Moving Walls | By Marie Tollon

At the beginning of Two Room Apartment, Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor tape off two adjacent rectangles on the floor, delimitating a performative space within the stage’s already existing one. The marking of a floor plan calls to mind the formation of Israel, the country they both live, work and originate from, and whose creation in 1948 involved the physical delimitations of a national land. Yet their duet transcends the possible references to the country’s history by touching upon universal issues and questions: How do we navigate boundaries, whether personal or political? What does ‘crossing the line’ mean? What happens when we step into foreign territory, be it artistic, social or cultural? How do we balance the need for personal space and the yearning for togetherness when in a relationship?

Navigating relationships

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor.  Photo by Gadi Dagon

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor.
Photo by Gadi Dagon

Sheinfeld and Laor’s Two Room Apartment is a revisit of the Israeli classic dance piece by choreographers Liat Dror and Nir Ben-Gal. Premiered in 1987, the original piece represents a corner stone in Israeli dance as it helped define the contemporary dance scene within the country. Originally a duet between a man and a woman, Sheinfeld and Laor’s version showcases two men. In an interview for Dance in Israel, the two choreographers explained the changes brought by the gender switch:

The fact that we are two men on stage – and they are a man and a woman – is by itself a major difference. Elements such as energetic output, nuances, balance, and tenderness all yield to a different set of expression and behavior when it comes to two men with high testosterone levels. The original work reflected on the issue of gender by looking into the eternal battle of the sexes; we, on the other hand, reflect on the issue of gender by looking into the relationship of two people of the same gender.

Co-presented by ODC Theater and A Wider Bridge with the Israeli Consulate and The Jewish Community Federation, Two-Room Apartment will be showcased at ODC Theater on March 21 and 22. A Wider Bridge’s mission is to bring the LGBT communities of Israel and North America closer together by offering a wealth of programs, from travel opportunities to cultural experiences. When inviting Israeli activists and artists to San Francisco, A Wider Bridge’s Founder and Executive Director Arthur Slepian’s goal is to show that “there is a world there that people can relate to” and that “some cultural elements are part of every LGBT communities, no matter where they are located in the world.”

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor.  Photo by Gadi Dagon

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor.
Photo by Gadi Dagon

Slepian provided a contextual framework to better understand how Two Room Apartment echoes the development of the LGBT’s community in Israel:

Tel Aviv is like San Francisco, and much of the rest of Israel is like Omaha. But it is changing. Five or six years ago, there were two prides in Israel, one in Tel Aviv, and a much smaller one in Jerusalem. This past year, there were over a dozen prides, scattered around the country. It used to be that if you were LGBT, you were in the most left-side political party of Israel. Today, every party, except for the ultra religious, has some LGBT faction. In Tel Aviv, you now see lots of same-sex couples with babies, which is much different from here, because continuity is such an important factor in Israel.

Sheinfeld and Laor’s piece also challenges traditional male representations in Mediterranean societies: “Niv and Oren let you in. They feel very vulnerable, exposed, in ways that men don’t often let themselves be. Part of the Israeli culture has this macho façade. They are breaking it down, inviting the audience in a very personal way,” Slepian adds.

Yet, the physical conversation in which Sheinfeld and Laor engage onstage goes beyond same-sex dynamics, and instead addresses the complexity of human relationships. As Slepian notes, “that’s why the piece has been such a success. If you’ve been in a relationship, you can identify. It’s about being together and yet apart. In the same place but separate.” A couple in life, Sheinfeld and Laor have been making work together since 2004. While exploring artistic collaboration, their duet also touches upon the boundaries we set within ourselves, imposed by cultural, social and psychological constraints.

