Dance review: Yossi Berg and Oded Graf man the Alberta Rose Theatre stage for White Bird Uncaged
This is a man’s world. But it wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman or…a deer?
With apologies to James Brown and his soul classic “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” this strange notion comes to mind during “4 Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer,” a wry, playful, energetic examination of masculine ideals by the Israeli choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf.
The final show in this season’s White Bird Uncaged series, Berg and Graf’s entertainingly antic yet thoughtful work opened a four-night stand Wednesday at Northeast Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. Its title is like a list of ingredients that offers little clue to the recipe.
The four men are dancers Berg, Graf, Hillel Kogan and Irad Mazliah, who perform in dark business suits and loud patterned shirts, and sometimes in the brightly colored, comically menacing masks popularized by lucha libre Mexican wrestlers.
Bach is, in this case, Johann Sebastian Bach, whose chamber music underscores the majority of this 50-minute piece. (The performance begins, however, with a lounge mash-up of Juan Tizol’s jazz classic “Caravan” and the cheesy ‘50s rock song “Tequila.” There’s even a momentary goof on Queen’s infinitely mock-able “Bohemian Rhapsody.”)
Alice and the deer? Well, those elements are a little trickier.
A bit of narration spoken by Kogan midway through sketches out the imaginary Olympian world we’re witnessing, in which the men are “living in a super-big home, with a super-flatscreen screen the size of the wall…and a fridge packed with beer and meat.” Alice — spoken of with fascination but never shown — is a representative of womanhood and pulchritude, of potential completion for the ideal man, but also of potential, or maybe inevitable, disruption to the male community. Which perhaps leaves the deer — never mentioned yet impossible to miss, sitting stuffed in a corner of the otherwise empty, all-white stage — as stand in for something or other about animal nature.
At least to judge by the likes of Inbal Pinto and Batsheva Dance Company’s Ohad Naharin, whose work White Bird has presented in recent years, the Israeli dance scene has a conceptual bent and a taste for audacious theatricality. Here, Berg and Graf give those tendencies a youthful tweak, with a style that’s comparatively spare and raw.
The main thrust of the movement, full of complex grappling and lifting, looks like it was developed out of contact-improv experiments. That vocabulary speaks to the muddled psychology of camaraderie, competition between the men, as they shift mercurially from feigned punches to sexually charged embraces to satires of “Saturday Night Fever” suavity. The piece is studded with easy-to-read motifs, signifiers of received ideas about manliness (or parodies thereof). There’s proud chest thumping, lascivious hip swivelling, a brief simulation of masturbation, repeated thrusting of fists and unison shouts of “Yeah!”
At one point, Kogan and Berg square off over Alice, bumping chests like it were a form of combat, one saying “Yes!” with each hit, the other crying “No!” As this strange fight goes on, the utterances change — to “love,” to barking, then to “wolf,” “lonely men,” “money,” “power.” Demand, desire and confession merge.
For all its bristling energy, though, the piece ends with a lone survivor onstage looking not triumphant but weary, a bit puzzled by this state of things. Having answered the incessant call to “man up,” he’s found it’s just another way to be let down.