Yossi Berg and Oded Graf: Ten Years, Ten Works, and Thirty-one Countries Later
This weekend at New York Live Arts as part of The Joyce Theater Foundation’s UNLEASHED program, Israel and Denmark based choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf will perform a reconstructed version of their duet, Heroes, the first work they developed together as creative collaborators ten years ago.
In honor of the tenth anniversary of Yossi and Oded’s collaboration, Culturebot Contributor Angela Schöpke interviewed both artists about their creative partnership and the making of Heroes. Angela called Yossi and Oded in Tel Aviv, Israel from Brooklyn, New York.
Special thanks to the artists for taking the time to share their thoughts and to Rachel Baldock and Jake McMullen of The Joyce Theater Foundation for their support in organizing the interview.
Angela: I wondered if we could start with a little bit of background about your collaboration and the piece Heroes that you’re bringing back for the tenth year anniversary.
Yossi: Okay, so maybe we’ll go back a little in time. Before we actually started collaborating, it was in 2005, each of us was busy with different kinds of stuff … I was dancing for some years with Batsheva Dance Company and then I started while I was in the company to create for the junior chamber, Batsheva Creations, and when I left the company I actually became a freelance choreographer. I was dancing still in creations of other companies like DV8 Physical Theatre in London and Australia, I did some touring with them… I did a project with them and some other freelance projects as a dancer but at the same time I was doing my own choreography with other companies as well and Oded was dancing in the Kibbutz Company in Israel and he also did some independent projects with companies like Norrdans in Israel and some projects in Denmark…in 2005 we decided to actually join and do the first experiment together as choreographers… the first time we went to the studio and tried to work together, and we were also both performing not just choreographing. So basically the beginning of that process started in 2005 with the piece, Heroes.
Angela: What motivated you to work together?
Yossi: We are a couple in life and we’d been together some years before 2005. We were curious about how we meet not only in life but also in the studio…we were traveling a lot as independent choreographers and dancers and at some point we found that we could never meet and we laughed all the time about how we would have to do something together so we could meet in one country and so the idea to create together, dance together, established. Of course it may be obvious that we are really appreciating each others’ artistic points of view both as choreographers and as dancers and we were wondering what it would be like to create alone and to create together so this was another motivation. The evening Heroes is comprised of two parts and we were choreographing the two parts separately. So it was really a process of ‘what does it feel like to create together, what does it mean in the studio, what kinds of things can we share and influence each other.’ After we created Heroes we found is was really a successful collaboration. First of all it was immediately kind of a success because we were invited to perform around the world and in Israel… from then we decided to establish our company and we started to work with different groups of dancers. Since then we never actually went to the studio just the two of us, so it’s the only creation only the two of us are dancing.
Oded: And since this creation, since Heroes, we stopped dancing with other companies so when we started this project in 2005 it was the last time we danced for others. Since then we have danced all the creations we have created for our company so all the pieces we’re still dancing we are also collaborating on stage as performers with other people we’ve invited along through the years.
Angela: You mentioned traveling. I noticed you’ve had the chance to tour widely over the last several years and that you have bases in two different places. Have particular places that you’ve visited or lived in played an influential role in your approach to creating work together? Are there particular places that you’ve loved more than others?
Yossi: We’re based in Denmark and Tel Aviv so these are places that maybe have a lot of impact. Of course every place we have toured we’ve met different audiences, different people, and I’m sure each place gave us something that we came back with and how we related to the culture. Some of our text has to do with cultural differences or is about a specific place so I’m sure that our visiting different places was coming into the choreography in one way or another.
Oded: Like Bodyland — it was all about ‘how is the place you’re coming from affecting the shape of your body, or the history of your body?’ And we worked with dancers from different countries. Robin, that you met, was representing the German body, we represented the Israeli body, there was a French dancer… and we asked questions about it; if there are some differences or are we all the same? It was a very strong motivation for the piece.
Yossi: The input of the dancers about the places where they come from, or us knowing we are using the input from other places really enriches the material of the piece.
Angela: What do you like about Denmark and Israel in particular?
Yossi: I like very much that they are very different places and they both have things to offer to me as a person… they represent different ideas of what is ideal, what is conflict, what it is to be happy, what it is to respect people who are different from you… even weather-wise there are a lot of differences and I think I love this, these differences. They’re really creating a lot of material to work with actually, or to explore. They bring up a lot of questions. I think this is something that I really like. The feeling that you can have talking about these two places and how they are similar or different.
Angela: Are there particular challenges you feel you’ve faced over the last ten years in working together, and if so, how have you overcome them?
