Bringing It In From the Outside

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

“It was a site-specific work, and the site was a church courtyard, at John Street United Methodist,” choreographer Deganit Shemy explained of the inspiration for her most recent work. “And we were there exploring the space, and the space was really amazing, between old and new, and the the holy and the…” she trailed off, searching for the right word.

“Profane?” I offered. “Sacred and profane?”

She chuckled, smiled, and responded, “Yes.”

This was a little over a week ago, and Shemy and I were sitting barefoot on the floor of one of the studios at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where 2 kilos of sea opens this Thursday (through Sunday; tickets $20). It was right after rehearsal, and as the tech staff gathered up the scenographic bric-a-brac, we lounged in the sunlight spilling across the floor to discuss how the piece has evolved over the past year from a site-specific performance to a mainstage presentation.

Born in Israel and raised on a kibbutz, in person, Shemy speaks quietly and reservedly, until she finds a tangent that animates her. In part this is due to concern (generally misplaced, as I discovered) over English not being her first language. Originally a visual artist, Shemy came to dance late, at around 26, while she was studying Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation with the intention of becoming a physical therapist. But the methodical approach to understanding body movement, and the relationship of the body to the space it inhabits, opened up new artistic ground for Shemy. A near chance collaboration with dancer Denisa Musilova–who continues to work with Shemy and will be appearing in the piece–led to Shemy’s first choreographic work and a new career.

These days, Israel has emerged as a heavyweight on the international dance scene, led by Batsheva’s Ohad Naharin, whose “gaga” method has seen a rapid, global embrace. Asked about the difference between creating work in Israel and New York, I was unsurprised when Shemy responded: “I think in Israel, there’s a lot of emphasis on the movement, the vocabulary. Like, really researching the movement, where is the body. I think here there’s more that’s conceptual, or ironic,” she suggested, referencing the legacy of Judson Dance Theater. Then she smiled and explained: “I want to work in between.”

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Given her unconventional background, it’s unsurprising that collaboration with her dancers is a core part of Shemy’s process. Along with Musilova, 2 kilos of sea also features Savina Theodorou with whom Shemy has also been working for nearly seven years, as well as three other dancers brought on for the project. “They wake me up all the time, with what they bring, the questions they ask,” she said of how she relies on the pair. “This is how I want to work with my dancers. I know something, but I want to be in a place where I don’t know, and they lead me. I think it’s an oxymoron, but when you know the most, you can let go the most. You trust more, you trust them that they’ll find it.”

2 kilos of sea served as a bit of a departure for Shemy. Though she admits that “I want to drop any preconceptions about dance” whenever she begins a new project, to approach the form from as fresh a perspective as possible, the way the piece was developed as a site-specific performance, as part of the Sitelines program at the 2010 River to River Festival (which, full disclosure, is programed by Culturebot editor Andy Horwitz through the LMCC) opened up new avenues.

“I like to start a dance from a different place always, so this time, I thought, ‘How do I start with story?'” she told me. “Because usually it’s not a story for me. It can be a concept, or something more abstract. And the space led somehow to story. It wasn’t so much linear story–like, you can read it in different ways. It can look like a loop. You can start from the end. But you know, there was the space and hol[iness] that led to morality questions, and relationships. Love. What’s wrong, what’s right. And how we choose when things happen to us.”

“In every work, the space affects [the choreography]. The site-specific performance really opened up my eyes. It was really great. I realized that to have more space really helped me to create. Before there was lots of architecture in the movement, I’m curious about it, about the different direction of movement, between open and closed space, about zooming in and out, focusing, simultaneously opposite movement, how you lead the eye…I’ve always been interested in it.”

As the original space deeply informed the contruction of the piece, the biggest challenge Shemy and her performers faced after being invited to present it at BAC was translating the work onto the stage. At the church, not only were the tensions of past and present, holy and secular, captured by the setting, but the architecture, with its warren of spaces and levels, allowed for the differentiation of segments and character experiences. Initially, Shemy set out to present 2 kilos of sea without any set pieces, but ultimately determined that something was missing. After initially developing the choreography for the new space, Shemy worked with designer Lenore Doxsee to translate, conceptually, some of the thematic elements inherent to John Street. What they ultimately settled on, oddly enough, are a set of elements more at home on a construction site: bright orange net fencing, green fake grass like you might use for an indoor putting green, and a long telescoping yellow air duct.

As Shemy explained, the bright, plastic colors were inspired by how the grass and the costumes (designed by Shemy and Musilova) popped against the gray backdrop of the church courtyard. Situated against a backdrop and gray Marley at BAC, the new set elements should retain that sense of contrast, while furthering the thematic association of a set of characters trapped within their own personal narratives. “It led me to cartoons,” she explained. “The very bright colors. But also the mechanism of the movement of the characters. The characters trapped in their own mechanism, as they repeat. We all repeat, unless maybe we go through therapy,” she added with a chuckle. “You don’t realize it usually, but even if you do, you’re still caught in this mechanism. Like in a cartoon. You know this character that runs runs runs, and they don’t know they’re in [mid] air, and only the moment they see [do] they fall.”

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