Yasmeen Godder premieres new works at the upcoming Israel Festival

Her new works Practicing Empathy #1 and Practicing Empathy #2 by 2, will premiere at the upcoming Israel Festival.

Practising empathy (photo credit: TAMAR LAMM)
Practising empathy
(photo credit: TAMAR LAMM)
When Yasmeen Godder began choreographing, her works drove an ax through the placid green grass of contemporary dance, exposing the less-poised, less-perfect ground beneath. With her raw physicality and explosive use of voice and sound, Godder laid forth her own terrain, one in which the ground was rocky and undulating, where moments of softness gave way to wild intensity.
Five years ago, Godder was invited by Theater Freiburg, Germany, to participate in a year-long research process about dance and Parkinson’s disease. This invitation led Godder to develop a new branch of her work, the Störung project, encompassing previously untouched communities and modes of working. Störung was then awarded the Shimon Peres Prize.
Without knowing it at the time, Störung turned the page for Godder artistically and personally, unfolding a new chapter that has extended to today. In this form of work, which has brought about such creations as Simple Actions and Common Emotions, Godder takes the audience into account in a different way than in her previous works.
“For five years now, I am making work that’s taking the audience’s presence in the room more into consideration. What I mean by that is that I’ve created works where I’ve opened bigger windows for people’s physical and emotional experience to be acknowledged while they’re in the performance space,” explains Godder over the phone.
As she revealed these works, one after the other, the same word kept popping up in feedback sessions and reviews. It was “empathy.” Her new works Practicing Empathy #1 and Practicing Empathy #2 by 2, will premiere at the upcoming Israel Festival.
“The title is an action,” says Godder. “It strengthens my journey because it is taking a risk but saying what I’m hoping to find and where I want my energy to go with my company and the people around me. The idea was floating around in my work, we were seeing it without having to say the word. I wanted to see if I can take that and continue opening it up into more ways of researching, taking the information that we’ve learned and continuing to develop more ways of extending it.”
WHAT GODDER and her company discovered along this road was that empathy can and should be practiced.
“In #1, we started by creating a practice for the dancers to use empathy amongst themselves. We wanted to use our rehearsal time, the time we are putting aside to create a performance, to research empathy with each other and build a practice that was connected to the performers. In #2 we wanted to develop a practice in which the performers interact with the audience and transfer an organic form of choreography with no verbal or vocal cues.
“We did a residency in Germany working with different groups: immigrant women, people with Parkinson’s, children, using practices that draw on knowledge of people outside of the company, extending out to different communities. We did it in Israel with mothers of a bilingual school in Jaffa, which is my community.”
The company finished the last research session in Germany in February and returned to Israel thinking they would siphon the information into the work. What they were met with was a lockdown.
“We came back and the whole CU period started, cancellations started. When we got out of the shutdown period, we reentered the studio and understood that we needed to take that information and shift it to another mode. Part of our score had become illegal. Everything we did was no longer allowed. Holding hands, breathing, releasing sound, looking into each other’s eyes.
“Habait Theater called for proposals for performances for up to two people, so we developed 2 by 2. It was two meters, two performers with two audience members. No touch. We took the practices that we had and transferred them to the new reality. It actually revealed something about the two meters that it is super intimate. The fact that there is no touch, in this case, allows for another need of people to come through, to be close without touching.”
It is late August and Godder, thanks to the coronavirus, has spent more time in Israel in one chunk than she has for over twenty years. In fact, Practicing Empathy 1 and 2 were meant to premiere in Germany in March, one of many of Godder’s plans that got canceled. Prior to this period, Godder and her partner, artistic director of the Israel Festival and established dramaturg Itzik Giuli, coordinated caring for their school-aged daughter with endless work trips. Godder remembers a time when they handed off their daughter at the airport.
“I am actually really enjoying being at home,” she says.  
“I’ve been touring for so many years, I’m always before going away and after, returning and preparing for the next trip. It’s always in that cycle. Suddenly to be here for this long with Allegra and Itzik, having that stability.... The shows and performances and traveling and meeting different audiences gives me a lot of energy and information. It’s not just the experience of performing it’s presenting ideas and seeing how different audiences respond to these ideas.
“I’m traveling with a company often so I have a responsibility also as a head of a company both taking care of people and also in many different directions so there is more tension and expectation to that. You don’t realize that you’re carrying all of that when you’re developing a career. It comes with the territory and I was happy to take it on. I didn’t reject or avoid it. Having this moment to be at home and feel what that’s like has been very special.”
Practicing Empathy #1 and #2 by 2 will be performed at the Israel Festival on September 6 and 7. For more information, visit www.yasmeengodder.com or www.israel-festival.org.