When the brash new Company E marks its debut with an all-Israeli program of choreography, someone notify the fire inspectors of downtown Washington, D.C. “I wanted to pick work that will set your hair on fire,” former government policy wonk turned choreographer and producer Paul Gordon Emerson said about why he set his sights on a cadre of Israeli choreographers for his latest dance startup.
“I realized that there’s something in the water [in Israel],” said Emerson, who previously led the recently shuttered repertory company CityDance Ensemble on State Department- and embassy-sponsored cultural diplomatic missions to Bahrain, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Peru and the West Bank’s Ramallah. Since his first encounter with Israeli choreography two years ago, while on the company tour to Ramallah and Jordan, he was so bowled over by the breadth of work coming out of Israel that he vowed to find a way to bring a program to America. “There’s more genius coming out of that one small piece of geography than there has any right to be,” he stated. “So when we decided on a series of projects reflecting on national identity, it was obvious to me where to start: Israel.”
“Next: Israel” opens at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall on February 25. The program draws attention to the cutting-edge sensibilities of dance in Tel Aviv and around the country. Emerson’s Saturday showcase features contemporary dance works by just a few of Israel’s most progressive choreographers: Ohad Naharin, critically acclaimed artistic director of Israel’s best and most important dance troupe, Batsheva Dance Company; Sharon Eyal, Batsheva’s choreographer-in-residence, and Yossi Berg, a Batsheva alum who has worked in London with the physical theater company DV8 and who now collaborates exclusively with dancer and choreographer Oded Graf.
Thanks largely to the innovative training methods of Naharin, whose Gaga principles of movement have spawned a generation of fearless, fierce and compelling dancers and choreographers, Israeli dance has become one of the nation’s major cultural exports. The nation’s companies and choreographers tour Europe and the Far East frequently and have done so for years.
American audiences and presenters, though, are just beginning to recognize this dance talent. Like Emerson, Company E dancer Kathryn Pilkington credits the Israeli context for the talent and creativity she’s experienced there. “I think the difference is that the art in Israel is so supported by the whole community. Artists in Israel… don’t have any boxes, they can feel free to explore, more so than what I’ve experienced here in the U.S. They’re just light years ahead of us dancewise, and it’s pretty incredible the amount of talent and artistry that comes from everybody over there.”
In Washington, Company E tackles two older works by Naharin. The dynamic “Black Milk,” his 1985/1991 male quintet (and not an allusion to Paul Celan’s use of the phrase in his seminal “Death Fugue”), contains a hypnotic power with its ritualized structure, unbridled physicality and mystical underpinnings that resonate with both ancient and modern sensibilities, and radiate tribal and individual feelings. And there’s the 2006 idiosyncratic women’s quintet “George & Zalman,” where the dancers’ sharply etched gestures accumulate into complex phrases set to American poet Charles Bukowski’s cynical anthem, “Making It.” The program also features “Most of the Day I’m Out,” a boldly confrontational duet that (choreographed in 2001 by Berg) is at turns humorous and violent in its unrestricted and raw hand-to-hand combat.