, because several phrases and gestures remain in my head the morning after. So do the set of tableaux Agami creates at the end of the dance, a little lesson in how the still body can communicate a universe of ideas.

White Bird has introduced Israeli dance to Portland (they’ve had help: Northwest Dance Project, which also has a concert this weekend, has previously commissioned Agami, for example), and in the turmoil of the Middle East, even the latest election results (which in a way, Kogan skewers), that choreography and those dancers have given us insight and maybe even hope. If only the dancers, Israeli and Palestinian, ran things…

New Israeli Voices in Dance continues through Saturday night.

2 Responses.

  1. It knocked my socks off. Humor can say powerful things about very serious subjects. Here it was superbly effective.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      The complexity of the “critique” using voice and movement was breathtaking, wasn’t it? And yes, hilarious!

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