Addressing legacy

The attempt to seize and revisit an artistic landmark is common among artists. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and SITI Company recently performed a version of the The Rite of Spring in San Francisco, a ballet originally created by Vaslav Nikinsky and retold by many choreographers. Reinterpretation leads to inquiry: How is the artist addressing the original piece? How are they instilling their personal voice within the work? In their conversation with dance writer Deborah Friedes Galili, Sheinfeld and Laor shared the challenges they faced when taking on the project to recreate Two Room Apartment, and offered a glimpse of the process they underwent to make the piece their own:

It was really important for us to avoid – by all means – putting a dinosaur onstage just to show how beautiful it was. This is not the aim of bringing it back. After running the work several times exactly like Nir and Liat performed it, we realized that it was not going to work. It was going to be a dinosaur; it was going to be a museum to this work. We had to do something to infuse it with our own awareness: if we’re doing this, we are going to do it our way. This was the second phase of the process – liberating ourselves from the image of Nir and Liat performing the duet, and exploring our own language inside the basic structure.

Apprehending the larger dance ecosystem

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor. Photo by Gadi Dagon

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor.
Photo by Gadi Dagon

Sheinfeld and Laor’s piece is an intimate work. As they explained, “we’re trying to reduce, to be more minimalistic as a means to peel off layers that will expose the core. Not to show how tons of money can be poured onto the stage, not to present immortal gods on stage, but the other way around: we are mortal, what you are witnessing is temporary, and it is present only here and only now.”

“Who gets to dance?” is one of choreographer Liz Lerman’s key inquiries in her work with non-trained and multi-generational dancers at the Dance Exchange. A piece such as Two Room Apartment, by a small company, offers a footnote to Lerman’s question, which can be reformulated as “Who gets to tour?”

American audiences are likely to know the work of Batsheva Dance Company, which is based in Tel Aviv and has performed in the Bay Area several times. But how much do we know of the work of artists who investigate contemporary issues without the financial support and scope of a larger company? As ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke states:

It is still an issue that perpetuates today, as both the domestic and international work that gets tour support is often the biggest, shiniest, newest thing. If there is anything that drew me to help host Two Room Apartment, it is the opportunity to see work from another country and to understand its lineage and relevance, but also to say that there are these smaller works that are important if you want to apprehend the larger dance ecosystem.

Two Room Apartment offers its own view on the broad landscape of small-scale works that resonate powerfully, partly because of their rawness and simplicity. With a clear sense of humanism, Sheinfeld and Laor have rebuilt these two rooms, imbuing them with new depth and power. What becomes gradually apparent is that the walls and borderlines are not fixed, but porous, flexible, and even at moments invisible. With its economy of gestures and language, Two Room Apartment creates space and access for the viewers to enter, establishing a place of their own.

The performer points to sculpture and the sculpture points back | By Marie Tollon

By inviting painters, sculptors and multi-media students from the San Francisco Art Institute to consider how dance could inform their practice, ODC Theater’s engagement program Dance Odyssey actively situated dance within the context of the visual arts last fall.

ODC/Dance. Photo by RJ Muna

ODC/Dance. Photo by RJ Muna

Boulders and Bones, a collaboration between choreographers Brenda Way and KT Nelson which premieres at YBCA in March, is inspired by the work of sculptor and photographer Andy Goldsworthy. Through a reversal of roles, this new work allows us to consider how the visual arts can inform dance making.

Dance has a lengthy history of partnering with the visual arts. This dialogue has manifested in many forms and continues to evolve within the contemporary context. In some instances, choreographers commission a set to become an integral part of the choreography. Such was the case with Martha Graham’s collaboration with sculptor Isamu Noguchi. In Graham’s Errand into the Maze, Noguchi’s pelvis-like sculpture becomes a stoic partner to the dancer and contributes to the structure of the choreography.

Other choreographers engaged in a dialogue with visual artists emphasize the autonomy of each art form. Merce Cunningham stressed that the dance and the set each have a life of their own: in his long-standing collaboration with painter Robert Rauschenberg, the two forms only became integrated in the moment of performance.

