“Out of Israel” is the title that the ongoing 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival has given to the program shared by Netta Yersuhalmy plus Saar Harari and his partner, Lee Sher. None of the choreographers is residing in Israel at present, but Yerushalmy did most of her growing up there, and Sher and Harari moved to New York as recently as 2004. Nonetheless, it would misleading to try to pin country-of-origin labels on their work, despite the fact that Sher, a accomplished singer actress, belts out two Israeli pop songs during the LeeSaar team’s Geisha.
It’s curious that while I was watching both Yerushalmy’s relatively short Bilocale—Come Closer Please. . . and the much longer Geisha, there were points at which I thought, “What a terrific ending!” And then more happened. These gifted choreographers have smart and provocative ideas and couch them in arresting movement, but both works shown raised questions about meaning and structural choices.
Bilocale, for which the audience is seated along three sides of the theater’s performing area, begins fascinatingly. While Toni Melaas, crouching very close to the audience, rolls a lipstick compulsively around in her hands, Yerushalmy dips her fingers into a box of red paint (or greasepaint) and draws swiftly on Melaas’s bare back. Then she slams her partner backward onto a sheet of white paper, rolls her off it, and hangs the resulting print up on a stretched rope. By the time she’s finished, there are four of these chaste representations of a quarrel that draws blood. The lipstick is something of a mystery, unless Yerushalmy and Melaas, her collaborator, wanted to convey the kind of behavior that can irritate a companion to the point of violence.
The two come very close to the audience at times, but in their limited space, they pursue separate pastimes. Well-chosen, very dissimilar contemporary keyboard pieces by seven different composers chart the women’s combats and their rare pauses for reflection. Melaas, her arms and hands twisting around one another and pulling her body into their struggles, seems to be magnifying her lipstick game, while Yerushalmy, provided with a separate pool of light by designer Joe Levasseur, lashes the space around her with more knife-like limbs. Later, they echo each other loosely in a kind of uncommunicative dialogue. Once, coming together, they lean into each other, nuzzling slightly, but as if they neither wanted nor expected to do this. More disturbingly, Yerushalmy twice lies supine, and Melaas sits on her partner’s face, staring into space. For a long time. Any residual eroticism is minimalized by the implication of death by suffocation.
The moment that suggests an ending comes when Melaas undoes the top of Yerushalmy’s white blouse (costumes by Mindy Nelson) and seems about to paint her neck when the lights go out. If the piece had finished there, we’d have missed the strong unison dancing—the women smacking their bodies against the floor, twisting, rolling, and knotting and unknotting their legs as they do so. But we might have been able to link that blood-red chance calligraphy with the other pent-up feelings that aren’t so easy to decipher.
Yerushalmy’s piece was influenced by feelings of confinement. In Geisha, Harari and Sher also worked with ramifications of a single idea—that of the expectations and role-playing that gender induces. It begins with a stunning solo by a stunning woman, performed mostly in silence in a space bounded on three sides by a row of tiny lit tea candles. Jye-Hwei Lin, tall and lean with longish black hair, wears only a pair of jeans. We’re now in the seating intended for spectators, and she’s intermittently aware of us—leaning forward, say, and smiling charmingly, her hands resting on her bent knees. But, more importantly, she senses forces that mold her body, sometimes against her will, and forces that she combats. At first she strides from one spot on the stage to another and assumes a pose or executes a few gestures. These are all remarkable—familiar in the sense of legible, yet, not exactly like anything you’ve ever seen. Lin’s timing and dynamics are impeccable. She’s able to strike out, fists clenched, then melt. One minute she’s a martial arts princess; then the bold, thrusting move slips from her body, and she’s bending backward, her head hanging, her long-fingered hands drained of strength. Sometimes, she does convey the image of a geisha —delicate, eager to please, forming her body into a succession of curves. But you’ve barely grasped that when she modulates into something more powerful. As her pace increases and the steps flow together, she never loses the specificity of being in the moment—aware of the space around her and how she fits into it. She can do something as small as touch her fingers to her mouth, and meanings explode in your mind.
Her first solo is followed by another image of a woman entertainer that’s also full of contradictions. Sher, wearing a short red silk kimono and grasping a mic, comes down an aisle to the stage. She’s blasting out a song in Hebrew with full vocal power and charisma, but the words seem to be about being alone and needing a man. She’s sleek and assured, but her steps jolt along as if she were a windup toy run amok.
When Harari appears onstage, he presents a coarser, masculinized image of femininity. He’s about Lin’s height, and he too is bare-chested and garbed in low-rise jeans. Standing in one spot, staring joylessly at us, he begins by swiveling his hips on an exaggerated scale, as if drawing a big circle with them—his torso moving forward as they go back, back as they go forward. Eventually he and Lin travel together, sometimes side by side and as close as a person to his or her shadow. Their dancing progress through slow deliberations, pauses, and sudden explosions, sometimes accompanied by taped music, and often subject to high-contrast changes in Levasseur’s lighting. They rarely touch, but occasionally they stand face to face and stare calmly at each other. There was a moment when I was sure the piece was about to end: Lin sits calmly on her heels, geisha-fashion, but very erect, and Harari stands beside her, staring at her. The image is striking, but clearly Harari didn’t want to leave us with that representation of male power and female subservience.
As Geisha progresses, though, I begin to wonder where, if anywhere, it’s heading. The choreography seems to be recycling and slightly developing the same interplay between strength and subtlety, between the dancers’ consciousness of performing for spectators and their meditative development of movements. Sher appears again to sing another song—all easy charm and soaring voice. With a teasing, little-girl coyness, she draws a piece of paper—a letter, I think— from her clothing and reads us in Hebrew what it says. Harari and Lin return to dance, and, despite the often very original and deeply felt choreography, the piece begins to feel long. Then it just dwindles away, with the quiet hum of music still sounding after the lights have gone out.