Hadar Ahuvia in Conversation with Lydia Bell: The Dances Are For Us
October 15, 2019
Choreographer Hadar Ahuvia recently sat down with Danspace Project Associate Curator Lydia Bell to discuss Ahuvia’s The Dances Are For Us, which premiered at Danspace Project May 30-June 1, 2019. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lydia Bell: I was moved by seeing your choreographic ideas on multiple people. It made me think about the euphoria that comes with being in a group or dancing in a group. I experienced that through the all-ages punk scene in Portland, Oregon, as a teenager–mosh pit energy–but I think in folk dancing there’s also that kind of energy as well, which can manifest joy but maybe also produce a willful ignorance, which you referenced in a recent interview with Svetlana Kitto.
Can you talk about the decision to work with a group for this piece?
Hadar Ahuvia: Israeli folk dances unified culture; they were intended to unify Jewish diasporas into a unitary nationalist identity, and they did do that. I talk about the appropriation of Yemenite dance in a very critical way, but many individual Yemenite dancers will tell you they love Israeli folk dance.
My political analysis of Israeli folk dances could be different from someone’s individual experience. That led me to consider if I am critically engaged with what it meant and means to create folk dance. Who are the dances for, and who belongs and who doesn’t belong? What kind of community are we building as Jews in America in 2019? I’m not interested in a particularistic experience. I desire an anti-assimilationist celebration of Jewishness in solidarity with other peoples and diasporas.
Lydia: And you wanted to show that on stage?
Hadar: Yes. The performers that I invited were people who I’ve already been in conversation with around my work, or who I’ve been in community with as Jewish Palestine solidarity activists, or from my synagogue, who are thinking about embodiment. Or if they’re not Jewish, they’re also thinking about their own heritage, its choreography, and how they are shaping their relationship to it.
Inviting these people together mirrored the idea of a created unifying dance, and also my experience of dancing with a ‘mixed multitude’ of people, but united around Zionism. I wanted to extend and expand that idea.
You mentioned the joy of dancing together in a circle–the circle is so powerful in any form. It’s been interesting experiencing the circle differently in Reggie Wilson’s work, where it’s the Ring Shout or, in the new work, Shaker dances. There’s something so powerful about a circle with or without holding hands.
It’s interesting that rozsa [daniel lang/levitsky, performer and project Midwife], who does a lot of eastern European and Balkan folk dancing, finds Israeli folk dancing kind of boring. It doesn’t have the improvisational quality, musical complexity, or the same viralness that other folk dances have.
Lydia: What do you mean viralness?
Hadar: Say in the hora–it’s a particular pattern that you repeat. Israeli folk dances are choreographed to synchronize to the song, so there’s a phrase of four and a phrase of eight. They are designed to be taught and to assimilate people. They are not intuitive. It wasn’t until the second to last show that the performers felt they could really just do the opening dance and feel that ecstaticness from it. It would surprise me, and us, the way it would take over and we’d be laughing and smiling. That was an important experience to be able to share with people.
In last year’s version of the work when I invited audience on stage to do it with us, I wanted to give them the experience of the dances, but didn’t use the music. It felt really complicated to invite the audience into the dances after having explained a history of theft as their subtext. This time I could say, “Okay, these people have committed to investigating these dances with me.” Audience members spoke to the opening dance really moving them and that surprised me.
Lydia: I felt that, especially in conjunction with the other part of the introduction, which was the performers introducing their earliest memory of movement—what was the exact prompt?
Hadar: A memory from one of their movement lineages.
Lydia: That introduction–to each person as a person and as a mover–produced for me an empathic gaze, which I felt was important for my viewing experience of the whole piece. How did that section come about?
Hadar: For the first several months we started out the process by sitting and introducing ourselves. It took one and a half and two hours sometimes.
Lydia: Per person?
Hadar: All together. [Laughter]. It was my version of the Krista Tippett question–do you listen to the podcast “On Being”? She has one question she always asks, which is if people could speak about the spiritual background of their childhood.
Lydia: That’s such a powerful question.
Hadar: Right? I prefaced it by saying that I was asking the white people in the room, myself included, to consider their lineages as cultural, ethnic lineages. And that before asking people to enter the world that I’ve been exploring, I was hearing where people were coming from.
I wanted people to be seen in the work, but it was always a conflict or a question of how in a work that is so deeply personal could I make space for people to be seen? That was a question that came up last year working on “Everything you have is yours?” with Mor [Mendel, performer] and lily [bo shapiro, performer and dramaturg ]. So I went into this process deciding to start there.
We had a lot of conversations, sometimes we would get lost in having conversations because I really enjoyed speaking with this group of people–it was always really rich. When we did the showing at BAC [Baryshnikov Arts Center] we tried having a conversation as people were coming in, about how we define folk dance, how each of us defines folk dance.
Lydia: I wanted to ask you about that too.
Hadar: There were a couple of things that we got feedback about. People couldn’t necessarily hear everything, and I knew that would be even harder at Danspace. Also, people who tend to stay back in a conversation didn’t get heard and it felt really important to make sure that every single person was heard. Clarifying the question became really important.
Lydia: The specificity of it?
Hadar: Yes. And that people got to choose how they represent themselves; what part of themselves they want to show and what part of themselves they don’t want to show. Because we are each differently subjected to the violence of the gaze, and because they are presenting themselves in the context of my work. And so it was really important to say it was one moment or one memory from one of their lineages. Jules [Skloot, performer and rehearsal director] was helpful in crafting the clarity of the question. We all have so many lineages that we call upon, and they’re chosen or they’re given.