In other instances, a visual artwork can serve as inspiration to a dance. In her memoir Blood Memory, Graham talks about a painting by Wassily Kandinsky that particularly marked her: “I saw across the room a beautiful painting…[that] had a streak of red going from one end to the other. I said, “I will do that someday. I will make a dance like that…And I did.” In Graham’s Diversion of Angels, “a woman in red…flashes across the stage as erotic love…and the girl in red is the Kandinsky flame.” When she choreographed the fiery solo of the Woman in Red, Graham looked to reproduce the movement that Kandinsky conveyed through kinetic line and color.

For Way and Nelson, it’s Goldsworthy’s working process more than his actual pieces that informed the making of Boulders and Bones. What particular elements in his artistic practice fed the creation of Boulders and Bones? How does visual art, a practice mostly associated with permanence, compare and contrast to the ephemerality of dance?

Performative sculptures

Pebbles around a hole, Kinagashima-Cho,  Japan (1987). Photo by Andy Goldsworthy

Pebbles around a hole, Kinagashima-Cho,
Japan (1987). Photo by Andy Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy builds sculptures using only natural elements, such as rocks, wood, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, to name a few. Constructed solely with the use of tension and pressure, the bulk of his work is intentionally impermanent and unfixed, thus allowing for a short life span that is left to evolve and decay. As Way comments, “he uses nature, points at nature, returns to nature, so there is this visceral life cycle.”

Through their relationship to time, Goldsworthy’s pieces challenge the tangible permanence of traditional sculpture and painting, and points to the live event, as defined by scholar Peggy Phelan in The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction:

Performance’s only life is in the present. Performances cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance (…) Performance’s being (…) becomes itself through disappearance. (…) Without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility –in a manically charged present- and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control.

If their existence in the present likens Goldsworthy’s works to performative acts, they are nevertheless usually conducted without an audience, and “left to be discovered” as Goldsworthy explains about a piece he made for the Collins Gallery in Glasgow. The finished work only becomes public by chance, if an onlooker happens to stumble upon the work, or through the photographs that Goldsworthy takes of his sculptures.

Goldsworthy’s approach to his practice echoes the medium of dance, an art “that exhausts itself, disappearing at its moment of fulfillment” as dance critic and scholar Ann Daly states. The flux of Goldsworthy’s work also calls to the overt materiality of a society deeply entrenched in its value of the product. This ultimately questions the dance world and its ambiguous relationship to developing works that may or may not have ‘product-consumer’ appeal. How is dance co-opted by a culture of consumption? What does a dance piece look like when its primary concern is commercial viability?

Choreographing space

ODC/Dance. Photo by RJ Muna

ODC/Dance. Photo by RJ Muna

The use of space within Goldsworthy’s work also reveals some structural similarities with choreography. His eucalyptus branches which run through the Presidio of San Francisco recall the aesthetic concerns of contemporary sculptor Richard Serra, who, in a recent interview, stated: “I use steel to organize space.” Similarly, Goldsworthy’s wood, stones and other natural elements are used to modify and carve space, evoking what choreographers are able to do with bodies. In Goldsworthy’s description of his work, one can substitute the word ‘body’ for ‘rock’ and visualize the relationship a choreographer may have with dancers while crafting a piece:

A rock is not independent of its surroundings. The way it sits tells how it came to be there. The energy and space around a rock are as important as the energy and space within. The weather – rain, sun, snow, hail, mist, calm – is that external space made visible. When I touch a rock, I am touching and working the space around it.

Comparatively, Boulders and Bones highlights how choreographers organize and define space with bodies. In the excerpts shown two weeks ago during Unplugged at ODC Commons, a single dancer walked perpendicularly into her fellow performers, evenly arranged in a straight line across the stage, slowly compressing the row of bodies in front of her with the weight of her arched torso. Through this movement, she made the malleability of space become visible and visceral, disclosing the very nature of the choreographic act.

