Dancing between ecology and modernity

Jerusalem's Vertigo Dance Company opens a branch out in the country.

vertigo dance 88 (photo credit: Miri Yanai Sharmanowitz)
vertigo dance 88
(photo credit: Miri Yanai Sharmanowitz)
The cellphone rings, the house phone follows. A child is playing a computer game - bing, zip, boom-boom. The TV is on in the background - probably tuned to the news. Doors slam as the spouse brings home another kid from a trip to the mall. For many, that is the movement of modern life, the rhythm to which we live our lives, the electronic sounds and colors that blur together into white noise we no longer hear. The Vertigo Dance Company's new performance, "White Noise," which premiered this month, and its six-month old eco-village in the Elah valley are both the expression of and a certain antidote to that cacophony. In six weeks, they hope to establish an annual eco-art festival at their newest branch. Taken together, it is clear that Jerusalem's most famous modern dance troupe has embarked upon an ecological odyssey. Vertigo has turned an abandoned chicken coop into a dance studio, with a jamboree for kids behind it, in Netiv Halamed-Heh over the last six months. One reaches the professional parquet dance floor through a latticework and doors created out of the old chicken roosts. A compost restroom housed in a wooden building abuts the adjoining coop. "I insisted on having a professional floor. I didn't want anyone to say we moved out of the city and into the country and had gotten sloppy professionally," Noa Wertheim, one of Vertigo's founders and the choreographer of "White Noise," told The Jerusalem Post on Friday. "You have to hold on to professionalism with your teeth." "We built everything here ourselves in the last six months out of the materials we found," said Adi Sha'al, the company's other founder. He pointed to the red walls at the end of the former chicken coop. "We made the walls out of earth instead of concrete," he added. "Our goal was not to go to IKEA for anything." He and Wertheim, partners both in life and on the dance floor, started Vertigo in the capital in 1992. Beginning with duets and adding members as they went along, the dance company has prospered, touring both the country and the world. "Why does the troupe usually have seven members? Because that's how many you can pile into a car and go touring," Sha'al said with a grin, half-jokingly. Practically only in Israel would a dancer have a previous military career, and a dance company be named after a sensation felt flying jet planes. Sha'al served in the IDF, both in the air force and as an officer in the Golani Brigade. "I did a lot of folk dancing in my teens, and when I got out of the army, I decided to try and see if I could scratch that itch," he told the Post. Sha'al and Wertheim's first duet was called "Vertigo" and tried to capture both the physical sensation felt by pilots and an emotional sensation that occurs in relationships. Wertheim, meanwhile, who grew up religious, has maintained her respect for her upbringing while reshaping its expressions for her current life and her children. Together, the two have shaped the dance company over the last 16 years, feeding it with materials from their lives, and together they have embarked on this new endeavor. "This is a branch of Vertigo. Vertigo has not left Jerusalem," they both insist. Part of what has made this past year so intense, Wertheim admitted, was trying to juggle the old life in Jerusalem - the one of jangling cellphones and trips to the mall - with the peace and quiet and slower pace of life in the valley. It was not an easy transition. "There were several dancers who didn't like this new direction and left," Wertheim admitted. However, the crisis has passed and Vertigo seems none the worse for wear, to judge by their latest performance. "I speak through art, which for me is modern dance," Wertheim explained, radiating intensity while sitting informally in the "living room" area of the dance studio. "An artist experiences something and translates it into art. I had a year full of noise until I wanted to scream it" - out of which emerged "White Noise." The piece is lit with darker colors, the dancers wearing gunmetal gray sweatshirts and bar codes on the backs of their necks. "Consumerism has become the pastime of the young," Wertheim asserts. Dancers whirl in unison, only to break away into their own individual moves, and then re-form into a sinuous, gliding mass. It is powerful and slightly sinister, graceful and sad. "The eco-journey began with the 'Birth of the Phoenix' [a previous piece], where the dancers start out on the earth inside a bamboo dome," Sha'al explained. From there, he said, they began to think more about ecology and living in tune with the earth. "If we are talking about living art [or life] fully," then this was where we needed to go, he said. Sha'al and Wertheim have frequently expressed their views on social justice through their dancing and choreography. They've created performances in conjunction with dancers in wheelchairs. At the premier of "White Noise" a month ago, they had a clothing bazaar where people were asked to bring their cast-offs for others and take new clothes. They are as willing to perform for two kids who might benefit from contact improvisation as they are for a large dance hall in Romania, Sha'al said. They have also never shied away from creating something if they saw a need for it. Vertigo originally emerged to fill a niche in the dance world - so as they began to feel a need for an environmental angle, they began building the village. "We don't quite know where this will take us," Sha'al and Wertheim said. They've linked to a global network of eco-art villages and have shifted their schedules to spend part of the week living at the village. They celebrated an alternative Yom Kippur and a different kind of Pessah Seder - "but we read every word of the Haggada," Wertheim interjected. Vertigo teachers also teach contact improvisation, one of their main techniques, both in Jerusalem and at the village every week. Two of Wertheim's sisters and their families have also come to live in the village. They have big plans for their dance troupe-community-family initiative. "Adi is planning a Shavuot dance festival. He's going to renovate two more chicken coops and then invite lots of people. He wants to turn it into an annual dance festival," Wertheim said. "So come back and visit us again," she finished with a smile.