Hadar Ahuvia and Tatyana Tenenbaum in conversation
Each season, Baryshnikov Arts Center invites writers into the studio to interview BAC Resident Artists. The resulting essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process. Hadar Ahuvia was a Spring 2019 BAC Space Resident Artist.
A soft pulsing unison is emitted from a group of dancers in a line, holding hands. I observe as Mor Mendel expertly transmits dance steps to Oren Barnoy, Raha Behnam and Zavé Martohardjono. Throughout Mor’s instruction, a chorus of syncopated voices drones lightly in the background: who was here first / they were here first / was I here first / how does it bloom.
Mor is Israeli but she didn’t grow up doing Israeli folk dances. However, after working with Hadar for several years, the steps appear to have deeply embedded in her body, in her muscle memory.
Hadar Ahuvia sits elsewhere at a table, pouring over a manuscript as the vibrations and textures of her dance wash over her. Much of this material has been used in her work before. When material from one’s own work becomes a new sort of trope to be complicated, referenced, and re-written, it is a serpent eating itself.
The group is learning a complicated sequence of steps and text phrases based on the Yemenite step. Each spoken phrase is a slight alteration of the previous, mirroring the way meaning might be obscured through a process of transmission. A string of words connects through their feet and the poetry gains new context through repetition.
Hadar tells me that she is recovering from a hip flareup a few days ago. “I could barely walk,” she says. She is convinced it is connected to a bike accident she had a few years ago, right before she left for a trip to Israel/Palestine to do humanitarian work. Through our friendship I also know that the trip stirred deep wounds between her and her Zionist family. “Now this stuff is finally getting into my work, and [the hip flareup] comes back.” The stuff she is talking about—it’s not the conflict in Israel/Palestine per se, but rather, the embodying of the conflict within her own family and how she has begun to unwind it.
Everything You Have is Yours, Hadar’s previous work, was a performance-lecture whose purpose was to artfully illustrate how Zionism built a nation through embodied ideology. It drew attention to cultural nuances that most Americans, and especially American Ashkenazi Jews, could likely miss, having low literacy on the many ethnic and cultural lineages embedded within Israel/Palestine. But it is the personal connections—the fact that Hadar’s grandfather was a literal pioneer of the Zionist Kibbutz movement, or that her mother performed in a semi-professional folk dance troupe, that make Hadar’s stakes in this information so real, so gut-wrenchingly tangible.
In The Dances are for Us Hadar attempts to foreground these personal stakes, while at the same time involving a larger group of collaborators in conversation, dance, and song. Her collaborators have varied backgrounds: some Jewish, some not. Some have relationships to folk dance and some do not. Raha takes scrupulous notes. Autumn Leonard, having just arrived, begins to get the new sequence down.
The group begins to dance a hora, a circle dance enjoyed at social occasions by Jews in Eastern Europe before and during the settling of Palestine. I enjoy watching the coexistence of many divergent physicalities. What gives a dance like this its unity and cohesion? Is it the stomping of feet? A decided posture, perfected by all? Or could it be said that a shared intention, a social contract like an invisible thread connecting hearts and minds, is enough?
Hora was practiced by Zionists before the founding of the state. It was danced by Jews who were not yet Israeli. This imagined diasporic dance provides a backdrop for Hadar’s personal narrative. She operates with dry humor, imbibing a character modeled after a male Israeli dance instructor. This alter-ego is a way for Hadar to morph; to inhabit a persona in order to subvert it.
Her story drifts between contexts and places. She starts in Hawai’i, where her Israeli family moved when she was in high school. There she pokes fun at Jews for Jesus who attempt to perform Israeli folk dance without the requisite credentials, or chutzpah. She narrates a family trip to the Gilboa mountains in Israel. She balances her reverence with the descriptive smell of cow manure. Her voice begins to change and soften as she questions the authenticity of her own memory and truth: “why this” and “why that?”
As the group dances, Hadar’s virtuosic commentary continues to shift the meaning of the repetitive steps. Her telling becomes a reparative midrash for a dance whose meaning has long been incorporated into a set of truths. I pause to reflect. Isn’t that what Jewish thought does? Continually question, debate, and complicate the well worn narratives, songs, and texts—if text could be considered a dance, a kind of text of the body? I am fascinated by the deep vestiges of Jewishness inside this making.
