Art in a Time of War

Classic Arts Features   Art in a Time of War
Two companies from Israel are featured in this month's Lincoln Center Festival.

Artists usually don't have to deal with the ravages of war. Yet, it is a routine condition for those living in Israel, people like theater director Rina Yerushalmi, founder of the Itim Theatre Ensemble, and choreographer Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. "This is work from the front line," says Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, which features both artists this month. "In Mythos, Rina takes on the subject of generational revenge and its repercussions, movingly showing us its contemporary resonance. Ohad's shimmering work, Anaphaza, makes a very strong statement about resilience. But neither are political commentators; they see life poetically and philosophically."

Since establishing Itim in 1989, in conjunction with the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, Yerushalmi has won international acclaim with her grand, idiosyncratic dramas based on Woyzeck, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and the Bible. Intense, poetic, and sensuous, they are strikingly original amalgams of dance, speech, music, and sound and lighting effects. "Yerushalmi's theater," an Israeli critic writes, "is currently one of the few aesthetic phenomena in the world that is worthy of the title 'important,' as her ensemble is returning the theater to its former glory by turning it from a means of distraction and flight from reality, to the level of a tool that is vital, pulsating, thought-provoking on the essence of our human, social, and political experience."

When Yerushalmi was directing Strauss's opera Elektra for the New Israel Opera, she became fascinated with the tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides concerning the House of Atreus and the Trojan War, with their themes of inherited curses and blood revenge. The Greek myth of the Orestea, in particular, deals with individual, familial, and national revenge. Mythos focuses on the last generation of the Atreus family and the horrible futility of humankind's obsession with killing and the need to defend it with an "obligation" for justice. Yerushalmi chose for the score melismas and drones, and pieces by Beethoven and Nino Rota. For her actors she selected Israeli-Arabs, Ethiopians, and others born in Israel but of both Western and Eastern origins.

"The parallels between the Greek myth and our time in the Mediterranean region is obvious," the director says. "Here, revenge blurs the personal and the national, while historical memory feeds them both and leads to a cycle of blood in the name of justice and history. I wanted to bring to the theater an experience related to this aspect of human nature and view it from a contemporary perspective. My subject is the price revenge wreaks on both those who take revenge and those upon whom revenge is taken. I recall the words of the 19th-century French theorist Ernest Renan: 'The condition for national unity is not collective memory but collective forgetting, and forgetting is the condition for reconciliation.'"

Given her story's closeness to Israeli experience, Yerushalmi thought it best to distance it theatrically. Inspired by the Greeks' fascination with the stars and the universe, she chose to link the drama with present day astronomy, and added modern texts about the stars and astronomical events. She asked the set designers to create an evolving cyclorama of the Milky Way to create a sense of being in space inside the theater. She was moved long ago by a quote that she saw at New York's Hayden Planetarium: "We are made of stardust and every atom in our body was created within a star even before the Earth was born."

In the prologue of Mythos, an old woman gossip recounts the Atreus clan's inheritance of lying and killing. When Orestes, played by the Arab-Israeli actor Yousef Sweid, returns from exile, his sister Electra urges him to kill their mother, Clytemnestra, because she had killed their father. "A life for a life," she cries. "Justice demands your life." As the tragedy unfolds, their city fills with the sounds of Jewish, African, and oriental laments and incantations. But unlike the original Greek plays, in Mythos the Furies (the ancient creatures responsible for blood revenge) awaken in Electra and Orestes their conscience and the pain of memory. It drives them to madness and death. The play culminates with Orestes' trial, after which he stumbles away into a landscape of fallen skyscrapers, reminiscent of September 11, 2001.

The power and force of Ohad Naharin's choreography also reflect the tensions and uncertainties of Israeli life. Anaphaza, which had its world premiere at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem in 1993 and its U.S. premiere at the "Art of the State: Israel at 50" festival at the Kennedy Center in 1998, is a fierce and explosive abstract work. Performed by 20 dancers accompanied by bass, drums, and vocalists, the work combines film clips, slide projections of words and spoken text (in Hebrew and English), street dancing, drumming, and club scene antics.

"It projects a sense of celebration," Naharin says. "It's exaggerated, almost over the top." So over the top that ultra-Orthodox Israeli politicians refused to allow its performance at Israel's 50th birthday party in 1998. The controversial act called for members of the troupe to take off items of clothing as they sang words from a traditional Passover song. When the politicians demanded the dancers wear flesh-colored long johns, Naharin refused.

Naharin became artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company in 1990, following in the footsteps of Baroness Bethsabee (Batsheva) de Rothschild, who founded the troupe in 1962 to help preserve Martha Graham's legacy. Although in his teens he danced with Graham's company in New York, Naharin soon moved away from her aesthetic to one closer in spirit to choreographers like Jírí Kylián and William Forsythe, whose works are now in the Batsheva repertory. In a review in The New York Times in 1998, critic Jennifer Dunning said, "His sensibilities seem now to be rooted in a culture of youth that has drawn new and younger audiences to his company's performances."

Naharin offers an explanation: "I choreograph to go places where I've never gone before. I'm always interested in composition and the organization of time and space. I was very influenced by the choreographer Gina Buntz, with whom I worked at the beginning of my choreographic career. She was a free spirit, not bound by conventional techniques. She gave me the confidence to find my own language."

Naharin does not see his circumstances as unique. "Every creator deals with the tensions around him," he says. "We live in a violent society, with injustice and extremes of danger. They're in everybody's life. We know nothing is permanent and that life is hard. Perhaps here in Israel all that is clearer. But in my work, I'm more affected by the opposite, subtle things like gestures of love, the generosity of people, and the sharing of wisdom. Whoever wants to go to war is stupid and a fanatic. Only once recently did I have to cancel performances because of violence, when the war in Iraq began and people were afraid Scud missiles might be fired here. Other than that, we've just gone on with life. I dance every day. It keeps me sane."

Valerie Gladstone is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

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