The working of material

Both pressure and tension are evident in the dancer’s gesture when pressing the row of bodies, subtly allowing effort to conceal itself, although at the same time appearing within the overall work. When interviewed about the making of Drawn Stone, a site-specific piece commissioned by the de Young museum in San Francisco, where a fine fault line runs through a landscape of stones, Goldsworthy explained the sense of effort that is part of his making process. He stated how he needed to break the stones in a very specific way so that the split would hold an intended “energy” to it. In the end, the crack in the stones appears as a “simple crack in the pavement but the effort, the huge amount of effort, to make that line appears effortless.”

ODC/Dance. Photo by RJ Muna

ODC/Dance. Photo by RJ Muna

It takes years of training for dancers to make movement appear effortless. Yet, Way and Nelson wanted to render effort visually in Boulders and Bones. “We were working with the ideas of effort and pressure, similar to what you are making when you are in the construction world,” Nelson explained. These are also the exact concerns with material that Goldsworthy is engaged with when executing one of his stone works, such as Stone Sea, which stands solely with the use of pressure fit.

The dance showcases the choreographers’ material –here the body and the dance phrases- as having a life of its own. A dancer moves through the stage in a solo, suddenly a second dancer abruptly runs to her and carries her to another part of the stage. Completely undisturbed, the first performer continues through her movement phrase even while being relocated. As Nelson states, “the material fights back.”

Goldsworthy’s relationship to his material, whether it is a rock, mud or soil, is always a visceral one: “I want an intimate physical involvement with the earth. I must touch. I take nothing out with me in the way of tools, glue or rope, preferring to explore the natural bonds and tensions that exist within the earth.”

ODC/Dance in Triangulating Euclid

ODC/Dance in Triangulating Euclid

His exploration echoes some of Way and Nelson’s own interests in investigating the intricate webbing of human relationships, considered in many of their recent works, including Nelson’s Cut-Out Guy, and Triangulating Euclid, the collaborative work of the two choreographers with New York based choreographer Kate Weare. As nature is both the context and subject of Goldsworthy’s work, it also mirrors the choreographers’ research and concerns about the interaction of man with the environment, which they explored in Nelson’s Listening Last and Way’s Unintended Consequences: A Meditation. “We often think of people like hunters, or fishermen, as bad for nature, but people like that, as much as they can, dive into the flow of the forest, or the river,” Nelson explains. “They try to be inside, and part of the natural landscape. When Andy goes in nature, he has the same kind of sensibility. It is about trying to become part of the landscape, not imposing something on it. Andy is asking questions: What is human interaction with nature? What is tolerable?”

Describing her collaboration with Way in the making of Boulders and Bones, Nelson added: “We wanted to change our experience of making the work. We wanted to challenge ourselves.” This collaborative desire to alter their choreographic process parallels the potential relationship between dance and the visual arts, and thereby offers the possibility of creating works that transcend both medium and context. RJ Muna’s film about Goldsworthy’s work and process will be shown at the beginning of the evening-length piece. It will allow the viewers to further measure the many layers of collaborations involved in Boulders and Bones, and the specificities of the dialogue between the dance and visual art practices, one reiterated on the screen, and the other performed on stage.

Stitching the Stories of a Theater Season | By Julie Potter

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography and empathy is first of all an act of the imagination, a storyteller’s art, and a way of traveling from here to there.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

A theater season is a story and a speech as well. It’s armchair travelling and reflecting on ODC Theater’s 2013 season I ask, “Where did you go?” I found myself traveling more through questions, suggestions and empathic moments than crisply legible stories. And that’s good.  That’s what dance does.

Approaching dance, the audience member becomes the spinster making, as Solnit describes, “form out of formlessness, continuity out of fragments, narrative and meaning out of scattered incidents.” To consider the theater season a non-linear narrative, we find a route to meaning through these so-called incidents. We stitch the images, sounds, associations and feelings to arrive at a personal response beyond language. These are the stories, which dance composes.

