Gender politics figure prominently in the post-modern dance work of the stirring young Israeli choreographer Rotem Tashach. In his new piece, “Nekeva” (a derogatory Hebrew slang for female), which opened yesterday at Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Arts Nexus (W.A.X.), where it will be performed through March 23, the fragility of sexual identity is explored amid a multimedia mix of images inspired by childhood memories. The venue — a tiny, decaying hole in the wall with a seating capacity of 70 — is the perfect stark setting for this hour-long journey into a troubled and confusing world that juxtaposes the roughhousing one would find in a playground (until the fun becomes ugly and epithets ensue) with a diverse collection of videos that include trees, empty courtyards, dissident political scholar-linguist Noam Chomsky and notorious Israeli pariah Gila Goldstein, a transsexual icon in her 60s.
Tashach, a 27-year-old Haifa-born Tel Aviv University graduate, told the Forward he chose to feature Goldstein, an avowed prostitute and drug user, because “she is really someone who had to deal with ideologies of gender and gender construction” during a period when Israel was still developing as a nation. Goldstein’s flouting of convention, as well as the unapologetic gusto with which she lives her life, might be serving as a source of inspiration to Tashach, who came out when he was 16 while growing up in military bases throughout Israel, where his father was in the air force — an experience he described as painful and “homophobic.” It was only at 18, when his family moved to the more tolerant metropolis of Tel Aviv, that Tashach said he experienced his “first oxygen breath.”
However, the gasps of emancipation would be short-lived. A traumatic 10-month stint in the Israeli army followed, culminating in Tashach being dismissed for being “mentally unfit.” In a society that prides itself on the rite-of-passage nature of its compulsory service, this can be a serious stigma adversely affecting anyone’s artistic future. Yet Tashach prevailed, studying his craft at a number of illustrious dance schools, among them the Bikurey Haitim Dance Center and Bat Dor studios with Naomi Perlov, and building impressive credits as a dancer at the Tel Aviv Dance Theatre and the Anat Danieli Dance Company. In New York, Tashach has performed in pieces by Fiona Marcotty at Joyce Soho and choreographed his own pieces at W.A.X. and Galapagos.
In “Nekeva,” as Tashach and his crew of seven dancers move, sway and undulate to an eclectic musical blend that runs from velvety crooner Nat King Cole to the pulsating, carnal rhythms of disco, there is a liberating sense of energy unleashed, as if the personal and professional freedom that Tashach craved as a youth has been found here in New York City, where he moved nearly two years ago. The pain of being an outsider, of having to endure a misunderstood youth, drives “Nekeva.” Though the piece starts slowly, it gains a fierce emotional momentum as Tashach’s ensemble, clad in raggedy hand-me-down dresses, cartwheel, taunt and acrobatically field their way through their motions in a manner both raw and intelligent. While one dancer sits downstage, silently and methodically hammering nails into a pile of sliced apples, others play a seemingly innocent game of catch with a headless doll that quickly turns into a disturbing confrontation of sexist insults and name calling.
As the travails of Tashach’s formative years are interwoven into the tapestry of his art, so are the influences of experimental dance pioneer Pina Bausch, European dance theater and such “queer theorists” as the late French philosopher Michel Foucault. The latter is key to the choreographer’s perception of his work, especially in relation to “Nekeva.” For this work, Tashach wants audiences to see how feminist and gender discourse are inherently linked to the political propaganda of the state. “What I’m trying to show,” he said, “is that you can’t really separate those discourses. The state itself has indoctrinational slogans, songs and mechanisms of gender construction that actually help perpetuate those kinds of cliches or biases. So it’s very important to understand that it’s not just people who are to blame for chauvinism and biases: it’s countries; it’s states; it’s culture.” For more information and reservations, please call 212-243-5320.
Iris Dorbian, editor of the theater trade monthly Stage Directions, last appeared in these pages May 3, 2002, reviewing the New York premiere of Jason Sherman’s “Reading Hebron” at the Access Theater.