The politics of body-mapping
Yossi Berg and Oded Graf opened White Bird’s Uncaged series with a funny case of body politics
On Thursday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, White Bird launched season 15 of its Uncaged Series, with the return of Israeli choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf and the U.S. premier of their “BodyLand.” Berg and Graff originally made their debut in Portland in the Uncaged series in 2011 with 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer. (I missed that performance but you can read a review by my fearless leader Barry Johnson and another by Marty Hughley, formerly of The Oregonian and now allied with ArtsWatch, too.)
I also attended the master class taught on Friday morning by Graf and Berg at Conduit Dance. I am happy to report that the class was full, 25 students compared to the five that attended Phillip Adams class back in January of this year. The class and choreography appeared to be a synthesis of Berg and Graf’s combined experience as dancers and people in the world. It did confirm a few things I had surmised from the night before: 1) the choreographers enjoy that moment of dropping out of pedestrian movement into dance, and 2) tenderness, sensuality and high drama were common threads throughout.
“Bodyland” featured five male dancers from four different countries—Berg and Graf from Israel, Pierre Enaux from France, Soren Linding Urup from Denmark, and Robin Rohrmann from Germany. With this mix of perspectives and in the context of the United States and the current world political climate, I was expecting a highly charged, controversial conversation onstage. Instead, the hour-long performance was a mindful and carefully sculpted, visually and aurally beautiful, humorous conversation among the men, both as individuals and as representatives of their respective countries. Humor is disarming and it keeps people’s minds open.
The concert was divided into five very different scenes. There were two solos in between: One solo seemed inspired by the question “what happens to the body when one part leads all the movement?”; the other solo I call balloon boy—the dancer had balloons attached to all of his fingers and toes, childlike, the state of man as boy.
The first scene began with Berg walking nonchalantly onto the stage in the darkness dragging behind him an enormous, deflated, oblong-shaped mylar balloon. The shush sound of the mylar dragging against the floor and rustling against itself created a sense of mystery and anticipation.
Berg’s destination was a microphone downstage left where he performed his own rendition of the children’s song “head, shoulders knees and toes” but with added self-judgment. As he touched each body part he let us know how he felt about each. He began with his heart, then head, adding butt, then a slap across his face for cheek, a gentle tap on the nose with a profile view, and “thighs thighs thighs,” which he slapped punishingly. Then he grabbed his groin saying “dick” and without missing a beat started over at “head” making it sound like he was saying “dick head.” He repeated several times, and we are all giggling. (This is really funny grade school humor that is right my alley because I am the mother of a seven year old boy and live in this realm on a regular basis.) At the end of this scene he pinched the “fat” on his lower belly. “This is not fat, it’s experience,” he said, and exited the stage. It’s a very different experience watching a man analyze his body like this instead of a woman.
Next came the gym/techno club jump-roping scene. It seemed to be about something yet about nothing. Berg and Graf re-enter the stage wearing a combination of iridescent and brightly colored workout clothes and sneakers carrying jump ropes. The contagious pumping techno beat starts, and they begin to jump. As they slowly turn full circle in place, two more dancers join in at separate times. The last dancer does not have a jump rope but goes through the motions anyway. Is this a commentary about gym culture? Men’s culture? It sort of doesn’t matter because it was simply beautiful in its uniformity and hilarity. (Side note: the jump rope caught under one dancer’s feet and stopped, but he picked up without missing a beat. I don’t usually mention dancer mistakes onstage but it is interesting to watch how performers deal with these moments.) At some point a giant mylar leg and foot balloon appear, reminding me of the giant foot in Monty Python episodes that crushes the show’s title at the end of the opening credits. Thankfully, others are laughing, too.
Next, each of the dancers re-enters the stage minus his shirt, introduces himself, and then very sensually with his finger, traces out a map on his body of his life based on geographical locations, starting at his house and expanding from there. We get a glimpse of each dancer’s feeling of nationalism and the politics that accompany them mixed with their personal stories. This section also seems to deal with our world view of men, provoking images of the ideal physical beauty. Sometimes the personal perspectives venture into dangerous territory, but at that precise moment of discomfort, they retract and fall back into humor. This next scene formed so quickly I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first, but as I adjusted, I began to see relationships form. I imagined these moving bodies as their respective countries and these were political conversations happening between them. If only we could work out our political differences like this, Obama dancing with Putin, say.
The choreography looked natural and organic, free of self consciousness and the need to conform to any one particular style of dance. They looked like a sweaty mass of arms and legs and flying bodies. As a whole this section reminded me of my husband and son wrestling together. Great physical exertion but also great tenderness and care for one other. Boisterous, athletic, bouncy, pedestrian, serious, playful and fun.
The last scene, cloaked in a low ambient lighting, became a surreal looking, swirling mass of silver mylar balloons (two mylar hands were introduced earlier) engulfing the dancers and the stage entirely to the cosmic thumping sounds of Julia Giertz. I was so overwhelmed with the beauty of it all that I became teary. It felt spiritual, other worldly, possibly referring to a larger higher power, to something much larger than us. Laughter to tears inside an hour.