Taking a long lens on ODC Theater’s 2013 season, curated by Director Christy Bolingbroke specifically around storytelling, it’s clear how many threads wove women’s stories, though not all feminist in nature. Female heroines and protagonists of strength, action and criticality have been represented from Sheetal Gandhi’s potent expression of a determined woman navigating cultural norms and roles in Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife), to Barak Marshall’s no-nonsense, rather violent female bride in And at midnight the green bride floated through the village square. Rosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night offers another shade of femininity and power employing the narrative of Scheherazade – inherently a story about storytelling. Finally, among the 8 works presented during the Walking Distance Dance Festival, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters’ People Like You addressed motherhood, biological clocks and the stories we tell ourselves. Combined, the works illuminated how choice, resources, conditioning and time deeply influence our becoming.


Sheetal Gandhi. Photo by CedarBough T. Saeji.

Sheetal Gandhi. Photo by CedarBough T. Saeji.

Opening the 2013 season April 19-21, Sheetal Gandhi’s Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife) dances her possibilities via a one-woman show. Gandhi enacts characters inspired by her family. To have options and choice is one sort of luxury but also a burden. What roles and values are prioritized, and for what reasons? How do you live your hybridity?

The roles of daughter-in-law, daughter and wife, link women from around the world, but the expectations of these roles drastically differ from place to place. Gandhi honors her family and North Indian traditions, but by exploring each character in the work, portrays her desire to break from certain elements of her culture. She dances the challenges that accompany choice, acknowledging the sacrifices that come with any chosen path. With choice comes a striving for balance and evaluation of values, and although less overtly represented in the work, Gandhi lives the roles of artist, teacher, student, traveler, circus performer and scholar.

At a reflective pace, Gandhi manipulates her costume and posture to transform into an old woman. As Gandhi embodies the elderly character, she gets the hiccups, which, she explains, is a superstitious sign that someone is thinking of her. We see her lament the life she may have had with another man had her arranged marriage not dictated her path. What does it mean to be a good daughter or wife? For whom do you make your choices? The stories portrayed by Gandhi’s characters read as warnings, no individual truly satisfied or content.

Equally charismatic in her tightly crafted solo as an elder and as a teen who longs for permission to wear a tank top, Gandhi’s presence is big and generous, inviting us to travel and empathize with her through the heaviness of choice. Hers is a thoughtful predicament, illustrated by the montage sequencing of characters. The final quiet image of Gandhi stifling a fluttering hand with the other suggests that there is a “too late.” Bahu-Beti-Biwi reminds us that we must lie in the bed we make, her portrayal of different paths begging the question of what it truly means to make “good” decisions.

Abundance and Scarcity



Where choice exists for Gandhi’s character, a scarcity and jealousy manifests in Barak Marshall’s And at midnight the green bride floated through the village square performed by BodyTraffic September 26-29 on a triple bill shared with works by Kyle Abraham and Richard Siegel.  In And at Midnight… good men are hard to find. One at a time, the men attempt to seduce the women by suggestively narrating delicious recipes of cooked lamb and fish, yet when the women gather to watch a film, they munch on simple bread. Abundance and scarcity.

Throughout the work, the women are handled aggressively. One scene features the women presenting themselves individually with great effort to appear attractive and desirable to a man sitting on a bench. Their aggressive labor to please makes them appear as desperate and hungry women. They are discarded one after the other, being dragged and draped over the bench.

Marshall’s choreography employs a humorous physicality to keep the dance in dark comedic territory. Like Gandhi, Marshall utilizes costume and regional music, in his case Israeli folk songs, to hint at a culture. The dance, inspired by his mother’s neighbors, responds to scarcity by portraying ugly female competition, not unlike the cattiness contained in television comedies like Cougar Town. And at Midnight… is an archetypal story of the woman scorned – more lighthearted than say, Medea, but still ending with actions of anger and retaliation. The bride does not go quietly to sulk. She is angry and hysterical. While And at Midnight… conveys abusive and cruel moments, I don’t think Marshall actually hates women, however it is through a women’s story that he comments on the destructive potential of jealousy.


