ADF @ The Nasher: Yossi Berg and Oded Graf

When you go to see a dance, do you expect to be able to actually see it? Yeah, me too. What about a seat, do you want a seat for an hour-long performance? How about a back on that seat? Yep, that would be necessary for me. And if the performance is general admission, forcing early arrival and competitive seat-claiming, would you expect the damn thing to go ahead and start on time?

If you are with me on these things, you probably do not want to go to dance events at the Nasher Museum at Duke. Even though they often turn out to be interesting–even wonderful, like Mark Haim’s piece a couple of years ago–the aggravation factor is awfully high, and increases with the size of the audience.

The museum atrium is a nice place to present small-scale dance or movement theatre. But–it is flat. There are no risers. People sitting on the floor can see; people sitting in the first row, and maybe the second row of chairs can see; people on the few tall stools in the back can see, except when the performers are on the floor…but folks in between see this:


View of Come Jump With Me in the Nasher atrium from the third row of chairs, 7/10/17. Photo: Coke Ariail.


The other serious issue about the Nasher atrium as a performance space is that its acoustics are very difficult. Even normal conversations are a struggle in there, because of the sound bouncing off all those hard surfaces. When the performance includes loudly amplified music and competing speech, speech loses. So, you may find yourself not only unable to see movement but unable to comprehend the texts that are supposed to be an integral part of a work.

That was certainly the case last night for the Yossi Berg and Oded Graf Dance Theatre presentation of Come Jump With Me. (7 pm stated performance time; at 7:13 the silence your cellphone decree came; at 7:14 the show began–at which point I’d been waiting for 37 minutes.) The two performers, Berg and Olivia Court Mesa, never spoke softly, and they cranked all the way up to scream…and the music/sound went up in decibels along with the voices. While this was effective at transmitting something of contemporary conditions in Israel, these artists’ home, it was not effective at increasing understanding, let alone empathy.

I’ve had the idea for a long time that for art–political or not–to be effective, it needs to distill its ideas and passions, and suffuse that tincture into the viewer’s consciousness. It seems counter-productive to make the audience actually suffer, for example, when the artist could generate an empathetic awareness of suffering and its impacts. If I’m defending myself against assault, I tend not to feel any empathy toward the aggressor.

Come Jump With Me struck me as unnecssarily hostile, and I found myself thinking some horrible thoughts in return. This was a real shame, because there is a lot of smart, witty, stuff in the hour-long piece (which really could have been tightened up to 40-45 minutes). It’s a bundle of contradictions–this is not about Israel/this is loving Israel–expressed mostly in spoken word, with movement playing an illustrative role. There is some very impressive movement, and it’s clear in its picture-making, but there is no dance.

By dint of repetition and tonal changes, Come Jump With Me‘s banal phrases take on meaning, and reveal something of the promise and the trap of the idea and the actuality of the state of Israel, and indicate a miserable state of communal psychology. Mesa’s truly bizarre carryings-on with red, heart-shaped lollipops (suckers, if you will) do nothing to make one think there might be sanity somewhere.

Its tightly circumscribed performance area (demarcated with masking tape) mimics the geographical constriction of Israel, wedged between the Heights and the sea. Again and again, the performers rush from boundary to boundary. “Is this the Holy Land?” Berg asks, reverently, at the beginning. “Is this the Holy Land?” Berg asks despairingly near the end, before breaking the perimeter, rolling himself in the taped boundaries pulled off the floor. As the sound system blasts a refrain of “too many tears,” the two performers kayak away. At least, I thought, they have a paddle.

Many people in the Triangle area will remember the multi-faceted artistic exchange between North Carolina and Israel 20 years ago. Come Jump With Me reminded me of various artworks from that exchange, so I could not see it as fresh, or particularly provocative. But it does make it horribly clear that conditions in Israel have worsened rather than improved in two decades. If that was its intent, then the piece, however exasperating, is a success.

The event repeats July 11 and 12.


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