Border crossing in an anxious time

The Israeli dance company L-E-V brought its highly skilled, high-anxiety art to Portland to open White Bird's Uncaged Series

L-E-V has referred to itself as a “post-national, trans-disciplinary movement.” If you’re not sure what that means, it should not surprise you that they’re recognizing the complicated relationship with borders they have because they live and work in Israel. Whatever your politics, that part of the world is an ever-changing complex of boundaries, definitions, and tensions. After seeing some of the other contemporary dance coming out of Israel, I was confident, without projecting any critical position onto them, that I was going to see something transgressive and intense with L-E-V, when I saw that White Bird was opening its Uncaged series at Lincoln Hall with the group. I wasn’t disappointed.

Before forming L-E-V, choreographer Sharon Eyal spent many years at the highly respected Batsheva Dance Company. Batsheva is led by former Martha Graham student Ohad Naharin who, among his many accomplishments, may be best known to American audiences as Natalie Portman’s trainer for Black Swan. Naharin has developed a “dance language” called Gaga, and Eyal and her co-artist director Gai Beha speak a variant of it in their two pieces from this show, Sara and Killer Pig.

About Gaga Naharin says: “We explore multi-dimensional movement; we enjoy the burning sensation in our muscles, we are ready to snap, we are aware of our explosive power and sometimes we use it. We change our movement habits by finding new ones. We go beyond our familiar limits.”

Practiced without mirrors, and following both rules and intuition, Gaga movements shift between tension that seems to pit the body against itself and then sudden fluidity and fine control. It’s a remarkable thing to watch, appearing unnatural yet possessing an internal sense that honestly makes one want to get up and try it too.

L-E-V's "Killer Pig"/Photo by Gil Shani

L-E-V’s “Killer Pig”/Photo by Gil Shani

Whether or not you stop reading at the word “postmodernism,” you must admit that the 20th century, the Internet, and the unsureness of the future has definitely messed with our sense of canon, of newness, and of “normal.” Contemporary artists need strategies to deal with this shifting, fractured landscape. L-E-V’s choreography, Gaga and otherwise, is clearly from a time and place of shifts and fractures.

Their angular, sometimes hard-to-believe ways of moving reminded me of recent influences of glitch culture showing up in popular media. The FKA Twigs-directed and danced commercial for Google Glass was the first to come to mind. Remix has been mainstreamed for a while now, so glitch offers a sort of sideways step to produce a new sense of newness. In the way that we have never really digested the entrance of dissonance into musical composition, which has been with us in the West for well more than a century, when things break you can get something that feels new in a fresher way than simply “something I haven’t seen before.”

L-E-V has come up with something really exhilarating in the way that they choose and mix their influences. Behar, without classical training, met Eyal while producing underground raves in the heyday of rave music and dance. Aptly, the music is live-mixed by Ori Lichtik, which brought the soundtrack up to the standards of the dancing, something that is still regrettably hard to find. Lichtik’s mix was just as inventively strange and glitchy as the dance, prominently featuring The Knife’s signature distorted vocals. I thought that was a great choice, as the Swedish rockstars manage to go very weird and very wrong to find new ways of being addictively listenable and strangely beautiful. I’d say the same about L-E-V. On a side note, there’s evidence that our own human imperfections or glitches provide an important texture to what we hear in music that feels missing in perfectly rhythmic compositions, i.e. live mixing made a difference.

This show seems to thread popular genre dance movements through Gaga and classical movement. There’s a clear presence of popping, but only as one flavor among many. Of course, it takes skill and curation to keep such a rich mix from going muddy, from turning into a faceless brown of mixed results. Gaga seems to be a constant falling apart and picking back up, reminding me of local dancer Allie Hankin’s take on Bolero. The spine-winding erupts into fluid kicks, melts into slow splits. The synchrony of the troupe’s movements and their positioning also comes together then breaks apart. They literally walk as if the ground is not quite there below them, and there’s a tremendous energy to the way they wield this tension.

At the end of the first piece, Sara, a single dancer enters the back of the stage, walking slowly and normally. Her costume is a simple, black dress with an unremarkable floral pattern chasing the hem of the skirt, though you notice that the ring of decoration hangs down without the rest of the skirt in places. The stage clears and she performs a comparatively slow, conventional solo, lifting her skirt like a can-can dancer. It is the quietest, simplest moment in the show and, for that, one of the strangest.

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