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Last winter Idit Herman slipped a disc and because of that, Orpheus happened. It's the latest piece to come from Herman and Dmitri (Dima) Tulpanov, the other half of the astoundingly original Clipa theater company.
In Greek mythology Orpheus is singer to the gods. His music is so beautiful that the very streams cease rippling and butterflies halt in mid-flight lest they miss a single note. Eurydice is Orpheus's wife, claimed by the Underworld after she dies from a snake bite. Orpheus descends to the Underworld where Pluto, enchanted by the music, allows Eurydice to return to the world above. But there is one condition: Orpheus may not look back at her until they reach the light. He does, and she is lost to him forever.
Herman read the Orpheus legend while she was immobile and sure that her career and life as a dancer were over. Tulpanov had begged, cajoled and pleaded, but she refused to do anything and didn't want to hear about new projects.
"After I read the story, I was struck by its similarity to us. Here was I, not wanting to do anything or go anywhere, and there was Dima trying to pull me up and out of it."
Recovery began and Orpheus took shape. On stage are rows of oblong plastic transparencies strung on fishing filament so that they seem suspended on nothing. They shiver and shimmer like water in a river, the river Styx that separates the Underworld from the world of the living. On stage are also a small trunk, a moustachioed plaster bust, a miniature chest of drawers and a collection of dried grasses mounted on movable lathes.
Herman and Tulpanov move between and use these, she dressed now demurely as Eurydice, now as a comical Cerberus, guardian of the Underworld, now as fearsome Pluto - and he, a raggedy Orpheus who plays on various odd "instruments," such as a human leg from which hang metal strips that he strikes like a xylophone. They never touch, never truly meet, but like the filament linking the transparencies, they are connected.
As they have in the past, Herman and Tulpanov made all their props and costumes themselves; but whereas for their other works they used found objects, for this show "it was very important for us to use what we had at home or here, in the theater," explains Herman. "We're only manipulating things that exist rather than creating new things out of found objects. This show is about death and memory. Eurydice is dead and Orpheus can't forget her, so all the objects are fraught with memory - on the personal level, with our own memories. Because of that, they become objects of power."
Orpheus is a duet between Herman and Tulpanov. This is how they started in 1995 with K.L.I.P.A., which they presented under the auspices of the fringe at ZOA House in Tel Aviv. K.L.I.P.A. was a poem in light and shadow: exquisite, intimate, funny, moving and utterly unlike anything anybody else was doing.
The Clipa theater is still that way and, over the years, Herman and Tulpanov, buoyed by the company, have created dozens of pieces from solo works to huge spectaculars such as Deus ex Machina (on water) and Reconstructing Game (on scaffolding), that opened the 2002 and 2005 Israel Festivals.
They have traveled the world, usually followed by critical raves, and won prizes including the Israel Theater Prize for Wanted (1998), Yediot Aharonot's Critics Choice in 2001 for Deus ex Machina and the Rosenblum Prize in 2004, the year that the Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation (IcExcellence) chose to support and promote Clipa.
Tulpanov and Herman are partners in real life, too. Tulpanov, 40, is quiet, calm and his eyes smile before his mouth does. He moves silently, like a classic sculpture in motion. Herman, 34, is wirier, more restless, the bones more sharply present, and when she smiles all of her lights up. Tulpanov tends to shy away from words. Herman talks easily and with clarity.
Born and raised in Holon, she studied dance and at 17 was performing with the Batsheva troupe. Two years later she went to New York, "where I danced with every fringe group imaginable. I even went to the Far East with one of them." She returned home but almost immediately left for Holland "because I'd heard that was the place to develop. I was 20. I wanted to see."
Tulpanov is St. Petersburg born and bred. He studied sculpture, music (all the music in Orpheus is his) and theater. In 1987 he joined Derevo, an avant-garde improvisational theater commune of which he remained a member until 1995. In 1993 he was in Amsterdam, too, performing a piece called Reptile with a partner.
