Climb every mountain

For choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf, there is always a new challenge on the horizon.

March 12, 2011 23:26
Four Men

Four Men 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Blind dates can be stressful.

They can be exciting, promising and optimistic, yes, but nerve-wracking as well. Most blind dates amount to a polite drink, a light meal and some small talk.

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However, for choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf, the notion of a blind date took on a whole new meaning last month.

Their set-up lasted for five weeks, was arranged by a major artistic venue and was meant to conclude in a pair of performances.

It began last year when Mary- Louise Alpert, artistic director of the Chutzpah! Festival in Vancouver, Canada, saw the duo’s hit piece Four Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer during the International Exposure Festival at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv. She approached Berg and Graf shortly after with an invitation to create a new work in Canada. The artistic board of the festival would arrange for a cast of dancers, rehearsal space and a stage on which they would unveil the fruits of their labor. Berg and Graf don’t usually go for that kind of deal, they explained in a recent interview in Tel Aviv, but the offer seemed too good to turn down.

This invitation was far from the first of its kind to come their way.

Last year, they were invited to Denmark to produce a full-length piece at the Dansescenen Theater in Copenhagen. Upon arriving, they selected five dancers who, along with them, would make up the cast for Animal Lost. “Our work is very much influenced by the people in the process,” said Berg.

“For that reason, we usually choose our own dancers.”

Berg and Graf arrived in Vancouver in January. They were given a place to stay at Simon Fraser University, where they taught workshops to local dancers. Shortly after their installment in Vancouver, they were introduced to their cast. Luckily for them, the Chutzpah! crew proved to be savvy matchmakers.

The two dancers set up on this artistic blind date were Noam Gagnon and Justine Chambers.

Over the five weeks they spent together, the four became a harmonious unit.

When Berg and Graf create a new work, they take to the studio, researching material – both movement and text – before adding in the dancers. Using the equation of two heads are better than one, Berg and Graf collaborate on all stages of each creative process. “Before we met the dancers, we had made a lot of plans,” said Graf. “Of course, those plans changed the moment we met them.”

Berg was quick to point out that both dancers were over 30, a fact that delighted him. “We worked with Noam and Justine. Noam is 47 and Justine is 35,” he said. “In Israel, 30 is considered old for a dancer.”

Berg and Graf, both in their 30s, explained that they feel their skills on stage and in the studio are only becoming sharper with time. “I feel that I’m only now really understanding myself as a performer,” said Graf. “I have so much left to discover, and I don’t feel as if I’ve exhausted my search in any way. To see a man in his late 40s who is still dancing was really inspirational for me.”

Gagnon is something of a legend in the Pacific Northwest. In 1993, together with dancer/choreographer Dana Gingras, Gagnon founded The Holy Body Tattoo, a contemporary dance company in Vancouver. After 16 years at the helm of his troupe, Gagnon broke off to create a new ensemble, Co.

Vision Selective.

Chambers has spent the last 15 years performing with a number of Canada’s major dance companies.

She is an avid blogger and a dance instructor for Arts Umbrella, an association dedicated to bringing arts to children regardless of their socioeconomic standing.

Once in the studio, Berg and Graf used the sentence “We all feel the pain” as a jumping-off point. “We wanted to look at what that pain is,” said Berg. The results were very different from Berg and Graf’s previous pieces, which were largely narrative. In addition, unlike many of their pieces, this work was purely physical, with no text.

“This piece is much more abstract,” explained Graf. “We looked at the physical bonds between bodies. It turned into something very emotional,” he said.

Gagnon and Chambers were vital to this process. “The dancers were very open during the research,” said Berg. “We could ask them to do anything, whether physical or theatrical. We were all very much on the same page.”

In Vancouver, after two successful performances of the piece, which remained untitled, Berg and Graf said goodbye to their new friends and returned to Tel Aviv.

Though they have spent the better part of the past three years on tour, they still refer to Israel as their home.

In the coming month, they will present Four Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer four times in Tel Aviv. “It’s very important to us to perform in Israel,” said Graf. “As much as we travel, this is still our base.”

“Our audience in Israel is very interesting,” said Berg. “People come to see our shows four and fives times. And then there are a lot people who come that we don’t know, which is very good.”

However, one of the tricky elements in Berg and Graf’s jet-setting lifestyle is that their dancers are scattered around the globe. Much like with Gagnon and Chamber, when the performances are over, their cast members go home to or stay in their respective countries.

The original casts of many of their works, such as Four Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer. Animal Lost and Bear- Girl King are international. What this means, in practical terms, is that they either have to replace cast members depending on the location of the engagement or not perform at all. This summer, as part of the Hot Dance Festival, Berg and Graf will unveil an all- Israeli cast of Animal Lost.

As for the future, the duo can hardly keep track of the invitations they have already received to tour in Europe, the US, Latin America, Canada and Asia. “We call it the ‘mountain factor.’ We want to go anywhere that has a new mountain for us to climb, be it physical or professional,” said Graf with a smile.

Four Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer will run at the Inbal Theater in Tel Aviv on March 18, 19 and April 29,30. For tickets, visit or call (03) 510-5656. For all other information about upcoming shows, visit Berg and Graf’s website:

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