Rosanna Gamson World/Wide

Rosanna Gamson World/Wide

Rosanna Gamson, on the other hand was driven by the question “Why do men hate women?” as she developed the work Layla Means Night which premiered at ODC Theater October 31-November 3. In Gamson’s eyes, the ancient story of Scheherazade is also about today’s complicity of women. Think about the many women trying not to age with wrinkle creams and liposuction, holding up teenage girls as paragons of beauty. She brings our awareness to the conditioning of mass media and notions of appeal. Gamson’s daughter originated the role of Scheherazade in an earlier version of Layla and as a mother, Gamson wonders what her daughter considers beautiful.

To look upon this work is complicated. Self-discovery can rise from discomfort, thus revealing information about one’s own conditioning. Because of my personal sensitivity to reinforcing mainstream images of normative female beauty, a tension was elicited by the teen performers of the Dance Jam, many with long hair, red lipstick and slinky black satin dresses. While all willing and informed performers, their youthful presence in Layla Means Night raises the question of innocence, parallel to Scheherazade’s character. The teen performers both washed the hands of audience members and shared sweets, thus providing services and manipulating the audience to participate in an exchange. Innocence alternates with wit and manipulation through the actions of both Scheherazade and the teens. Are they innocent or knowing and calculating? The ambiguity keeps the performance alive and suspenseful.

Gamson’s multisensory and ambulatory site adaptive work choreographs the audience so that time goes backward and forward with different groups witnessing various nights. The relative innocence of the teens is juxtaposed with obvious sexualized imagery such as a silhouetted woman biting a banana. Ultimately Layla Means Night is a story about how storytelling can save lives and how one woman’s imagination and defiance made her a hero.


Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters in "People Like You"

Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters in “People Like You”

Also addressing the desire to make sense of things, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters frame their work through narration, which has an invitational effect in People Like You, during last year’s Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF May 31-June 1. They stand at a microphone reminding us that “We tell ourselves stories.” They ask after our expectations and even request that when they get to the end of the dance, we “pretend it all works.”

An initial sequence reveals Seiters and Lincoln observing themselves holding round illuminated mirrors. A metronome ticks onstage. Limited time. Death. Biological clocks.  Again, like in Bahu-Beti-Biwi, there is a “too late” looming large. Film segments show the faces of the artists from a perspective similar to that of the mirrors held as the artists closely study their faces, pondering and perhaps checking for the changes of time in their skin. The film also features images of a pregnant Seiters. In front of her, Lincoln wears a white cast of a pregnant abdomen, pointing to the passage of time and allowing the past and present to be in conversation. The specific situation is unclear, leaving the possibility for Lincoln to be imagining or comparing her experience to that of another woman.

Like Gandhi’s work, People Like You addresses choice surrounding motherhood, domesticity, and action, however the attention to time feels more urgent. Where Gandhi lingers in reflection, People Like You builds to a roaring percussion and abruptly ends in blackout.

Experiencing the works of the season in relation to each other the audience becomes the storyteller stitching the dances together in memory. Returning to Solnit’s view of narrative creation, “the storyteller is also a spinner or weaver and a story is a thread that meanders through our lives to connect us each to each and to the purpose and meaning that appear like roads we must travel.” What does the season do? It allows us to exercise our narrative imagination.

Furthermore on this note, author, Alexsander Hamon suggests in The Book of My Lives that storytelling “is a basic evolutionary tool for survival. We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.” Dance is one such engagement. To locate the women’s stories of the 2013 season in the architecture of ODC Theater suits a dance campus founded by three strong community-minded women. In a theater season we travel. We empathize and even learn how to survive by sitting in a dark room and being with the work.

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