Exploring balance and instability

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Vertigo Dance Company onstage. Photo by Mayan Hotam

There are many worlds to be unearthed in Vertigo Dance Company’s “Reshimo,” a compelling and exquisitely danced piece by Israeli choreographer Noa Wertheim presented at American Dance Institute in Rockville this past weekend. The Jerusalem-based troupe is among a cadre of  Israeli dance companies that have gained notice in recent years.

While Batsheva Dance Company, which returns to the Kennedy Center next month with a work by its renowned choreographer Ohad Naharin, remains Israel’s top dance troupe, Israeli choreographers and dance companies have been in demand worldwide for years. Many still consider New York the dance Mecca, particularly in the Western hemisphere, a strong case can now be made for Tel Aviv as the up-and-coming place for adventurous modern dancers. Many studios and rehearsal spaces in the city are filled with dancers from around the world who flock there to take classes and workshops at the beautiful Suzanne Dellal Centre in the gentrified, boutique-filled Neve Tzedek neighborhood and in other important dance centers around the country, including Vertigo’s in Jerusalem at the Gerard Behar Center.


American Dance Institute’s executive director Adrienne Willis took notice of the cutting-edge Israeli contemporary works and in 2012 instituted the Israeli Contemporary Dance Program, which, with the help of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Israel Engagement Program and Masa Israel Journey, presents one Israeli dance company each season on its highly acclaimed modern dance series.

“Given the quality of contemporary dance that is coming out of Israel,” Willis said, “we decided to begin this relationship. The work that we had seen from Israel was really so incredible that we wanted to work with the [Israeli] embassy to create a program around Israeli contemporary dance.” She noted that the first year of the program in 2012, which brought Israeli-born choreographer Zvi Gotheiner’s New York-based company, drew the largest contingent of audience members fromADI’s own Rockville zip code due to the many Israeli expatriates in the neighborhood.

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Vertigo was founded more than two decades ago by Israeli Air Force trained pilot Adi Sha’al and Noa Wertheim, a dancer and choreographer raised in a religious household in Netanya. Choreographically the company under Wertheim and Sha’al’s direction has explored the continuum between balance and instability, using elements of a process called contact improvisation, which gives their work a sense of urgency as its dancers appear in a constant state freefall. Thematically, their pieces have ranged from collaborations with injured veterans to works promoting environmental change to pieces drawing from Jewish texts and concepts.

“Reshimo” takes its inspiration from a kabbalistic idea suggesting the impression light makes –the afterimage — that lingers once one is in darkness. The dance, like the mystical study of Kabbalah, is a journey of sorts following its nine performers into various states of being, reflective moods and moments of sheer kinetic invention. The work opens with dancers on the floor, a lone woman weaving through shifting bodies as they scoot backward into an undulating snaking line. The 55-minute work presents an ever-evolving landscape of singular movement statements, accompanied by Ran Bagno’s rich and varied musical score, which modulates between violin and cello, to synthesizers and natural sounds and kitschy retro-pop selections.


There are simple moments of the community drawn together, clad in Rosie Cnaan’s stylish, muted shorts, skirts and tunics, holding hands as if ready to leap into a hora as they triple step across the stage in unison. Gestural motifs stated and later repeated become an important binding element in the work when dancers draw their hands to their collar bones, ease them across their bodies into an inventive but mysterious sign language of tremors, fists, slaps and waves punctuated by a vocalized chorus of “eh.” Intimate partnerings – a hug, a clasp, a head nestled into another’s neck – and moments of gorgeous teamwork, as a female dancer is walked and flown by two male partners across a shifting landscape of bodies that she effortlessly steps on and across.

As mystical and numinous as the work feels, there are also moments of tongue in cheek humor – little playful tangos and group dances – that seamlessly contrast with other sections of sheer terror and chaos. It’s difficult not to watch an Israeli company without encountering a moment that recalls the “matzav,” or situation – a sometimes-used euphemism for the Israeli-Arab conflict and how that plays out in the Jewish state. Whether intentional or not, it leaves its mark.

About midway through the piece, the harmonic cello and violins are interrupted by high-pitched whining of clarinets and synthesizers. The siren-like call and the lighting designer Dani Fishof’s shift to bars projected onto the floor resembling a crosswalk suggested a frantic rush for shelter as the dancers dashed and stopped in place, lunging forward and back but going nowhere. The heightened tension of this section suggested to this reviewer a frantic escape to seek shelter amid a missile attack; the dancers were pulled back and forward, lunging, their fists flailing and punching, but they remained stuck, their bodies bound to the space they inhabited.

Wertheim is proud of the Israeliness that she believes is imbued in Vertigo’s works and that sense of place and peoplehood is aptly expressed by this group of exquisite dancers and by her choreographic statements in “Reshimo.” While abstract, they suggest thematic ideas of individuality
and the collective, of natural and urban landscapes,  that truly evoke the Israeli
sensibility.

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