Yossi: I think there are a few aspects. The first of them is that we are “freelance,” [chuckling] so freelance is unknown financially. Workwise, it means sometimes we don’t know where we are in a few months or next year… sometimes we know more sometimes we know less, but it’s something you have to be flexible about. You have to stay flexible to life, to the momentum of life, and not hang on on the things. Another thing is the place where we are coming from, which is called “Israel” [chuckling], it’s very easy to say that it’s also a place that maybe sometimes asks you to feel more connected to the unknown, with the future of things…and also even dance, the dance world. Sometimes there’s something very…dance can be so abstract and so open that sometimes you think ‘what can you do now’ and ‘what will you do now.’
Oded: I think maybe that the biggest challenge I can say is that the creation maybe pushes to a very unstable place and as Yossi just said, you have to be flexible all the time, especially for us that we are travelling in different countries, like, this flexibility that is required of us but at the same time we are getting a little bit more mature and we maybe reach a little bit more for stability and I feel that sometimes it clashes into a each other a little bit…yeah, traveling all the time, touring, which is fantastic, creating in different places and at the same time sometimes feeling like we wish to have stronger roots in one place and then we are concerned with which place will enable this. I think maybe this is one of the biggest challenges I have.
Yossi: Maybe it has also to do with, when you create, there is a strong feeling that comes from your gut to do something, and then you start to analyze that… the mind is interfering. But maybe it’s also a part of how you feel about life to have your gut that you’re asking ‘what do you want to do’ and ‘where is the direction that you want to go to,’ but then sometimes your mind goes interfering and rationally asks ‘what should it be,’ ‘how should things be done,’ it’s also something that we looked at in Bodyland when we talked about the heart and brain and what is in between them. So…maybe it’s something bigger…
Oded: Also I can say that everything is changing so fast in comparison to many years ago in many aspects. Even having to deal with that requires from you a great deal of flexibility, still being stable, and finding the stability in the insecurity of the change – the world that is changing all the time.
Angela: You’ve touched on the ideas of cultural and social questions a little bit. Have those social, cultural, and artistic issues that you were interested in when you first started working together changed? What would issues be for you now?
Yossi: Hmm… Interesting question. I think the bottom line is that in all the pieces that we’ve done even if the message was more clear or less or going around a certain subject, still the bottom line is that we are all the time dealing with human people. How people feel. So this is something basic that I think stays with the years, even though the subject has shifted. At the base of that it is about the people. How do they communicate? How do they feel? And collisions between people and ideas in life.
Oded: I think also the topic or theme of identity in the modern world is a big question for us. How do people present themselves, what do they have inside or all the masks that we are putting on in order to communicate; how much they are necessary. Without these masks, another thing that always fascinates us is the fertility of life in the relations of identity. How is the identity related to your own identity in childhood, or maybe a few years ago? Does identity change? What does it mean? Identity today in relation to your memories, to your body memories, emotional universe, that you had a few years ago… does this change? Or also identity in relation to a place. Where do you feel identified with? What country are you identifying with? The place where you live or the place you are coming from? So I think identity is really related to someone’s culture or relation to the land.
Angela: Piggy-backing off of that thought, what are some of the things, people, ideas, and bits of lineage that have helped you to approach the work the way that you do? What are some of the strongest influences to you as you make work together?
Oded: I think…the family we are coming from, the education you get, your history, the country you are coming from, your DNA, all of this – the influence is a very strong one. I mean, your discipline, your fears, your motivation, your desires, your spirituality, everything is coming to this melting pot – I don’t know what to call it – becomes who you are in a way and what you want and how do you want to create your future. The movies that you see… All of this is a key influence in how you become a person and of course how you become a person choreographer.
Yossi: I thought about the fact that we were traveling so much in the last years and the fact that some of our creations were made in different places in Europe made me actually, be able to look at Israel, the place where I’m from, with perspective and be able to say things about this place. And the fact that I was able to look from a distance and be able to relate to that really influenced the way I create, so I’ve really thought about this… the fact that me being somewhere else, moving away, creating somewhere else influenced the way I’m creating or what I’m saying in the piece about Israel and how I relate with our culture; what is the subject that can be created by two different cultures, actually?
Angela: In keeping with the question of identity, what have you learned about yourselves during the last ten years spent working together? Do you feel like you’ve grown and changed in certain ways as creative partners and as individuals?
Oded: I’ve learned that choreographing is endless because it’s really like exploring life and at the same time I feel like it’s becoming more and more challenging because my expectations for creation are higher and higher…and also the feeling of wanting not to repeat myself is getting more challenging as we are creating a lot of pieces and we’ve fulfilled a lot of artistic concepts and…time passes and we still want to create new pieces.
Yossi: I’ve learned that I really like working with people in the studio. I feel that there’s really a sense of community when you are with people in the studio when you are sharing. Each one is coming with his universe, ideas, body, and culture so I like very much this feeling of sharing and being with other people in the studio. I also really enjoy the possibility of being able to say something about life, political issues, social issues, and to transfer that through performance. Sometimes it can be abstract or more direct but you really understand it can be a tool and the freedom that you have allows you to find a lot of things.
Angela: What has it been like to reconstruct Heroes as two different people, bodies, individuals that have grown in different ways over the last ten years?
