How to Move in The Dances Are For Us
August 14, 2019
By Yarden Stern
Hadar Ahuvia’s The Dances Are For Us begins with a formal introduction. Ahuvia assembled a troop of performers from different backgrounds and nationalities, varying in their approaches to and histories of dance. She reveals to her audience that after having many collective conversations around culture, identity and the concept of lineage, each performer is to demonstrate an early dance memory, a recollection of what moved them once and keeps on moving them in the present.
One by one they share early memories of dance and movement. Improvising to the sound of Tina Turner as your mother looks on; rechoreographing movement to famous nursery rhymes; imitating a babysitter’s dancing with your younger cousins; learning a traditional Indonesian dance from your grandmother. I can’t help but notice how these choreographic memories are tethered tightly to the concept of family. Much of our identity is determined through the familial arrangement we come of age with, but rarely does it become this clear that we learn to move our bodies in the world according to a beat which originates through this same structure of family. These structures can provide liberation from societal and national expectations by offering a mode of moving that is intrinsic to the familial arrangement. But too often, these structures of potential freedom end up being the most oppressive, confining one to strict movement and rhythm from which it feels impossible to break.
André Lepecki, in his treatise on the Choreopolitical (2013), harnesses Hannah Arendt’s understanding of political movements oriented towards the concept of liberation. To him, the freedom of the political – or lack thereof – is inherently linked to the body and its potential to move autonomously.
“…historically and disciplinarily, the concept and the practice of choreography implements, needs, produces, and reproduces what William Forsythe has called an “art of command” (in Franko 2007:17). Such understanding of choreography obviously implies that, as with any system of command, choreography also implements, needs, produces, and reproduces whole systems of obedience”[i].
While Lepecki positions the state and its arms as the primary forces which demand and obtain obedience, I would extend and localize his claim to include the familial structure as a choreographic force that implements, needs, produces and necessarily reproduces obedience. This is Ahuvia’s entry point and intervention, as she connects the familial and choreographic in several ways that highlight and confront her audience with the need to break with one’s inheritance. For Ahuvia, this means falling out of step with the Zionism that is fundamental in her familial structure.
A daughter of an Israeli folk dance instructor, Ahuvia grew up with the dance form being an important contingent of her Jewish identity. As she converses openly with her audience, Ahuvia audibly recalls a childhood spent between Israel and Honolulu, including experiences of performing while being protested by both Palestinian and Hawaiian activists. Ahuvia turns critically towards the practice she studied her entire life, actively interrogating the origins of this complicated inheritance, a constructed narrative meant to smooth problematic and violent pasts. The Zionist myth regarding the land of Israel maintains that nothing was turned into something, that they made the desert bloom, is here re-presented by Ahuvia as a long process of cultural erasure and appropriation. Through dance, Ahuvia confronts the violence of this worn-out narrative and the ideological commands of its choreographers.
Ahuvia chooses to expose this layered and complex reality through the literal use of projection, in a way that recreates and subverts those momentous and multidirectional scenes of performing a Zionist identity. This technique is used in a variety of ways to explore the bodily and psychological valences of projection: as ideologies are projected onto the subject; the subject locates oneself inside them. Projecting a dance tutorial on a back wall, Ahuvia and performer Mor Mendel begin to mimic the instructor and his partner in a meticulous process of imitation. Ahuvia translates the Hebrew of the dance instructor, but intentionally begins to stumble with her words, to insert her reading of the subtext as direct claims. This choreographic directive loses its neutrality as it’s understood to maintain extreme ideological renderings through the rhetorical failures that Ahuvia coaxes out of the instructional dance clip.
“We knew the land
And the rest is the same shift the weight and a Yemenite step – join us!
We knew the land – to the front and turn
We made her bloom
Shift the weight One more time to drill it
Everyone joins from off stage
We knew the land – we made her bloom
And the chorus returns again.”
Two performers emerge on stage wearing pristine white dresses, as they become the surface for another form of projection. They twist and turn, their movement playing and distorting the imagery they are supposed to contain with their bodies. Through their movements, Ahuvia’s voice begins to echo in the back as she directly addresses those in desperate need to hear her call. She hails the Jewish American community, calling them out in an uneasy demand to confront the power they hold to make a difference in the political precarity and ongoing occupation in Israel/Palestine.
“Here is how we dance with blood on our hands
Here is what it’s like to be close to the blood on your hands
Look at the power you wield but are so removed from״
This is a powerful and brave move by Ahuvia, who actively works to dispel the romanticism so often associated with Israeli folk dance. She moves to distance the pristine nature associated with the dances and the land, both forcefully contrived, and utilizes its force to break with its narrativization. Her choreography moves towards freedom, making it necessarily politically charged: a choreopolitical movement. In the penultimate section of the performance, Ahuvia stages a class with her dancers to (un)learn the Yemenite step. She encourages them to break with her instructions, with the indoctrination of the body and with how it was told and instructed to move. “This is excellent. It is also incorrect,” Ahuvia proudly tells her dancers as they fill up the space with improvisatory movement. Their movement seeks freedom and independence while managing to maintain a ununified collectivity; they are intimately together, differently.
“What if return was possible?” Ahuvia asks her audience. After a full performance that extracted uneasy realities of present and past, it becomes clear this equation is incalculable. A final projection is cast and Ahuvia stands in front of a screen revealing her own image dancing at her grandfather’s former residence in Poland, the one he was made to leave in time of war. “There are no equivalences but there are parallels and lessons” she repeats over and over again as she weaves together her own heritage with the contemporary undeniable reality in Israel/Palestine. These parallels, through Ahuvia’s treatment, necessarily don’t construct a cohesive narrative, but one that moves toward freedom by embracing the necessarily complex and contradictory. She leaves her audience with an open question that she herself can’t answer alone:
“And we here are asking –
How to conceive a structure?
How to conjure frameworks, medicine and movement to heal ruptures?
How to move?”