Bending the rules of gender

Drawing upon punk and pop culture, choreographer Idan Cohen’s latest work incorporates images that reflect personal and social identities of masculinity, femininity and all that lies between.

dancer 370 (photo credit: Kfir Bolotin)
dancer 370
(photo credit: Kfir Bolotin)
In the 1980s, a handful of well-known artists simultaneously began to experiment with transgender style. Robert Smith of the Cure, Duran Duran and Boy George glammed up their looks with eyeliner, women’s clothing and extravagant hairstyles. Growing up in Kibbutz Mizra, choreographer Idan Cohen saw this as a very exciting trend. Even as a boy, the disintegrating lines between male and female dress codes seemed like a very promising development.
“That movement,” explained Cohen, “ was called Gender Bender. Those men took on feminine dress and actions without hiding or being ashamed. In the MTV culture it became this very free, colorful buzz. Today, when I look at our society, I wonder where all of that went. Instead of becoming the norm or a regular thing, we’ve gone further into the place of women as women and men as men.”
Tonight, Cohen will reveal his new work, named after the movement that inspired him as a kid, at Warehouse 2 in the Jaffa port. Gender Bender is an evening-length work that challenges the unspoken rules associated with gender in our society. The premier will mark the end of a twoplus- year hiatus Cohen has taken from the stage. His last work, Mad Siren, premiered over three years ago in Tel Aviv and went on to tour internationally. And while it may seem that Cohen was taking a break from choreography, the opposite is true.
“After the premier of Mad Siren, we worked for about six months to get the piece to where we wanted it to be. I started to work on Gender Bender two years ago. My cast and I have passed through many phases on the journey to creating this piece, which is very personal to all of us,” he said in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post.
In order to catch a moment with Cohen, we arranged to speak late in the evening. Outside of touring and choreographing, Cohen is also engaged in studies toward a master’s of fine arts at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. “It’s been amazing so far,” he said of his courses. “There is something very exciting and new going on at the Academy and I am truly thrilled to be part of it.”
Cohen, now 35 years old, began his professional career as a dancer in the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, trading the kibbutz of his upbringing for that of Ga’aton. In 2003, Cohen broke off from the troupe to explore his own creative voice. His works, including Joy Ride, My Sweet Little Fur, Swan Lake, Brazil and Mad Siren, have been seen on stages in Europe, North America and Asia. Over the years Cohen has racked up a fair share of prizes including the Ministry of Culture’s Best Young Artist Award in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Cohen is a guest teacher at many establishments, among them the University of Massachusetts Dance Department, Kullberg Ballet in Sweden and Scottish Dance Theater.
Cohen chose the topic of gender roles and their implications because of the prominent role the subject plays in his life. As a gay artist, Cohen knows that sexuality also plays a part in Gender Bender or at least in how the audience will perceive the piece. “When we open the issue of sexuality we open a much larger question. What is the connection between my practice of sexuality and my sexual behavior, my body language and the way I interact in society? I want to get away from I’m gay, he’s bi, she’s gay, in order to say that there’s a much more fluid, changing set of options. In a perfect world we would have freedom to escape from categories. In reality, we have to categorize ourselves or be categorized.
“People are always telling me you are A, B, or C. In a utopia those questions would not be relevant or they would be only in very narrow areas of life. I’m not ashamed of what I do in bed and neither are our dancers. The question is why is it relevant and to who? I think that the interesting thing is to melt away the definitions. In this piece we want to separate these question into their parts. To show the conflicts that they bring up in our soul and maybe even to celebrate them,” he explained.
“For me the challenge is to say something very real and personal that is also relevant beyond the personal, that is political. We are living in a period in which we have social and political responsibilities. We will only be able to make a change by speaking from our genuine, real experiences. The biggest challenge is to hold a looking glass up to this reality in a way that the audience will be able to accept.”
Over the years, Cohen has found a loyal group of dancers with whom he feels comfortable enough to share his creative journey. “I believe in working with dancers for a long time. The dancers in Gender Bender have been with me for a long time. We know each other very well. We can ask each other questions and work openly and freely. The topics I work on in general are the ones that confront us all. When I introduced them to the topic of Gender Bender, it immediately became all of ours,” he said. Those dancers are Rita Komissarchik, Noa Shiloh, Omer Astrachan, Na’ama Tamir and Sela Fried.
“I always enjoy working with dancers and I always love my dancers. This time there was something very special between them and between met. When you can be real and open with people it is therapeutic. To bring your most painful experience to people that are willing to accept it and to share it is an amazing thing.”
Gender Bender will be presented tonight and on January 5 at Warehouse 2 at 9 p.m. For more information, visit