On the day Yossi Berg and Oded Graf first piped The Rite of Spring through the sound system at their rehearsal studio, they had no real intention of using the seminal opus in their work. A hugely celebrated and interpreted piece of music, The Rite of Spring bears so many cultural references and weights that many choreographers wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Perhaps it was because of this apprehension that Berg and Graf had to go through a stage of healthy denial before fully accepting that they were, in fact, about to present their interpretation of Stravinsky’s masterpiece.
Tonight and tomorrow night, Berg and Graf will reveal their newest work, The Rite of Spring, at Tmuna Theater.
“It is the most iconic and used piece of music in dance,” says Graf over coffees in central Tel Aviv. Seated next to him is a tired yet excited Berg and fellow choreographer Rachel Erdos, who is serving as an outside eye for this process. The three have just finished a run of the piece and are bursting with ideas about what works and what needs tweaking. “It’s our first time talking about the piece and we have a lot to say,” says Berg.
“It was with us for years, in the back of our minds. We tried to touch on it a few times while working with other companies but it never fit.”
Already deep into a new creative process with two additional dancers, Avshalom Latucha and Tal Adler-Arieli, Berg and Graf once again popped on The Rite of Spring, fully imagining that it would be a momentary soundtrack, a one-rehearsal shebang. “It was like glue, it just fit,” says Graf.
The dynamic (truly) duo has made a name for themselves creating cutting-edge, theatrically blended dance works in Israel and throughout the world for the past decade. For a good chunk of their professional lives, Berg and Graf created only abroad, spending many months in Denmark and the United States. Two years ago, they premiered Come Jump with Me, a duet performed by Berg and Olivia Court Mesa.
“Everything got blended in Come Jump with Me... Our return to working here in Israel, being here, creating here, working with people who live here,” explains Berg. “It was a major turn for us in our career and we found that, going into this process, we couldn’t detach from it.”
“We wanted to take The Rite of Spring and manifest our style, physicality and language in it,” adds Graf.
But where Come Jump with Me was deeply verbal, The Rite of Spring is more subdued.
“Come Jump with Me was our most theatrical piece yet. Our aspiration with this piece was to go back to the body, to find the relevance in dance and movement,” says Graf.
After a short hiccup of bargaining, Berg and Graf accepted that The Rite of Spring was more than a background track for inspiration, it was an essential element of the production.
“We started reading texts about how countries deal with war and victims of war,” explains Berg.
“We were looking at how war is celebrated in many different cultures, not just in Israel. How it becomes a highlight in people’s lives, how they tell stories of where they were and what they were doing during those events. The fallen soldier is like the cherry on top, the essence without which war does not exist.”
The all-male cast at times evokes a team of fighters and at others, a glance at homoeroticism.
“We cannot escape the sexuality that emerges with four men on stage. There is also this masochistic fantasy of the combat soldier, which came up over and over,” says Graf.
“That desire to be part of something bigger than oneself, which really drives army enlistment,” adds Berg. “I suppose, in a way, we were trying to connect with something bigger than ourselves too, both in country and in the legacy of this music.”
Breaking down the various sections and rhythms of Stravinsky’s creation proved a major challenge for the two.
“We realized that it’s like a big puzzle. We read that Stravinsky created The Rite of Spring as musical molecules, each with its own climax, and then fitted them together. We tried to copy this method. We made sections that each had a climax of their own and then brought them into sequence,” says Graf.
The two decided to work closely with a musician to create a new version of The Rite of Spring.
“The music is our base but we aren’t servants of it,” says Berg.
“We wanted to make something that felt epic but we are only four without a live orchestra. So, we looked at how to make it epic even in an intimate situation,” adds Graf.
“I think what we ended up with is something that is personal and universal. It is about the struggle that people have with where they come from, their place in the world and their body.”Yossi Berg and Oded Graf will present The Rite of Spring at Tmuna Theater (www.tmu-na.org.il) on September 26 and 27, and on October 26 and 27 at the Suzanne Dellal Center (www.sdc.co.il).