‘Mad Siren’ at Dance Place in D.C.
The Idan Cohen Dance Company dances in “Mad Siren,” the piece the group will perform at Dance Place Feb. 23-24.
by Lisa Traiger
“Due to the very real sirens outside, tomorrow’s performance of “Mad Siren” is unfortunately canceled.” read the notice choreographer Idan Cohen sent out on Nov. 17 of last year. More than 1,500 rockets pummeled Israel during that week before a cease-fire was put into place on Nov. 22, 2012. For part of that week, the pre-show announcement at Suzanne Dellal Dance Centre in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood, where “Mad Siren” was to have made its Israeli debut, added to its request to turn off all cell phones: “Ladies and gentlemen, in the case of a Code Red alert [an incoming bomb siren], the performance will be stopped and the house lights will come on. You can proceed to the bomb shelter or choose to remain in your seats.”
How ironic that a piece with the prescient name “Mad Siren” was forced to cancel precisely because of the madness of bombs and sirens.
“Conflicted,” is how Cohen described his feelings upon hearing those sirens in Tel Aviv last year. While they signaled immediate danger, they also meant something far more personal – and political – for him. “My heart,” he said, “was in two places: not just in my chest area, but also within the borders of Israel and outside the borders of Israel.” He saw the misery and devastation that those missiles wrought on both sides of the conflict.
And he wasn’t surprised that a piece he started working on in 2010 and premiered in 2011 in Germany, was devastatingly relevant once more. This weekend, Cohen brings his small chamber-sized company to the District to perform “Mad Siren,” which isn’t about Operation Pillar of Defense, or any of Israel’s recent military maneuvers. The work, performed to Mozart’s familiar solo piano sonatas, draws much inspiration from the essence of the music. The choreographer suggested that the piece follows a transformative process drawing the performers out, from passive listeners to active players – dancing, falling, tumbling, chattering – in a climate where Mozart and the wail of sirens compete.
Cohen, who grew up on Kibbutz Mizra in northern Israel, the same secular kibbutz where Israel’s best-known choreographer Ohad Naharin was born, studied piano from the time he was about 6. Dance came, later, much later, after a stint in art school, where contemporary performance art whetted his appetite for movement. As a teenager he followed his older sister into dance class on the kibbutz. He spent his army years in national service rather than the military, teaching art to underprivileged children by day and taking ballet and modern classes in the evenings. “I wanted to serve my country,” he said, “but for personal and political reasons, I did it in a different manner.” Eventually he became a member of Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, based at Kibbutz Ga’aton, where he performed and toured the world before setting out to find his own artistic voice and create his own dances.
Cohen credits the kibbutz lifestyle and philosophy for supporting a dynamic artistic community within Israel. “If you look at the kibbutz society and social structure,” he pointed out, “you can find an interesting combination of work ethics and values and opportunities for individual growth … . There are clear, specific demands for building a community, supporting the land and the kibbutz life, and at the same time there are opportunities for leisure and self-actualization.”
For Cohen, who was the last generation on his kibbutz to live in the children’s house, separated from his parents, the piano room became a refuge, a shelter, a place to get away from the rambunctious kids. Later, art, then dance served the same purpose.
“Mad Siren” is a meditation on the nature of art and the creative process taking its inspiration from Mozart and Cohen’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who escaped Vienna at 16. “She grew up on classical music, and it was a significant part of her life, as well as mine,” Cohen said. He noted the dissonance she struggled with in acclimating to Israel’s geography, culture, and the political climate, all so very different from the Europe of her youth. “I find both the connection and the disconnection between a European cultural aesthetic that created these sonatas and what we bring to the studios in dancing them,” he said, adding, “that gap creates a canyon that is dangerous to cross, scary,” just like the piercing sound of the sirens.
And while for many, particularly in Israel, those sirens in “Mad Siren” feel elementally current, for Cohen they reflect back, too, to his grandmother’s experience in Europe during World War II. “Within these beautiful quiet sonatas, when we get to this political situation and we’re living in danger,” Cohen notes, “we can’t overlook the past that has led us here.”
The choreography is distinctively modern, the women in colorless shifts reaching, tumbling, writhing on the floor. The stage is filled with natural elements – leaves, sticks and birds’ nests – elements that remind him of the landscape of his own childhood on the kibbutz, and, maybe, Cohen allowed they come from his father’s influence as a biology teacher.
While contemporary dance in Israel has become exceedingly popular worldwide, with Israeli dancemakers and companies in demand at festivals and in major opera houses from the Far East to Europe and North and South America, most Israeli choreographers refute the idea that the political conflict plays any role in their artistry or their output. Cohen is an exception. There is something about the Israeli-Arab conflict that creates a unique approach to dance in Israel, he said. “As artists we live with and within the Israeli political climate and Israeli culture that creates a dissonance that makes its way into the artistic sphere. In dance that experience creates a different type of movement language.”
“I don’t think we can separate anything from the politics of the situation we live in,” Cohen added. “What we are being fed is what we produce.”
“Mad Siren” will be performed Feb. 23 at 8 p.m., Feb. 24 at 4 p.m. at Dance Place in the District. Tickets, $22-$10, are available by calling 202-269-1600 or www.danceplace.org. Free lecture/demonstration Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Abramson Family Recital Hall, Katzen Arts Center at American University in the District. Call Center for Israel Studies 202-885-3780 or visit https://american.edu/cas/auarts/calendar/index.cfm?h=292 to RSVP.