Danielle Agami

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.

New, now, a little touch of wow

Northwest Dance Project opens its 10th season with three more world premieres

Nieto,  Wong, and Parson in  “This Time Tomorrow.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Nieto, Wong, and Parson in “This Time Tomorrow.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

And suddenly it’s in double digits. Northwest Dance Project opened its 10th season Thursday night at Lincoln Performance Hall, a mark on the calendar that suggests a subtle shift from feisty outsider to genuine Portland institution.

It’s not that the dance troupe’s mission has changed. Founding artistic director Sarah Slipper, a former leading ballerina for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and onetime ballet mistress for Oregon Ballet Theatre, still wants the company to do new work, contemporary work, often work by emerging national and international choreographers, work that frequently looks to Europe for inspiration and that may be rooted in ballet but aspires to live in and move among the ideas and realities of today.

And so it does. The company’s work can be uncomfortable for those who prefer their ballet in a traditional vein, and at times it seems to wander, shapeless and structure-free, as if the journey were far more interesting than the destination. But it’s almost always new – it’s news when a dance at the Project ISN’T a world premiere – and choreographers like to come here to create new work, partly because NDP welcomes it and partly because Slipper’s dancers are so adaptable to different styles. Because NDP is a new-work laboratory, things can be rough-cut, which is something of a peril but also provides a good deal of the company’s charm. Either way, the dancing’s almost always compelling. The Dance Project’s work is consistently varied, but also familiar, often reveling in the beauty of the ungainly and the influences of popular culture and everyday movement on dance.

What’s changed, as the company enters its 10th year, is that it doesn’t feel like an experiment that could disappear at any moment. Like almost all arts organizations, Northwest Dance Project operates on a thin financial line. But now it’s firmly established. Oregon Ballet Theatre is the traditional, neoclassical company, the one that can be counted on to do justice to the great story ballets as it preserves and cautiously extends the traditions of the dance form. BodyVox is the brashly American company, inspired in part by American optimism and the great silent-film comedians. Northwest Dance Project is the scrappy, increasingly essential company that likes things a little nervous and edgy and out on the brink of things. It’s not so much that NDP has found its place in the city’s dance scene. It’s more that the city has discovered NDP is here.

Thursday night’s program, which continues through Sunday, is NDP’s latest “New Now Wow!” – a gathering of premieres by three young dancemakers. This year’s are “The Practice of Being Alone,” by Loni Landon (her third work on the NDP dancers); Danielle Agami’s “This Time Tomorrow”; and James Gregg’s “Malign Star.” All three were created in the studio here and take advantage of the company’s experienced and deeply collaborative dancers, most of whom have matured together. The company is 10 strong now, and most – Samantha Campbell, Patrick Kilbane, Elijah Labay, Lindsey Matheis, Lindsey McGill, Princess Grace Award winners Franco Nieto and Andrea Parson – have worked together for several seasons. Viktor Usov has deep roots with the company (he trained with Slipper from the time he was 14, and was with it in its inaugural season). Ching Ching Wong, now in her third year, has quickly become a company mainstay. And Julia Radick, who’s been with NDP less than a year, also has prior links: she’s taken part in one of the company’s summer LAUNCH projects for young professional dancers.

Landon’s “The Practice of Being Alone” uses seven dancers in a series of comings and goings, bodies slipping together and slipping away, never staying together very long, jumbling together and apart in a riverflow of tortuous and inventive movement. It’s a moody piece, sometimes using mime, sometimes carried out in circles of light by designer Jeff Forbes that isolate and create sharp contrasts, and it plays around with images of domination and submission: not an altogether happy piece (to put it mildly), and one that moves through a tenuous, almost amorphous soundscape. In the end, despite its obvious ambitions, it’s a bit heavy and morose. Landon received her BFA from Juilliard in just 2005, later joined Ballet Theater Munich, dances with the Metropolitan Opera, and has had her own work performed at the Joyce, Jacob’s Pillow, the Ailey Theater, and elsewhere.

Campbell,  Nieto and company in “Malign Star.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Campbell, Nieto and company in “Malign Star.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Judging by audience reaction – the piece got a standing ovation on opening night – Gregg’s “Malign Star” is the popular hit of the program, and although it strikes me as still a bit unformed, the appeal is easy to see. It begins in a cascade of vocal cathedral music, and the dancers (Gregg uses all 10) arrive onstage in what look like old-fashioned Catholic school uniforms, the girls in starchy Madeleine collars, the boys in shorts. The dance is ordered in musical movements and seems to be about rituals, and faith, and the loss of it, and innocence and experience. At various times we see images of prayer, and hear cries that sound like a muzzein’s call, and even see dancers lay hands on other dancers’ bellies, as if checking for the heartbeat of an unborn child. Sometimes the dancers square off in rival gangs, making gestures that seem more sound than actual fury, like the Lost Boys and Hook’s pirate crew getting in a mock tussle. “Malign Star” has a yearning, inchoate quality, like a fleeting emotional touchstone. It also feels not quite under control yet, like it wants a few sharp cuts and firm decisions to bring it into better focus. Gregg has danced with Chicago’s River North Dance Company and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, and still performs with Rubberband Dance even as his choreographic career is taking off.

For my taste Agami’s quirky and wryly funny “This Time Tomorrow” is the cream of the crop. Agami, 29, was born and raised in Israel and danced with that country’s innovative Batsheva Dance Company for several seasons; she now runs her own company in Los Angeles. “Tomorrow” has wit, twisted elegance (for all the odd angles, Agami insists on purity of line), and a sophisticated sense of how dance works with music and silence. And the movement can be startlingly fun. The piece is well-shaped, and it has a sense of controlled entropy, seemingly random variations that nevertheless have a discernible theme. The dancers, costumed in luscious creamy-white by designer Tobi de Goede, sometimes slither across the stage, making peekaboo entrances from behind the curtain and gliding on their backs like multiply jointed centipedes, knees bent and fast feet propelling them forward. Oranges, oddly but endearingly, roll all over the place. Forbes lights the stage so that giant shadow-dancers sometimes leap from the back wall. There are bumps and grunts and wrestling, and long stretches with no sound at all, and a culminating,  sweetly controlled pandemonium to the bubbling sound of Puerto Muerto’s song “Wondering.” It’s all new and now in this program. If you’re looking for “wow,” this is as close as you’ll get.

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“New Now Wow!” continues through Sunday at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Aaron Spencer’s review for Willamette Week is here.

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