Yossi Berg and Oded Graf, Bodyland
Your body is not a wonderland. At least, not the way Israeli choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf tell it in BodyLand, which makes its U.S. premiere in Portland to kick off White Bird’s 15th annual Uncaged series. The piece explores body image and societal expectations, but not in as grim a way as you might expect. Their point is there, to be sure, but for the most part the hour long work feels playful, funny and energetic, with balloons, giant silver inflatable arms and legs, 1980s-style aerobic breakdowns and lots of penis jokes.
The show opens with Berg, clad in simple workout clothes, entering the spotlight. He lists body parts—heart, brain, butt, arm, fingers, knees and so on—with careful timing and a wry smile. His childlike delight when he cocks his hip to the side and says “butt!” or his surprised tone when he wiggles his fingers—as if just discovering them for the first time—brings an immediate warmth. Berg’s repetitive naming, which grows more rapid and rhythmic as time goes on—brings to mind the children’s song “head, shoulders knees and toes,” until it is broken up by pointed assertions. “In Israel, boys are circumcised when they are 8 years old,” he says offhandedly. This is shortly followed by lamentations like “Why I can’t I be taller?” and then, suddenly “shut up, brain,” followed by a sharp slap to the face.
BodyLand doesn’t feel so much like a dance here as it does theater, and that’s a feeling that continues through an ’80s-esque workout sequence—where the dancers jump rope to the entirety of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” in sparkly shorts and neon sweatbands—and a spoken introduction to each of the dancer’s countries.
Here, the five dancers—Berg and Graf from Israel, Pierre Enaux from France, Robin Rohrmann from Germany and Soren Linding Urup from Denmark—map their country and hometown using their own body, pointing to their collarbone to mark their city hall, or their stomach to signify their favorite bakery.
Berg and Graf’s physical movement kicks in soon after, and it doesn’t disappoint. Much of the time, the movement is odd and quirky: a lot of unstable angles, aerobic-type kicks and punches. Graceful split leaps or whirlwind attitudes might sneak in, but for the most part, the movement seems almost random, trading between loose and random waves—one dancer pulls out his hairband and wildly swings his tresses around, throwing his arms and legs in the air and hopping from foot to foot—to tight, repetitive spins and lunges.
One standout moment comes during what I’ll call “the adorable balloon piece,” a section of the evening that seems to comment on people’s worship of another’s body and the ensuing weight that the worshiped person must bear. But instead of feeling overly symbolic or heavy-handed, this burden is expressed through bright and colorful balloons that the dancers blow up themselves and then attach to Graf’s hands, feet and mouth. It’s hard not to think of Up mixed with some kind of b-horror movie about a menacing balloon, and it’s immediately and conflictingly delightful. Through subtle movements, Graf shifts from a stance of power to one of fear, curling in on himself and bearing the burden of the balloons. Eventually, he no longer resembles a human but a shaking, frightened and colorful balloon creature preyed upon by the sneaking, greedy giant mylar hands. When the balloons pop or lose their air, it’s hard to tell if it’s on purpose or not, and Graf has the ace timing of a seasoned improv actor.
The full group numbers still prove the most interesting, though, and luckily, BodyLand has no shortage of these. Each dancer often adopts different poses and movements, making for a dynamic interplay between breaking each other down—with sharp jabs and falls to the ground—and supportive catches, lifts and holds. One member might be running around the group in circles while another dancer uses another’s leg to launch and spiral in the air. Everywhere you look in BodyLand, there’s something new and compelling to see.