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Choreography of Idan Cohen
'Dancing Israeli Identity: Looking Backward, Looking Forward'

Live excerpt performance: '3 pieced swan, op. 1'

Film excerpts: 'A year in a fish life,' 'My sweet little fur,' 'Swan Lake'

by Carmel Morgan

February 18, 2010 -- American University, Katzen Arts Center, Washington, DC

American University’s Center for Israel Studies, Jewish Studies Program, and Performing Arts Program, in collaboration with the Embassy of Israel, the Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation presented “Dancing Israeli Identity: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” showcasing the choreography of Idan Cohen, an award-winning young Israeli choreographer and presently a Schusterman Visiting Artist at Amherst College.  Dr. Nina S. Spiegel, a Schusterman Teaching Fellow in Jewish Studies at American University, gave a brief lecture titled “Dance as a Window into Israeli Society,” and helped to moderate a discussion with Cohen about his work.  Cohen performed an excerpt of “3 pieced swan, op. 1,” and several film clips of his choreography were shown, including clips of “A year in a fish life,” “My sweet little fur,” and “Swan Lake.”

Dr. Spiegel told the audience that dance was an essential component of Israel’s nation-building effort and that Israel borrowed the physical culture movement model of Germany to produce a strong, masculine Jewish identity.  Thus, rather than looking to the daintiness of ballet, Israeli forms of dance originally looked to German expressionism and emphasized toughness.  Cohen’s performance of an excerpt of “3 pieced swan, op. 1” illustrated the strong, earthbound focus of Israeli dance, but it also exemplified Cohen’s questioning of Israel’s ideal of extreme masculinity.  In this work danced to Tchaikovsky’s score for “Swan Lake,” specifically to the music in Act I accompanying Prince Siegfried’s birthday celebration, Cohen lunged, crawled, and writhed on the floor.  His limbs, often jerking, seemed to be engaged in a battle between his human and animal nature.  Cohen appeared to be moving not voluntarily, but as if possessed.

Cohen explained that his childhood spent growing up on a kibbutz has greatly influenced his development as an artist.  He was raised in a home filled with only children, where the young residents saw their parents only three hours per day in the afternoon.  The children were guarded, however, by one person, usually a nurse, who would come (albeit slowly) if the children, having had a nightmare, called her using an intercom in the middle of the night.  In his piece “A year in a fish life,” Cohen was intrigued by the Gorgons of Greek mythology and their guardian sisters of the underworld who shared a single eye.  According to Cohen, he utilized this story as inspiration for a dance because he felt like he was always being watched as a child.  He was deprived of a room of his own growing up, since children on the kibbutz lived communally.  In his choreography, Cohen left three dancers on stage at all times, dropping no one in the wings, so that they were constantly being watched and were never alone.  In “A year in a fish life,” too, as in his live solo, dancers fell violently to the floor.  In their flops to the ground, they looked almost like drunken lovers.

In the film clip of “My sweet little fur,” we saw a male soloist wrestling with the feeling of being foreign in one’s own body.  The dancer experimented with a heavy beard and wild hair, intending to appear like someone on the cultural fringes – perhaps half hobo, half religious fanatic.  The dancer here, like in Cohen’s previous solo, seemed propelled by his body and not his mind.  He grabbed his own shoulder, pushing himself around.  Cohen admitted that he is attracted to themes involving living on the edge of society, maybe because life on the kibbutz was “tight.”  He said this sort of conservatism made being a creative person difficult, although he insisted that his family was supportive of his decision to leave the kibbutz to pursue a career in dance.

The final film clips were of Cohen’s 2008 work “Swan Lake,” a full length piece to Tchaikovsky’s familiar music, but with vast changes to the traditional ballet and its plot.  A trio of females, remaining always on stage, maneuvered as birthday clowns with red noses, only to have those red noses transform into tomatoes strewn across the stage, which in turn became a peculiar lake in which the women drowned themselves.  Rather than dancing the famous characters, they danced the tensions the ballet’s main characters experienced.  The women spewed sounds like sick laughter, coughing fits, barking seals, the whooshing of wind, and the last gasps of drowning.  As in the other works, the dancers frequently crawled on the floor. 

Cohen, who was a classically trained piano prodigy, professed his love of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”  He felt he had something unique to say reflecting the music’s raw emotion and his connection to it.  Cohen did not, he asserted, approach his version of “Swan Lake” in a juvenile manner with the goal of breaking rules (although he admits he’s a rebel).  Instead, he reported that he approached this new “Swan Lake” with the utmost respect.

Cohen was invited by his kibbutz to perform “Swan Lake,” an invitation which he said caused him to “freak out.”  Overall, the reception of the work was good, but Cohen said that some people walked out during the performance, which he had anticipated might happen.  Cohen’s “Swan Lake” will be performed at a future date in New York and at Amherst College.

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