Oded: I think it’s very challenging for us to come back to the piece from a new, fresh point of view. It’s almost like coming back into your DNA because it was our first collaboration and I learned so much about this piece, and it was also the first piece that we toured together so we exposed it to different places in the world. I learned so much from it. In a way the constructing method that we used in the piece has influenced so many other creations that we did and it’s fascinating to dig into it and ask questions about it and ‘how can we read it freshly?’ and ‘how we can put ourselves in?’ It is also only the two of us, and we don’t have more performances with just the two of us in the last few years, so it brings something very exposed and honest that I feel is very beautiful.
Yossi: It’s nice to be in the studio and we try to refresh it. When we are before a tour or before a show and we come to the studio and we make some changes and then we suddenly remember the rehearsal where we invented this thing or ‘how did it happen’ or ‘how did one thing lead to another,’ so it’s really nice to go also back and reflect on that, the point where things started. Even the costume has an evolution…it’s something that grows all the time but also changes with time and changes with us. And of course the audience is so different. We had great different responses when we performed with kids or people in Japan or people in Denmark. It’s really nice to see how people react. Sometimes people can be really very dramatic and come and cry after the show and sometimes people talk about how they recognize us in the later creations in relation to the first creation so it’s really nice to do this reflection with ourselves, with other people, or with different audiences.
Angela: Do you have thoughts about where you see your collaboration going in the near future or the long-term future?
Oded: Just two days ago we had a premiere in Sweden with a company called Norrdans and we’ve been working on that for a while. Now we are back in Tel Aviv. We feel now that we are in a good junction artistically. One thing we are saying is that it’s been ten years, maybe we’ll come back to the two of us in a new piece. Maybe this will be fascinating to us now. On the other hand we got so used to getting feedback from dancers and working with dancers that we’re a bit afraid to go back to just the two of us in the studio. Sometimes we are asking ourselves if we should try to create with a group…
Yossi: So far we have always been dancing, both of us, performing. So asking ourselves ‘should we both or one of us step out?’ Should we change the balance of what we’ve established in the last 10 years? It’s a question we’re dealing with now.
Oded: We actually are trying to open ourselves into different fields. Of course maybe we feel like our DNA is physicality and dance but at the same time we are interested in other art forms like theater, movies, visual art…we are trying to think of how that can find itself in our creation while still physicality is the main player. Now we are at this junction where we are asking questions about how collaboration with different artists can find its way into our creations and how we can give more space for collaboration with different media or fields. Another thing we ask ourselves is whether we can ask questions about audience and performance relationships; whether we can find new relations to this status. Shall we shift our performances into alternative spaces? What shall they be? Shall we relate to the audience in a more interactive way or shall we leave it in a more classical way while the audience is sitting in the dark and we are performing for them? This is what we are asking questions about for the future.
Yossi: I didn’t know where I would be ten years ago. I just knew that we were going to start something and we were going with our curiosity to explore something and curiosity grows into something and then more people came in and the pieces grew in different directions. And this was a great thing. What I really like about it is finding security in the unknown and allowing us to make clearer decisions and be brave in what we want to say without being afraid to express the things that came out through the process. This is something that I can appreciate looking back on.
Angela: Are there any particularly memorable moments you would feel comfortable sharing?
Oded: There are so many! We’ve been so many places in the world! I mean I think traveling is a very very strong influence. Sometimes when I’m walking in the streets I have flashbacks from different streets and I’m like, ‘where is it? Oh it’s in Canada! It’s in France, or in Switzerland or in Denmark!’ Sometimes I dream about places and I’m waking up and having a strong memory of a place we were living. I think it’s really a strong influence, traveling so much, being in so many places around the world. I think these are very strong moments in time.
Yossi: I have a more specific thing; I’m always connected to people’s responses. I remember in a showing in Japan the audience got papers where they could write what they thought and questions about the show. And it was a really nice feeling to see how people noticed interesting points in the choreography or what they felt about us. This really stayed with me. I remember in Poland after one show an audience member came and she was crying from excitement. She was touched. That was really nice for me because it reminded me that you have power as a performer to do something like to create a thought or to make a change in peoples’ minds or to motivate them to dance, and even, like, to motivate them to do something themselves…this was really nice.
Oded: We were performing in Montpelier Dance Festival in France, it was a very important venue and festival and I remember I was really excited before the show. Just before the show one of the managers of the festival told us that all the dance awards are going to be on our show and everybody was waiting, and I felt really excited about it and it went really well, and it was great… I remember it was a very strong moment in our career.
Yossi: Yeah… I remember after the show the assistant came to us and said that she was so surprised by the show, that it wasn’t like anything she’d ever seen…these moments of feedback from the audience give us a lot of information when sometimes it’s not clear for us because we are both on stage all the time. Suddenly you get a lot of information from the audience. It gives us a lot. There are a lot of moments like that. There are so many.