Tanz Farm’s second cutting-edge season launches this week with Israeli dancer-choreographers Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor performing “Two Room Apartment,” Friday through Sunday, November 1-3, at the Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard. It’s their first appearance in Atlanta. Also on the program is Canadian sound artist C.D. Howe.
Tanz Farm co-curator Lauri Stallings first saw Sheinfeld and Laor in 2011 at Tel Aviv’s annual International Exposure festival, where presenters from around the world get to experience Israel’s diverse dance scene. She saw their “Ship of Fools” and was impressed. When Stallings learned that the duo was coming to the United States this fall, she immediately booked them.
“I think meanings and identities are evolving with individuals and communities and countries, including Israel,” says Stallings. “Niv and Oren have a profound way of looking at new ideas and identities, and they challenge us to laugh and cry at them. There’s a playfulness between the imaginary and the real, and a seriousness about human habits and conditions. Niv and Oren’s body of work lives in these sub-galaxies, these places in the subconscious where our hearts and minds want to go to, but perhaps the world has told us we shouldn’t.”
Atlanta audiences have enjoyed contemporary dance from Israel with Ohad Naharin’s Gaga-driven “Minus 16,” performed here by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and most recently by Atlanta Ballet. American companies such as Gallim Dance, seen here in February, have been deeply influenced by Naharin’s Gaga method. But there is much more to Israel’s thriving contemporary dance scene than this now ubiquitous movement language.
“Two Room Apartment” is a reimagining of a 1987, pre-Gaga work, and it encapsulates the development of independent contemporary dance in Israel. Originally created by Liat Dror and Nir Ben-Gal, the duet shocked audiences when it premiered 26 years ago, and not just because of its erotic nude scene. Its minimalistic aesthetic and everyday gestures were a big departure from the Martha Graham-inspired modern dance that was the bedrock of Israeli dance at the time. “Two Room Apartment” won several awards and became an important milestone in the growth of dance in Israel.
Laor and Sheinfeld have taken “Two Room Apartment” to a new level, in part because they are a gay couple unafraid of revealing their relationship in performance. “In many places of the world this [version of the] duet could never go onstage,” Laor says during an interview via Skype. He and Sheinfeld are in their hotel room in New Brunswick, New Jersey, awaiting a ride to Rutgers, the state university where they are teaching and performing. “It is a very fierce and bold statement on our part,” he adds.
The couple lives in Tel Aviv, probably the most liberal city in the Middle East. (They consider themselves Tel Avivian first, Israeli second and Jewish third.) “In the Middle East it’s not too easy to be gay,” says Laor.
“In some places it is against the law, but not in Israel,” Sheinfeld chimes in. A couple for 12 years, they often finish each other’s sentences.
Sheinfeld danced with Dror’s and Ben-Gal’s company from 1992 to 1997, and while he never performed “Two Room Apartment,” he knew the piece well. When he and Laor began working together, they asked its creators for permission to revive it. “They were very generous,” Laor says. “They said go ahead and do whatever you want.”
The two began carefully reconstructing the choreography and used all the original music by Ori Vidislavski, an Israeli film and stage composer. But it didn’t feel right. “We danced it over and over that way but found that some things were not working for us conceptually,” Laor explains. “Not everything they did back then is edible for audiences today. We really wanted to avoid making it a museum piece.”
Their approach was to “restage the meaning,” not the steps. Ironically, Laor says, “if we had kept it the same it would destroy the work.”
Sheinfeld echoes the sentiment: “If we copied exactly what they did we might miss the essence of the work.” They both paraphrase the iconic German dance-maker Pina Bausch, but Laor, with his stronger command of English, gets closer to her famous quote: “I am not interested in how people move, but what moves them.”
What moved the original creators of “Two Room Apartment” was not the same as what moves Laor and Scheinfeld. Dror and Ben-Gal were a straight couple in their 20s; Sheinfeld and Laor are gay men in their 40s. The nude scene in the original was highly erotic: Dror undressed Ben-Gal down to his underwear and shoes as if seducing him, then suddenly walked away. Sheinfeld and Laor wanted to make this intimate moment more appropriate to their own relationship. “I undress in front of Niv and climb into his arms like a baby,” Laor explains.
For this section, they searched their playlists for music that would resonate with them personally. “We stumbled upon Elton John’s ‘Beyond the Yellow Brick Road,’ ” recalls Laor. They settled on a remix by the Swedish glam-metal band Vains of Jenna. They use the original Vidislavski score for most of the rest of the work, but have cut out some sections to allow space for the sound of their breathing and the slap of their bodies against the floor and each other.
With all these changes, you might wonder why they didn’t choreograph a new duet from scratch. “It felt really narcissistic to come to the studio and start talking about us,” Laor says. “We wanted to avoid analyzing our relationship, like sitting on the shrink’s sofa. It even felt like some kind of mushiness, sentimentalism. We needed to have a little distance.”
They decided to use “Two Room Apartment” as a filter, Sheinfeld explains. Adds Laor: “We felt that we would turn up eventually in other people’s work, and this is truly what happened.”
An independent choreographer for 13 years, Sheinfeld met Laor in 2004 and invited him to the studio as a dramaturg, “to come up with some ideas” for his own work. It was the beginning of a strong partnership that has changed them both, Laor especially. He trained in the theater and never imagined that he would one day be dancing. “Usually you become a dancer and then a choreographer, but for me it was the reverse,” he adds with a smile. “Now I experience all the troubles that dancers have: bad knees, sore back, muscle cramps.”
They both feel a sense of urgency about their work. “In Israel we are always bombarded by statements from politicians, how everything is fragile, war is on the way and so on,” Laor says. “Maybe there is a feeling in Israeli dance that if I don’t create this right now, I might never do it.”