It’s an assertion I’ve heard before, this time from Tel Avivian choreographer Oren Laor: “Israelis are very straightforward.” Perhaps it is the immediacy, the tension and constant threat of violence, that creates a strong need to make and disseminate art. “Everything is so fragile and violent, you cannot talk about bullshit to us,” Laor says.
Duly noted. No small talk. Skip to the meat of the interview.
But in fact, I quickly discover that Laor and his partner and longtime artistic collaborator Niv Sheinfeld are generous and convivial, both with wry senses of humor and strong, sometimes clashing, opinions.
Glo founding artist Lauri Stallings curates Atlanta’s contemporary performance series Tanz Farm and has invited Sheinfeld and Laor back for the Atlanta premiere of Ship of Fools May 19-24 at the Goat Farm Arts Center. The two, partners and long-time artistic collaborators, performed their acclaimed Two Room Apartment as part of last year’s Tanz Farm series 2. This year’s series 4 will conclude with a single performance of that duet. “Our gift to Atlanta,” says Laor.
Ship of Fools began with the title. Now an expression that generally refers to collective ignorance, the term originated from a European allegory written in the Middle Ages and has seeped into many forms of Western literature and art. Laor and Sheinfeld, frustrated by the political climate in Israel, found its message relevant. “Tel Aviv is a liberal lighthouse, the cultural center of Israel,” says Laor, and yet its people consistently turn a blind eye to “disastrous” parliamentary decisions.
Despite critical intentions, the two choreographers worked to keep the mood light. “We don’t want to lay it down too thick,” says Laor. Part social commentary, part entertainment, Ship of Fools takes audiences on a voyage. “We hope by the end of the show, you won’t really understand how you got from A to B, which is a totally different atmosphere,” says Laor.
The intriguing trailer reveals a spoof on a classical pas de deux alongside a third dancer moonwalking to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” “The dance field is so posh,” says Laor. “If you want to be considered artistic, you have to use something that nobody knows or something that is not really nice to listen to. We’re rebelling against that.”
Sheinfeld has a different perspective. “Speak for yourself,” he says to Laos. “Music for me is text; it carries information. Pop music is lightweight. It aims at fun and carelessness, and this subtext suits the work for us.”
Laor agrees, but it quickly becomes clear that the two choreographers enjoy challenging one another. Artistically, each pushes the other to question his ideas; it’s fertile ground for innovation.
A couple for 13 years and artistic collaborators for 11, Laor and Sheinfeld joined forces when Sheinfeld, a long-time dancer and choreographer, needed a dramaturge. Laor, who studied theater and performance at Tel Aviv University, contributed his expertise for Sheinfeld’s Covariance in 2004, and the two have worked together ever since.
Ship of Fools, which they prefer to call a “stage event,” melds theatrical interludes, text and movement in an effort to broaden the public’s –especially the American public’s — definition of a “dance.” Live performance, says Laor, should challenge perceptions and make viewers “less stupid as spectators in the world, not just in the theater.”
Because of its unconventionality, they thought Ship of Fools would anger some viewers and perhaps even incite a few to walk out. But since its Israeli premiere in 2011, the work has been well received and continues to evolve. “It’s not policed choreography,” says Sheinfeld. As the dancers change, so does the piece, and over time nuances emerge that “upgrade” the performance.
Says Sheinfeld, “In art, you need to remember the essence of what you’re doing. If it’s a correct way of thinking, then it has questions. You need to remember the questions when you come to it a second time and ask them again.”
A mini-debate ensues. “Is there a ‘correct’ way of thinking?” asks Laor. Other questions emerge, and perhaps — hopefully — I’m witness to the seed of a new piece.