But not all Jews are the same. I remember being taught Israeli folk dances in elementary school by one of my classmate’s mothers. As an American Jew, I was confused. Was I supposed to feel some affinity to this tradition? The Israelis I knew were nothing like me. Their bodies were erect and confident and they spoke in loud voices. I remember bristling at the Israeli exchange student in my middle school. Her voice was too loud, her spine too erect. My own Jewish body felt meek in comparison. Her confidence embarrassed me.
Through Hadar’s work I have learned that this Israeli body, this sabra body, was meticulously constructed. It was made through erect, collectivist ideologies, manual labor, farming, military service… and dance. It might surprise you that dance could serve as a vehicle for such profound social transformation. However, for those who devote their lives to fine-tuning their bodies and nervous systems through somatic work, the potency of this proposal is not a stretch. This is what is so captivating about watching Hadar’s work unfold. The viewer experiences for themselves the implicit persuasion of embodied narratives taking hold.
This essay flows forth at a time when many of us with power and privilege are being asked and challenged to put words to the supremacies we have inhabited, unchecked for so long. With much reflection, I realize that my body exudes another kind of socialized confidence: a confidence accrued through White Privilege. This very real, very tangible confidence is seated in the embodied knowledge that my body will be safe, in almost any context; that my thoughts and ideas will be taken seriously, in almost any context… Does my confidence embarrass you?
“There are no equivalencies, but there are parallels,” interjects Hadar.
Israeli folk dance has many sources, some more overtly acknowledged than others. Much like our American melting pot myth, this cultural construct obscures the historical power dynamics and multi-ethnicities imbedded within it. The Ashkenazi founders of the folk dance movement modeled their music and dance on those observed from Bedouin, Palestinian, Yemenite Jews, Druz, and other peoples whose cultures emerged from thousands of years of desert dwelling. The culling of these sources was an overt effort by Zionists to affirm their “native-ness.”
Hadar is of Ashkenazi descent. Her lineage traces the very power and privilege she is trying to deconstruct. Can a performance be a part of equalizing power? There is a moment when all the performers leave the stage and Hadar plays the music of a Palestinian dabke. We are left to imagine, or contemplate, the void. It is not a perfect solution, and during the showing Hadar receives mixed feedback.
There is a general consensus that this moment can’t restore power to a people who aren’t in the room. But perhaps it can deflate the confidence of a narrative that props up those in power? So what does decolonization really mean? Does it mean physically leaving? Or does it mean, as I have heard it suggested by several Indigenous scholars, restoring power and equalizing the imbalances in our social and environmental ecology?
Questions of authority continue to surface. Hadar is trying to be transparent about her own limitations—the absence of origin, pure source, or even objectivity. “We’re not searching for an authentic moment. It’s about how the dances were used.”
At one point, an archival video shows Rivka Sturman, one of the folk dance movement’s founders. I can’t help myself—I am delighted by the image of this 80-something woman, surrounded by masses, all dancing her creations. Autumn calls this the “swan song moment.” “You get to see her humanity,” says Raha. “Tenderness,” says Zavé. “I associate [Hadar] with her.”
There is still a troubling sense that the information is one-sided. “There are no images to associate with source material,” says Raha. “Any time you have one voice in documentary, that voice starts sounding ‘correct,’” Autumn points out.
In regards to the moment when Palestinian dabke music plays for an empty stage, Zavé adds that “the imagination is colonized.” They offer an alternate meditation: As we begin to conjure a source in its absence, can we instead, draw attention to our colonized minds?
Tatyana Tenenbaum is the daughter of a fiber artist, granddaughter of Broadway producers, and great-granddaughter of Hungarian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City/Lenapehoking. She grew up doing community musical theater. Over the past decade she has performed and collaborated with Yoshiko Chuma, Daria Faïn, Jennifer Monson, Levi Gonzalez, Emily Johnson/CATALYST, Andy Luo & lily bo shapiro, Hadar Ahuvia, the DOING AND UNDOING collective, and Juliana May.
 A Israeli folk dance step based on the dances of Yemenite Jews. It was observed, appropriated and codified by folk dance founder Rivka Sturman, an Ashkenazi Zionist.
 Ashkenazi is a term for Jews of central or Eastern Europe descent.
 Midrash is a Judaic practice of providing extra commentary on biblical texts.
 Sabra is the desert prickly pear, a symbol chosen to represent the new Jew, born in Israel who had shed the physical and psychological trappings of the diaspora.
 Dabke is a folk dance practiced throughout the Levant, including in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. It is also the source on which the Israeli folk dance step Debka was based.