"You have to see these two," friends told Herman. She didn't want to go but went anyway, and "their show blew me away. I went backstage afterwards - I don't usually - and complimented the actor, who said 'It's not me you want. It's Dima. He's on stage.' We had some wine and talked - sort of talked because he spoke maybe 12 words of English and I speak no Russian."
Two days later they moved in together, and for the rest of that year toured with Derevo, then peeled off and worked together, performing at train stations throughout Eastern Europe under the auspices of EU Arts Train. When money and visas ran out, Herman brought Tulpanov back home with her, and Clipa was born.
Professionally and personally, they complement each other. Thirteen years on, Tulpanov's English is pretty good but he's still happy to let Herman speak for them both in public.
They both come up with the ideas for their shows - most often wordless, and if there are words they're gibberish. Both agree that Derevo inspired some of their philosophy, especially the bit about doing everything themselves.
"Manual labor was part of human life for thousands of years, and loss of that connection harms our bodies," Herman has said.
She describes herself as driven and intense, immersed totally in whatever project is at hand, and "thank goodness I have Dima, who is a clown [at heart]. We balance each other."
They are always probing and questioning what they do, seeking to refine, sharpen and be lucid. In the early days, Herman called what they did "moving theater," but today their theater language is based on what Herman calls "Real Game" ideology.
"We look at different processes in our own lives, analyze them and extrapolate them to art. We test the envelope all the time. But the process doesn't interest the audience, and it doesn't have to be a factor in the final result. That is independent of the process."
Real Game represents a radical shift in their thinking that began in 1994, when they met Japanese avant-garde creator Kudo Taketeru with whom they did Exploded Views in Japan.
"He brought the idea that what happens on stage is a ritual and the only time that one is actually living," says Herman. "Off stage it's all acting and role-playing. We challenged him on that because we very much believed that actors are empty bodies that interact with symbols but don't go through real life experiences on stage."
The result was that East and West really did meet. Since then, Herman and Tulpanov have returned to Japan twice; once with solos and earlier this year with Orpheus "because they wanted to see what we'd been doing since our solo shows, so Orpheus is the third part of a trilogy in a way."
"They" is Tokyo's Session House for whose company Herman and Tulpanov created and directed two shows while they were premiering Orpheus to ecstatic reviews.
Tulpanov says of Orpheus simply that "He's me. It's thinking with my hands, creating the things that are the music of life. Orpheus is not a character, he's a moment [of life happening]. It's the actor who creates the atmosphere in which the audience sees the story."
As for Eurydice, offers Herman, "She's not really present in the show because she's only a beloved memory. Who she is in her present is a creature of the underworld without emotions, cold."
Here Orpheus is playing at the Clipa Theater in Tel Aviv, an intimate space created out of an abandoned army-shoe factory near the old Central Bus Station that the couple acquired about two years ago and renovated mostly by themselves. The ground floor is the theater. The upper two floors are studio and rehearsal space: a real theater, after all these years of working and rehearsing out of their home.
It's been an uphill slog for Clipa. The powers-that-be pay annual lip service to creativity, but rarely do they support it with enough money. Clipa used to receive funding on a per-project basis. Now they get NIS 800,000 to 900,000 from the government and a break on their rates and taxes from the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. With that and the cash they get performing at museums and in schools and such, Clipa funds its work, office staff and a company of at least seven technical personnel.
The company is currently doing Four Seasons (1995), a production originally created for the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, and Toy Friend that the company members created by themselves.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of them," says Herman. "That's what we're trying to do - make a new generation of creators in the field of visual and physical theater."
Later this year Orpheus will go to St. Petersburg and maybe to Moscow, and next year to the Edinburgh Festival, where you simply have to go "if you want to keep your status as an international theater group. We're still touring because of connections we made then," says Herman.
What Clipa does is performance art, a discipline much more popular at European festivals than it is here.
"We have a dream," says Herman. "We really want to make a center for performance art here. The genre is so approachable."
Orpheus plays at the Clipa Theater July 1;13;14;20 and August 3;4;10.
Tel: (03) 687-9219