Lydia: And I think you’re playing with the lec-dem format, or referencing that format but also turning it on its head. In working with documentary materials, it feels important to pose questions around: Who are we? What are the elements of this piece? How do we define what is true? Can you talk a little bit about your use of documentary materials? What is the process like of obtaining those materials and how do you think about them?
Hadar: I should get my lawyers.
Lydia: I should give some context for my interest in that question. I’ve been having conversations with a dance curator in Moscow, Anastasia Proshutinskaya. She is looking at the history of documentary theatre in Russia, which is quite literal in trying to document events. She’s thinking about how contemporary dance interacts with this idea of documentary. How would you situate your work in terms of documenting lived experience?
Hadar: I didn’t start using videos until I saw Arkadi [Zaides]’ work. It was in conversation with him that the idea came up to use these instructional videos of the dances. I was looking at how are people teaching the dances now, and when and how do they name the steps. So it became a tool to show transmission and then to be able to locate the dances in a place and time.
I’ve spent a lot of time on YouTube. I did go to the National Library of Israel when I was there, and there is so much archival footage but I didn’t have access to use it. There are a lot of things available online. Like footage of Yemenite dance of recent migrants in Israel, that were then used in the creation of propaganda films by United Jewish Appeal to raise funds to bring folks to Israel. I also referenced a lot of documentation of professional folk dance performances.
I spent hours trying to find a Christian Zionist talking about the Jezreel Valley and Armageddon that was visually interesting. I really wanted to find John Hagee talking about it, but then found Billy Graham. Gil [Sperling, video designer] did a really beautiful job putting it into the space. The section I wanted to show was only 17 seconds long, but we also wanted to show the vastness of his following. So Gil copied and pasted glimpses of people’s faces that happened over an hour-long video into the 17 seconds of Billy Graham speaking.
Lydia: That one is a real assault on the senses. I think that’s part of what the strength of the design was–there was a sense of things coming out of different places, you couldn’t expect where they were going to come from. It definitely speaks to the YouTube browsing experience.
Hadar: Another thing about the video that Amir [Farjoun, dramaturgy] and I talked a lot about was how to overcome the archive. I could get stuck in imitating the videos. Why is that the gesture that I’m practicing? So I did try to have more of an arc in the way I related to the material. Ultimately the piece progresses to me projecting myself onto a video, replacing the Christian Zionist preacher with myself, and then having no video at all. I think if I’m saying this is embodied information, it has to come from me and my body. If I keep pointing to the screen, then I’m actually doing a disservice to what I’m trying to say.
The “Yemenite Step” scene was a compilation of years of studying those videos, and disseminating that directly to the people in the room. That was a really exciting, important development–it made it about the liveness of interaction and what it means to share information through each body.
Lydia: I’m thinking now about your solo, too, against the wall of the Church, with the projected landscape. You were inserting your body into the landscape and into the architecture at the same time. That was a really powerful section of the work.
Hadar: I was inspired by Sacha [Yanow]’s piece Cherie Dre, when she used the footage of the Catskill Mountains. It hadn’t occurred to me to show the land I was talking about, maybe because it’s so close to me. And when I saw Cherie Dre I thought, “This is what the dances are trying to do–to build a relationship to the land.” And it was one reason we shifted the orientation of the space, to have that possibility of a landscape. That solo felt like a rite of passage–allowing myself the desire to want to return to be a part of the land, to show what the dances have done for me and also the way that Zionism has succeeded in embedding this really intense love and desire for being in that land.
Lydia: That spatial orientation shows a cross section of the Church’s architecture that I felt you and Gil and the other collaborators playing off of.
Hadar: It was important for me to have a moment where we acknowledge we’re in a church in the USA. That was the other reason we changed it. I was like, how are we in church and not using the altar?
Lydia: Can’t miss that opportunity.
Hadar: Also, it more directly addresses myself as somebody who is an American Jew. I didn’t grow up in American Jewish synagogues, but it has become my community. So how can I take responsibility for locating myself here and also speaking to an American audience. At one of the talk-backs, someone asked about how I spoke a Land Acknowledgement but didn’t talk about the fact that we’re in Peter Stuyvesant’s church and how Peter Stuyvesant was a kind of Zionist to these lands. Relevant, but it was not right for that moment. There’s so much that I could have talked about in relationship to the Church. It didn’t feel important to me to name Peter Stuyvesant in that moment of the Land Acknowledgement. It’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do with that act. Not name the colonizer.
Lydia: I did want to get into the folk dance question. What were some of the conversations between you and your collaborators about what folk dance might mean in 2019?
Hadar: The word folk dance is used in many different ways, in a particular 19th-century nationalist mode of one land, one blood, one nation, one dance; but then there’s also a way in which it’s used to refer to low-brow, non-Western, “traditionalist” forms. It depends who’s using it and in what context.
So Raha [Behnam, performer] talked about reclaiming folk as a term is really important as a way of trying to remember or recall something pre-Capitalist about the way that we think about art. Zavé [Martohardjono, performer] brought up how anthropology has come to define folk in a way that is dehumanizing. What we ended up landing on was that it’s an unstable term. But we asked, what folk dance can we do together at the end? Our intentions in doing the thing might be different and we come from such radically different experiences but can we make something together that we would call a folk dance?
Each person really digested for themselves a version of the steps I taught. We didn’t do them in unison, and we could go in either direction along the circle. There could be concentric circles, you could move at your own tempo. So it evolved and it became a score that was for me an embodiment of a radical diasporism. Thinking about Israel or Israeliness not as the focal point of Jewish life but as one center of Jewish life.
Lydia: We started with you talking about the power of the circle and then you gave such a clear illustration of how you can turn that circle around, or create concentric circles, or literally open that space up. Thank you.