Curtain Up 2009: Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor – Big Mouth

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The three of them are walking, marching, in studio A at the Suzanne Dellal Centre: Niv Sheinfeld, Oren Laor and Keren Levi rehearsing the first segment of Big Mouth, which premieres Monday, November 30 as part of the Curtain Up Festival. The room is so silent I can hear the rhythm of their bare feet on the floor. Although there is no music, the traces of familiar movements create melodies in my mind: Shavtem Mayim, Zaddik KaTamar. Vestiges of Israeli folk dance move through their steps, while the triad formation sends my thoughts right back to boot camp, which, as it turns out, is what the artists intended.

Big Mouth explores the relationship of the individual to collective and to structure – the tension between the desire for independence and the surrounding framework – such as family, religion or nationality, which supports, enables and at the same time establishes limits and constrictions. In conversation with Laor and Sheinfeld it appeared that the concept is mirrored in the evolution of the work itself, which began as a solo for Keren Levi, an independent dancer/choreographer based in Amsterdam, and evolved into a trio, in which Sheinfeld and Laor represent the framework surrounding Levi.

Big Mouth/Photo: Gadi Dagon
Big Mouth/Photo: Gadi Dagon

The current work presented a departure for all three collaborators. Sheinfeld and Laor have created several works together: Pigs (2005), Jorona (2006), Duets (2007) and Post-Martha (2008). Although both have performed in different roles within many of these works, one was always on the outside observing and directing. In Big Mouth, both are within the structure of the dance, performing the entire time, which has given them a different perspective and challenge to work with. Another new element in this piece is Laor’s role. An actor by training, Laor is the dramaturg for their collaborative works while Sheinfeld choreographs, and until now, his performances in works like Jorona or Duets, have been dramatic. Yet in contrast to these previous works, which are closer to dance-theatre, Big Mouth is a more abstract, movement-based work, in which Laor is participating as a dancer. For Levi, working on Big Mouth represents a different sort of move altogether, one which relates thematically to the dance.

Big Mouth/Photo: Gadi Dagon
Big Mouth/Photo: Gadi Dagon

Levi, who was a member of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and the Batsheva Ensemble, has been living and working in Europe for the past 12 years. Territory, her first full-length piece (co-production of DWA Dans Werk Plaats, Grand Theatre & Monty Antwerp 2004) won the BNG prize for the most innovative work touring the Netherlands through the Nieuw Theatre Maker Series 2005-6. Faceless, her second full-length piece premiered in the “Something Raw” festival in Amsterdam 2006, and was followed by the duet Couple-Like, which is currently in its 3rd season on tour. Levi’s latest piece, The Prize Piece (BNG prize commission) was performed in the “Something Raw” festival in February 2009. Having developed an individual path far from Israel and the local dance scene, in this work Levi returns to her roots in more ways than one – Levi and Sheinfeld went to high school together for seven years in Sulam Tzor, a small community in the north of Israel.

Laor emphasizes however, that their work is “not just about Israel, but we did choose a place we are familiar with, and we know how it works on us. In art this is the whole complexity, you always represent yourself, but you also represent something else at the same time. The minute Niv suggested to take and break apart folklore dances and Keren was swept into this, but what I saw was, it’s very nice to do this, it’s very nice movement, but what I saw was faceless people and nationalism. This is what unifies people into a group, it takes away all sense of personal expression from them. I was looking at images of folk dancing on youtube – you see a group, dancing, very nice…” Sheinfeld completes the image: “happy, colorful clothes.” Laor continues, “The way that national movements try to unify people…they usually don’t do it by force, they do it in very pleasant forms, but someone who tries to push out will find himself very lonely.”

Big Mouth/Photo: Gadi Dagon
Big Mouth/Photo: Gadi Dagon

In addition to the opening movements of Big Mouth, of which Laor says: “I don’t believe how hard it was to learn, if you think of anything else you lose your place. It’s like learning a safe combination with 40 numbers,” the trio also revealed a few select moments from the end of the piece, which have an entirely different feel. Sheinfeld and Laor surround Levi with an all-encompassing embrace, as Sheinfeld later described to me: “She doesn’t touch the floor. We cradle her and don’t give her freedom. She doesn’t stand on her own two feet.”  The two continue to speak in tandem as Laor says, “We make everything pleasant for her and deprive her of her independence.” Sheinfeld continues, “The individual can choose whether they are sentenced to be lonely or not…or find another structure to work in.” Laor warns, “It’s the same thing [referring to alternative structures], be careful what you wish for.”

Diverse elements – from Kleist’s play “Penthesilea” (the Amazon queen torn between love and nation), to the Eurythmics and the popular Effi Netzer/Yossi Gamzu song “We Were Called to Go” were part of the discourse that accompanied the process of creating Big Mouth. While not necessarily present in the final version (Eurythmics out – Effi Netzer in), the influence of the underlying process can be seen in the movement. Sheinfeld relates that although ultimately “we don’t develop it with Keren, Kleist developed a third gender that has both masculine and feminine qualities.” Yet a trace remains as Sheinfeld describes Levi as a “dancer who doesn’t want to be beautiful in movement. She wants it to be functional.” When asked how this is expressed in the current work, Sheinfeld explained that much of her movement in this piece comes more from the center of the body, rather than from the edges, “not to ornament the movement.”

Big Mouth/Photo: Gadi Dagon
Big Mouth/Photo: Gadi Dagon

Talking about their work with Levi, Sheinfeld and Laor reflect the tension at its core between freedom and structure, saying:

Laor: We worked a lot through improvisation.

Sheinfeld: And also through building schematically. I don’t think you can survive without a framework.

O: We had to create a structure so that she would have freedom.

At the end of our conversation, the questions still remain. As Sheinfeld says, “We are not giving an answer – that is the conflict.
Within the frame work you have a tendency to forget everything. We want to raise the question.”

Performances:
30.11, 4.12, at 21:00, 12.12 as part of “International Exposure” at 11:00
Suzanne Dellal Centre, Tel Aviv, 03-5105656, www.suzannedellal.org.il

13.12 at 20:00
Rebecca Crown Theatre, Jerusalem Theatre, 02-5605755, www.jerusalem-theatre.co.il

Image credit: Gadi Dagon