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.

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