The award-winning Israeli choreographer of MONGER talks about storytelling, overcoming ethnic tensions, and helping audiences "get" dance.
On Tuesday, White Bird Dance will present Barak Marshall’s MONGER, a dynamic physical-theater piece that depicts a group of servants scrapping and scuttling to please their abusive mistress. Culturephile caught up with MONGER’s creator, Barak Marshall, for a little interview about this intriguing piece, and the philosophies that inform his larger vision.
The detailed gestures in MONGER really mimic the movement of people who are “on the clock.” Jumpy and perfunctory. Where did you pick up this repertoire of gestures?
I see movement as words so I search for the gesture or phrase that expresses the emotion, word or subtext that I am trying to get the dancer to “speak” with his or her body. Much of the gestural work is drawn from the daily pedestrian as well as folkloric gestures of my own Yemenite-Jewish heritage.
The choreography in MONGER doesn’t seem to have an obvious principal dancer, and yet the woman in the reddish dress seems to be the de-facto principal, demanding just SLIGHTLY more attention than the rest. Is this an expression of a natural hierarchy or “pecking order” that emerges even among supposed equals in a work force? (Is the woman in the red dress a sort of “alpha-maid?”)
There is no principal. I just created various stories on the different dancers. But as the work evolved, her character’s story became one of the more prominent through-lines
You’ve spoken in past interviews about the Isreali/Arab rift, and how your company’s performances have been accepted by audiences on both sides. What aspects of your work communicate with both audiences?
Unfortunately, we don’t have many opportunities to perform for Arab audiences. However, on my first tour abroad we performed for a predominantly Arab/pro-Arab audience. This was in 1995 following the Oslo Accords. When it was announced that we were about to come on stage, an audience of 1200 people started chanting, “intifadah! Intifadah! Intifadah!” Needless to say, we were quite frightened but we decided go on with the show. The piece that we performed was my first work, Aunt Leah, which was a piece I built in memory of my aunt. The piece contains a lot of songs and texts in Arabic since my mother’s family are Jews from Southern Yemen. I open the work with a song in Arabic and the audience started quieting down. In the second part of the work, my mother accompanies the dance on darbuka (Arabic drum) and ends it with an ululation—several members of the audience ululated back. The third section of the work contains a lot of sayings, curses and words of wisdom in Arabic and many of the audience members understood the Arabic and began laughing at the humorous parts. The final section of the work is danced to a piece my the famous Pakisani singer, Nusrat Fatah Ali Kahn. The audience began dancing in the aisles and at the end of the show they gave us a standing ovation. This is one example of how art can speak beyond political lines.
In some sectors of the modern dance community, there seems to be a disregard or even a disdain for narrative—and yet your work has a strong narrative thread. What do you gain by framing a dance work in a “storytelling” context, and what do you risk? How do you answer those who want to distance dance from theater?
When I tell people I am a choreographer many respond with a pained expression and say, “Oh…I don’t really get dance.” I agree. For me, dance must tell a story just like a play, film or novel does. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to communicate clear ideas to an audience. When you decide to tell a story you risk becoming too literal or not being true to the narrative arc that you aspire to present. While I do have an appreciation for post modern dance, sometimes choreographers rely on the abstract to cover up unfinished thoughts and one is left with a case of the emperor’s new clothing.
MONGER will be presented by White Bird Dance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Tuesday, May 17. For more about Portland arts events, visit PoMo’s Arts & Entertainment Calendar, stream content with an RSS feed, or sign up for our weekly On The Town Newsletter!