Netta Yerushalmy on “Devouring Devouring” at La MaMa

Photo by Ayala Gazit

On Thursday the 13th, Netta Yerushalmy‘s Devouring Devouring premieres at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (Dec. 13-16, tickets $20, student/senior $15). Culturebot’s Lydia Mokdessi interviewed the choreographer.

Tell me about how you hooked up with performers from New York and Tel Aviv–how does a process work that is remote for half the group and home for half the group?

The people in New York are people I’ve worked with for a long time, and we had begun developing this kind of movement realm that felt very much about pure movement, the form of the body and what that expresses, an abstract layer and becoming aware of aesthetic agenda. I feel like when I was in Israel in 2006 before I started making this piece, I was working with dancers for a year there and I would have to explain things that I would never have to explain here, like “release your forearm bone;” they’re like “what!?” So I started being curious about “we have different words to describe what we do.” So we became aware of codification of the art form and I got this grant, and my project proposal was to add to the mix Israeli bodies and start from there as a point of investigation–the body and the body in a location. So I wanted people that were totally enmeshed in that scene, ex-Batsheva dancers, etc., but the process was daunting. They conceptually were really into it and into the movement from auditions, but the idea of having to struggle with a video in a process was not five months, but a year and a half was difficult.

It was a process of finding the right person who wanted to take the time and suffer through it and learn from it. So I ended up with Ofir Yudilevitch who is the main guy. I had never seen or heard of him, he was recommended to me, and he’s über special. He started dancing about six years ago, he was a capoeira person. It’s not a highly trained, conventional body. The system has not been etched into him: self-consciousness, worrying that he’s not good enough…he doesn’t have that. On the first day in the studio he was like, “this is horrible, I have no idea what this video is,” but I insisted that it was okay, just suffer through it. I sent them material of me dancing and they were to learn the phrase and send it back to me, like “this is our interpretation.” It was rough, and that was kind of the point, like “You can’t tell how I’m initiating, or what the quality is, why is it that you can’t tell?” Or, “Why do those certain things come out of your body?” The whole point of doing this was to get at the lens; you dance in a certain way, that’s the way you’re able to look at me. Nobody is using words to describe what they’re doing; all you have is the information you already have, so you interpret inside the realm of the conceptual framework you’re already familiar with. It was all about, “What is he going to think this is? What is going to translate and what is not?”

So is that what you were getting at when you said that you felt like you were a “New York artist” in Israel?

Yes, when I was there as an adult, 29, I had to explain to really talented, phenomenal dancers these movement modalities that were totally foreign. But the work itself doesn’t deal with this. These things yield things, but the work is not a presentation of results, though it is rooted in this scientific experiment. There is constantly a dialogue with Ofir: he always talks about how in Israel things are sensual and sexual and dramatic and passionate and he’s like “I can do it that way but I would like more information. What am I doing physically?” So those conversations take place in the studio, but the world of the work is not about that.

I’ve been using this term a lot, “hierarchy of form.” It starts for me a lot from my fascination with form expressed in the body. To me everything expresses something, whether it is very abstract and linear or if it feels gestural or specific or feels like it is representing something, so I use the word “salad” a lot. The piece is “salad-y” in that eventually I got really into this baroque, postural gesturing, tableaus… And we looked at tons of paintings, and you can look at the other half of the world as abstract or formal or linear. It helps to think of my piece as a museum like The Met where you have portraits, pictures of Jesus and Mary, the icons and all of the hands. But you have also paintings of slashes, and in a way there is a physical salad of these things. The word collage is horrific and so is montage, but I don’t know how to find another word to talk about this kind of placing next to each other, the accumulation of gestures and imagery. And there’s also interaction between these dancers who are expressing these forms and these images. But it doesn’t give hierarchy to a certain mode or form of interaction, it’s a displaying of forms.

You’ve spoken a bit about what your Israeli performers got from watching you (or didn’t get)- what did you see the New York performers get from watching the responses from the Israeli performers?

That’s a good question, because it is lopsided.

Did you get raw material from Israeli performers also?

We did, but it was more an intuitive thing. There are a lot of crazy deep fourth position plies from Batsheva, and regardless of what’s happening to your knee or ankle, they do it… There are things like that that have to do with posture, that then it was interesting to see the New York people try to imitate it. It’s not about “I’m doing this technical thing that I can explicate,” but Ofir is doing this postural thing that has to do with the world around him, how we are, how people think it’s cool to move in Israel, etc. Here too there are certain things that we do and won’t do and it has to do with the winds of change. In Israel there’s definitely a specific postural thing. So that was what happened and it brought different ways of standing and moving in a vocabulary that maybe they were less comfortable with. It was not put into words.

It sounds like the atmosphere Lenore Doxsee is creating is very important- the press release mentions the orange curtain in an upstage corner?

Yes, the dancers only enter and exit from there. Behind the orange curtain is like the museum’s basement where they hold all of the paintings that are not on display. Originally we had this imagery where in front of the curtain, on stage was this formal presentation of an abstracted movement-based world and behind the curtain there was a baroque ball, Louis XIV was there… Imagery that felt period-y, that felt like a certain signifier, and these people just happened to drift behind the curtain, into the wrong place in the universe. And now it’s a little bit more salad-y, but that still hovers in our minds.

How did you arrive at this image of the baroque paintings? How did that first come into your consciousness?

It came into my consciousness because of Jesse Zaritt. Something he was doing started to feel queen-y, and then this idea of a ball came up, and we just started pushing that. I’m always obsessed with Christian iconography, classic portraiture, and classical sculpture. As a Jew, it’s just aesthetic, the imagery doesn’t have any bearing whatsoever in terms of meaning or baggage, it just seems potent. With imagery, as viewers we have ways of saying, “oh, that’s that.” Why does it not register when there is just a person and lines in space? What registers and what does not? That’s what’s at stake when I say hierarchy of form.

How has the work developed into what we are going to see at La MaMa from the snippets that you started showing early last year?

The accumulation of gestures is like a geology; it’s a plethora of modes that are expressed. It was more austere, more broken. A lot of those solos remain, this idea of coming in and out of one corner remains, but it gets richer, it flickers. And the fourth person was added, and it changed completely. He brings in a different presence. There are always new possibilities when a new person comes in.

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