Living in Violence

Israeli choreographer examines images of war

Last week, The New York Times published a photo of a few citizens watching a movie in a Beirut theater. Even when bombs fall and buildings explode, people try to get on with their lives, to do their work. In Yasmeen Godder's Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder, she and members of her Tel Avivbased Bloody Bench Players probe the scenes of Mideast violence that have been filling the media for months and explore how they affect daily existence and individuals' perception of themselves.

For me, Godder's piece, shown at the Lincoln Center Festival, doesn't reveal quite enough about that day-to-day life, but the debilitating results of existing with the threat of violence come through with terrifying force. You senseand would like to sense more oftenthe choreographer posing questions like "Could I ever put a gun to someone's head?"

Godder (whom I knew when she was a student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts 10 years ago) began with images clipped from newspapers. The rhythms and designs of Strawberry Cream reflect her choreographic process. The seven performers walk or run into positions and freeze. They repeat and embellish these poses, sometimes winding their way back into them. Over and over, Jeremy Bernheim forms his arms into a rifle; once when he does this, Arkadi Zaides calmly walks up and takes the pointed fingers into his mouth, as if positioning himself for a game or a rehearsal. Our interpretation of events is constantly challenged. Bernheim covers Maya Weinberg's eyes and nuzzles her neck: Is this the prelude to a rape, or is he saying, "There, there, don't look; come away"? Are we seeing only an act of brutality when Bernheim, Eran Shanny, and Inbar Nemirovsky grab Zaides's arms and legs, turn him upside down, and sling him around? Or are we also seeing people attempting to carry a fallen comrade out of danger? When the performers pull their own or another's pants down, are they acting under humiliating orders or preparing for an erotic encounter?

Many images are stereotypical: people raising their hands in surrender, covering mouths or eyes, collapsed in another's embrace, kneeling beside a body. Occasionally, silentand not so silenthowls, sobs, and whimpers erupt. Other visions are more bizarre. Every time Bernheim steps on Iris Erez's belly or her hand, she laughs; her laugh cuts off the instant he removes his foot, but once he leaves her, she has a hard time stopping. When Zaides dances, flailing wildly, Jackie Shemesh's lighting makes his shadow seem to follow and menace him. Shanny channels Elvis, his arms part gun, part guitar; as Godder dances, crazy-sexy, to his song, the words "I'm all shook up" coarsen and turn to near gibberish.

Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder is performed on partly unwound rolls of synthetic flooring made to look like hardwood. Periodically a wooden arm descends and rises to signify a checkpoint; its logo simply identifies the sign maker (erect a boundary, and an industry is created). A small pile of what looks like desert vegetation is scattered and torn up by the feet and bodies passing over it. Avi Belleli, playing his score on a double-necked electric guitar (with additional sounds), sensitively creates a subtly jangling, sometimes frantic atmosphere.

For a very few moments, near the end of the 75-minute piece, the performers stop, and Belleli falls silent. We hear breathing. For what seems like the first time, they look around as themselves. They might be taking a rehearsal break. As the piece escalates in savagery and the performers get tireder, sweatier, and more disheveled, I wish for more such moments, when they can show us that they understand and evaluate the roles they're assuming in this tightly woven tapestry of violence and grief.

 
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