Theater archives

Women at War in Deganit Shemy’s Iodine


Remember your mother saying, “It’ll only sting for a minute,” as she swabbed your skinned knee, then blew on it while you yelped? The yellow-brown stain it left evoked the original injury. For a while anyway. The young New-York-based Israeli choreographer Deganit Shemy calls her latest work Iodine, but the pain it recalls is far more searing. Shemy has said that the dance (and presumably the earlier Queentet, which contained some of the same material) was inspired by her growing up on a kibbutz. Watching her six brave dancers smash their way into movement, you feel in your gut the tension between enforced daily intimacy and individual development, between the need to be part of a group and the pressures of conformity.

Iodine is unremittingly violent—rife with conspiracies. Every gesture is performed with the suddenness and force of a blow. Shemy isn’t after realism but a kind of distillation of experiences; in the process, all tenderness and happiness have been boiled away. The women are awkward, sometimes close to being out of control. They utter gibberish in high voices, their limbs shake, and they crash repeatedly to the floor as if falling were an expletive. When they come together for some punitive action, they often keep their limbs stiff limbs when bent ones would be more efficient. When three attack a fourth, one of them grabs her blouse, and the other two butt their faces against the victim and freeze there. Their jolting rhythms are underscored by music that comes in snatches and by sounds that hint at the daily life of a community: Dogs bark, cars pass, rubble hits the ground.

When the piece starts, Leah Nelson is standing inertly, staring empty-eyed, while the others—facing away from her and holding hands—chatter in high voices. Denisa Musilova breaks away from one end of the line, shakes her leg to the side with the rapid jerks of a machine gun firing, and topples to the floor. At various times, this line reforms, and another woman makes a personal, slamming statement. For a long time, Nelson is the numb outcast, and although she cedes that role to others, she is the most brutalized, whether that procedure involves something as relatively benign as Savina Theodoro and Gali Wexler standing clumsily with their cheeks pressed together and staring balefully at her (Theodoro is particularly alarming for the manner in which she looks sideways out of her eyes) or an agonizing ritual in which Kathleen Kelley, Stephanie Miracle, Musilova, Theodoro, and Wexler wrap a rope around Nelson, tying her into a one-legged balance, and then take turns circling the other end of the cord as if they plan to jump rope (but never do).

Although Shemy’s relentlessly one-dimensional tone becomes numbing by the time 55 minutes are up, her unflinching approach and her imaginative way of presenting cruelty are admirable. So are the powerful performances she has elicited from her cast. She presents these women as irreparably damaged, yet brave—resigned to simply surviving this cycle of nastiness so they can discover who they are outside its confines.