Absorbing designs

Ram Katzir returns to Israel with the Vertigo Dance Company’s ‘Leela’

RAM KATZIR (photo credit: YOAV DAGAN)
(photo credit: YOAV DAGAN)
Imagination is often an artist’s best friend, and Ram Katzir has a particularly fertile capacity in that regard. Katzir is a boyish-looking 50-year-old Israeli who has been living in Amsterdam for most of his life. He is currently over here to oversee the design of the set for Leela, the new production of the Vertigo Dance Company, choreographed by Noa Wertheim, and with Ran Bagno providing the musical backdrop. The curtain-raiser took place at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv on Monday. It will be followed by a second performance at the same venue on Tuesday, and slots at Hechal Hatarbut Hof Hacarmel, Ganei Tikva, the Jerusalem Theater and the Kibbutz Mizra Auditorium. There are also a couple of shows lined up for Italy in July.
The dance company blurb explains that the name of the new show in Sanskrit refers to “a divine play, an existence in which humans are mere pawns. Inspired by the fall from heaven, the creation Leela takes place in the space between illusive reality and God’s cosmic play.”
Relating to ethereal domains and working on three-dimensional projects suits Katzir down to the ground. For want of a more precisely defining tag one might call him a visual artist, but that misses many of the finer points of his creational mindset and artistic ethos. Katzir studied sculpture and photography at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York, and animation at the audio visual department of the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. 
All of that comes into play in his work on Leela. He also fed off most of those disciplines in a previous stint with Vertigo. “In 2011, I was invited by Noa and Vertigo to be a guest artist with them at their village,” Katzir relates. Vertigo is based at Kibbutz Netiv Halamed-Heh near the Eila Valley, in the environs of Beit Shemesh, and operates from its own sanctuary, where the members of the troupe live and work together. That, naturally, helps to create a sense of unison, which translates into a more harmonious approach to their onstage work, too. 
Katzir imbibed the familial vibe at the village, and left a mark or two on the physical aesthetics there. “I spent three months at the village. We had all sorts of plans for me to design a sculpture garden, and do something with the entrance to the village.” While Katzir is used to planning his project way ahead of time, and working to a schedule, at Netiv Halamed-Heh he found himself having to go with the Vertigo flow. “It is a dance group, which is the heart of the place,” he says. “There is the ecological side of the village, and they want to do all sorts of things, but I did help them a little with the design of the entrance to the compound. I also took some photographs of one of their performances.”
THANKFULLY, THAT wasn’t that for the Katzir-Vertigo creative synergy. “I was on a visit in Israel around a year ago,” Katzir continues. “I went to a Vertigo show at the Suzanne Della Center and after the show, I went over to say hello to people. Noa had already asked me to design a set for her – it was all from today-to-tomorrow stuff. I work with institutions, and I couldn’t free myself for that. But then Noa asked me to do something for Vertigo a year in advance, I said great.”
In the interim, Katzir kept tabs on Wertheim and the gang. “I’d just seen One One & One, which is the show of theirs I loved the most, and that gave me the push I needed to go for it.”
Even with his long years of experience, and the international acclaim he has accrued in the process, Katzir found himself doing his fair share of head-scratching. “It was a pretty challenging process – that’s an understatement.” Working with a dance company is a very different proposition compared with, say, creating a sculpture. One might have thought that creating a set for dance production would be a little easier, as the designer has something to feed off – the show – whereas with a sculpture the artist has to produce something out of a corporeal and visual void. 
For Katzir it’s quite the opposite. “You have to cook something up with four other chefs,” he remarks, opting for a culinary line of explication. “You are all working on the same dish, and everyone pulls in their own personal direction.” That is a foreign state of creative affairs for Katzir. “I am usually the captain of my own ship, and I take care to ensure that the other ships around me are sailing in the same direction. Here I am one of the sailors on deck, which is fine, but you to have to know that the other deckhands are working on the same thing. You have to make sure that you and captain are in the same place. That was very challenging.”
That said, Katzir was more than happy to work alongside Wertheim. “Noa is very open,” he notes, although adding that he finds working on his own sculptures closer to his comfort zone. “My works of art are pretty conceptual, in terms of the fact that I first try to crystallize the message I want to convey – even if there are a number of messages – and then I look for most precise way to impart that. Here [with the dance production] it is far more abstract.” 
Abstract? That’s a surprise. Surely, having an extant production to work with gives the set designer a springboard for his work. “Dance is the most visual thing there is, but on the other hand, we are trying to understand things like time, place, context, environment, and the answers I received about that were very abstract. That’s not a negative thing, but it’s very different compared with, say, building a set for a theater production which, for example, is set in 18th-century France, and there is housemaid and a count. At least, with that, you know what you are starting with.”
KATZIR, IN fact, is pretty used to working with the ephemeral. Quite a few of his sculptures – to date he has works in various locations around Israel, the Netherlands, Japan, Russia, Belgium and China – leave something to the imagination. It is as if he wants the onlooker to complete the picture with their own imagination. That line of aesthetic, he says, stems from an early formative experience. “The first time I was conscious of seeing the moon I was certain that the moon is actually a hole in the black [of the sky] and that there is layer beneath which is completely white.” That’s quite a take on the nocturnal heavens, and one that typifies Katzir’s left-field approach to the visual. “My father told that wasn’t the case. I decided he didn’t know anything,” Katzir laughs. 
He was still seeing things “the wrong way round” by the time he was school age. “I remember in first grade there was the letter aleph – I didn’t know what an aleph was – in white on a black background. I couldn’t grasp in the white was on top of the black or the opposite.” It seems there was a physiological explanation for it all. “They checked my eyes and they found I have a lazy eye.” That gives Katzir a singular perspective on the world around him. “I often translate three-dimensional objects into two dimensions. It is easy for me to understand negative space because I don’t have the depth.” Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject, or subjects, of an image. That can lead to optical illusions, and shifts of focus between the primary and secondary subject. 
One might be forgiven for thinking that Katzir’s inability to appreciate the third dimension would automatically disqualify him from the sculpting business. But he turned adversity into a powerful creative weapon. “In China, the best masseurs are blind, because they see with other senses. I don’t see well so I use other senses in my art.”
Considering his bulging portfolio, and his growing global renown, that clearly works, as does his ability to draw us into the thick of things. “In my set for the Vertigo production the spectator is also the actor. “That reciprocal relationship comes from the gradual decomposition of part of the stage design, which is based on a particular species of moss which Katzir had flown over from Finland. And, as we all know, everything that lives is destined to die at some juncture or other. Once again Katzir managed to turn potential disaster into added value. 
“It began as a problem but then I saw the beauty in the organic process,” he says. That also suited the theme of Leela which addresses the twilight zone between paradisaical fantasy and illusory living. “The moss began to disintegrate, and looked terrible. But then I realized that it reflected the fall from the Garden of Eden. It was perfect for Leela.”
The centerpiece of the Katzir set is a ramp, which is intermittently repositioned by the dancers, complemented by distorting mirrors at the sides of the stage. Katzir says the misshapen reflections follow the celestial-terrestrial exchange. “The mirrors remind me of surveillance, the fact that God looks down on you. They change the whole work. Noa liked it, and really went for it.” 
With their track record, and Katzir’s creative contributions, Leela should provide audiences up and down the country, and abroad, with an absorbing and compelling spectator experience.

For tickets and more information: vertigo.org.il.

Tags dance