Politics, Protest, Art

I begin this entry with not an apology (though anyone who knows me, knows that I love a good apology), but rather a caveat; this post is entirely reflective of my feelings, thoughts and opinions, and does not necessarily reflect the views of nylon theatre as a company, or the opinions of my lovely partner in crime, Heather.

Please bear with me – parts of this may meander, may be overly-emotional, may, even, be controversial.

On Monday the 19th of November I attended the opening performance of the Batsheva Ensemble’s short run in London at Sadler’s Wells.  Walking down Upper Street on that crisp autumnal evening, I explained to the friend who was accompanying me a little about the company and prepped her on what to expect.  As a musician, I think she may hold a little fear and trepidation when it comes to dance; music often holds to convention quite steadfastly, and, well from my experience, the risk of anything quite as reactionary as sudden nakedness, or, heaven forbid, audience participation, is a fairly low risk during an outing to see (or listen to?) a symphony.  So I produced some (probably only barely passable) soundbites about what I know about Batsheva – an Israeli contemporary dance company, founded in the 60s by Martha Graham and, yes, I think I did actually say this, ‘one of the Rothschilds’.  I told her that the company has been headed by Artistic Director Ohad Naharin for the last twenty years or so, and that from what I had seen of their work, it is highly physical, explosive, expressive and interesting.  Only as we rounded the corner onto Rosebury Avenue did I think to mention that there may be some protestors.

Well, protestors there were.  They were many in number and they were loud of voice.  Sadly, the email from Sadler’s Wells regarding additional security, bag searches and the advice to leave bags at home only reached my inbox yesterday.  However, we happily joined the queue of generally excitedly tittering, if occasionally nervous looking audience members, and bopped along to the mega-phone amplified soundtrack from across the road – cries ‘blood on your hands, blood on your tickets’.  Both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli  protestors approached us in the queue with leaflets; some were aggressive and demonstrative, some less so.  It was certainly a provocative pre-show.
Once inside – and after a brief skirmish with a particularly brutish and insensitive security man (whom I advised NOT to pull ladies by the straps of their handbags, as he had done to me, as emotions can run rather high, especially after a half hour wait involving being accused of killing babies.  I do so hate being made to feel a criminal.) – we took our seats and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  We chatted and watched the dancer tirelessly  grooving along to the syncopated rhythms of Latin-tinged versions of jazz standards.  Well, he moved and grooved his thing for a goodly while, until finally, over an hour after the scheduled start time, the house lights began to dim and other dancers joined him.

And what dancers they were.  Sinuous, fluid, explosive, tender, subtle, joyous, animalistic yet essentially human.  Beautiful.  Deca Dance is somewhat of a ‘greatest hits’ of Neharin’s work, showcasing multiple pieces which seem to seamlessly stream into and out of one another.  Showcasing what could be blanketed as an Israeli aesthetic (taking into consideration some of the other Israeli-raised choreographers whose work seems to have found a home in the UK, namely Jasmin Vardimon and Hofesh Schecter) of long loose limbs, alternatively shaken then extended and distended body parts, a sense of folk dance movement vocabulary amidst the canon of what we consider contemporary dance, fluid movement to and from the ground, etc., the evening unfolded in series of large group pieces interspersed with a particularly tender duet, a colourful trio, and a piece in which five men robed in swathes of cream cotton trousers seemed to be caught in a cycle of resisting and giving in to the group.  This along with the smearing on and eventual washing off of mud on their bodies could easily, given the context of what we had seen before (and in some cases during) the performance, seem evocative of more political rousings of going with the crowd, or standing up to mob in defiance – which could be argued for either either side of this particular political divide.

Despite the many checks, protestors did make it into the auditorium, and the performance was disturbed four times. Each time, the audience erupted into cheers, whoops and applause which quickly drowned out the shouts.  And the dancers just kept dancing.  It amazes me that the protestors paid to interrupt the performance (nobody, but nobody, was getting into Sadler’s sans ticket on Monday night, and me-oh-my, I know how expensive those tickets in the stalls are!), to deliver their message to a room full of people who were there in support of the art, regardless of their political, cultural or, dare I say it, religious stance.

Towards the end of the evening, after the group has performed a shaken, released and joyous sequence of movements to souped-up versions of both Hava Nagila (which of course translates to ‘let’s rejoice’, which couldn’t be more fitting) and then Over the Rainbow, the dancers leave the stage and flock into the stalls and gathering audience members who are then invited to join the company.  The improvisation and interpersonal skills of the dancers results in an exuberant dance collaboration, built on foundations of uncertainty, and resulting in an overwhelming feeling of inclusion, experimentation, play and, above all, fun.  Where the protesters shouts of murder aimed to disrupt and undermine the performance, the dancers’ entry to the auditorium seemed to invite a dialogue – whether in dance, or otherwise.  And after all, should art not invite dialogue?  Provoke reaction?  Call into question?  Is art not for democracy?  For humanity?  Was it contrived? Maybe.  Was it effective, provocative and moving?  Undoubtedly.

Should protest be peaceful?  Or does it only become affecting when it is loud and aggressive?
I don’t pretend to know the political ins and outs of the Middle East.  I accept that any story has two sides, and it is a fundamental human right to not only choose a side to believe in and support, but also to voice that opinion or belief.  I dangerously tread a difficult and often fraught line here, but should that opinion be to the detriment of someone else’s opportunity to voice theirs?  Should we learn to listen as well as speak?
The most fascinating part of this entire experience is that I did not find Batsheva’s work to be particularly politicised in content.  One cannot argue that Naharin’s Israeli upbringing may influence his work, but not once did I entertain the idea that what I was watching may be brainwashing propaganda sent to England by the Israeli government.

Naharin has voiced his sympathies with the Palestinian people on various platforms, and he and the company continue to assert a neutral view when this issue is raised – as at the post-show discussion on Monday evening.  This is taken from an article by Thom Dibdin on the Annals of Edinburgh Stage website:

The company is supported by the state since 1965 when it was formed. It is not supported by the government. It is supported by the idea that money has to go back to art. That is why we get money.

We are not a political organisation and we don’t have a political statement. We are a composition of many people who have many different ideas. As a private citizen I have voiced, over and over, my political views. If you go onto the internet you will see and you will know that I am knowledgeable and also very clear with my opinion abut what the people are protesting here and the people outside.

We are here to build not to destroy. It is true, Batsheva is here representing Israel but we are representing something very important about Israel. We are representing an idea that there is another group of people that are looking for new solutions, that are creative that are open. In our company we have people from different nationalities, our national, ethnic, geographic, religious concerns play nothing in the decision making of our company.

The full article can be found here.

And despite this, Batsheva’s visit to the UK has been overshadowed by calls to have them ejected from the programme at the Edinburgh Festival (to which Lloyd Newson responds here as well as responses to him here), protests disrupting performances, and performances being cancelled due to the fear of security difficulties.

I am not going to make any sort of political stance here.  However, as a choreographer, as a woman, above and beyond being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, I am pro-art, and pro-humanity.

Should our capacity as humans to create not only beauty but also dialogue through art not be what is at the core of our cultural lives?  Should performance not provoke conversation, emotion, reaction and be allowed to these provoke feelings, regardless of whether there is a team which it supports or not?  Is art not, most often, a peaceful way of making opinions known?

What I will say, and what I do know, is that Monday’s performance moved me in many ways.  That is what prompted me to write this, and should reactions and considerations of both sides of the story not be the ultimate goal of not only dance but art in general?

– Amy, 21.11.12.

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