The images of Israel are everywhere, on front pages of newspapers and in the evening news. The backdrop may change: a ruined building here, a hospital ward there, but the faces in the pictures are the same, frozen masks of anguish and shock. Tonight and Saturday, however, a young Israeli choreographer will be bringing these images back to three-dimensional life, turning numbing scenes of war and grief into one of the more unsettling pieces to hit the New York modern dance scene.
Yasmeen Godder and the six dancers who make up The Bloody Bench Players are bringing "Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder," a gut-wrenching work inspired by mass media images of war, to the prestigious Lincoln Center Festival, which kicked off earlier this month and concludes Sunday. If recent festival performances by Israel's Emanuel Gat and Batsheva dance companies have led New York audiences to believe that Israeli dance is all about beauty, virtuosity and wit, Godder's work will act like a bitter tonic: hard to stomach, but a potent antidote for our media-saturated minds.
"I felt like I could not ignore the repetitive images of the conflict by which I was surrounded in my daily life," says Godder, who studied in New York but now lives and works in Israel. "The repetition and intensity resonated in me, and I felt like I needed to bring them into the studio. I questioned whether the dialogue which is present in our lives on a verbal, political and personal level could be transferred to a dialogue in our bodies and our psyche . . . Within the name of the show is the acknowledgement that this is not a show of the war, but rather it is us, sitting on the side, aching as we watch it, in our attempt to play it for the audience."
Throughout the hour-long piece, the dancers take on ever-changing poses familiar from the news: those of horrified bystanders watching the dying and grief-stricken women cradling limp bodies, their faces contorted in silent screams. The tableaux vivants constantly come together in new formations; a dancer may lie slumped on the ground one moment and stand shoving two fingers into a kneeling man's mouth in the next. Frantic movements alternate with long moments of shocked stillness, with only the sparse electronic music of Avi Belleli vibrating in the air. The moving images rearrange themselves like a kaleidoscope, with embryonic narrative threads weaving in and out of each other. "Strawberry" is like a modern dance equivalent of minimalist music: repetitive, multi-layered and ultimately going nowhere.
"I am fascinated by the meeting of something which is very feminine, intricate and complex with a strong edge," says Godder, who once called her approach to choreography "hardcore embroidery."
"In 'Strawberry' I challenged this by working with photographs and trying to stay as committed as possible to a simpler, more direct and raw movement."
The Lincoln Center Festival performances serve as both the New York premiere of Godder's company and a kind of homecoming: Godder herself will be dancing in the auditorium of LaGuardia High School, the performing arts school portrayed in the musical Fame, which she attended as a teenager.
The war between Israel and Hezbollah adds an extra layer to her work, but she says she'd rather do without it. "It is sad," she says, "how this work is so continually relevant."