Unshameful physicality

Deganit Shemy is creating a new vocabulary of dance and receiving standing ovations for it.

Iodine 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Iodine 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Walking into the New York dance studio where Israeli choreographer Deganit Shemy guides her group of dancers on a recent Friday, it looks a little like a scientist's lab in the very early stages of discovery. Across the floor, pairs of dancers test a range of movements. They rub their bodies against each other in jarring, sometimes flailing motions, typical of Shemy's aesthetic: one head against another's foot, legs against shoulders. One dancer cries out "Look how red my ear is!" Her ear has been rubbed several times over by the foot of another dancer. Some poses fail, others work. Shemy moves through the dancers in search of poses she thinks she may be able to use. Those that show the slightest potential are repeated several times and together the dancers iron out the kinks. They search for ways to increase their balance and to ease the impact on the body. Often they fall to the floor in laughter, amused by what their bodies will and will not do. Shemy begins with only vague notions of what she wants. Sometimes it's a single pose, or an abstract gesture. Today she explores one aspect of group mechanics, the tension between the desire to support and to let fall. "There is something about being in a group that is symbiotic," says Shemy. "The members are dependent on each other, but are looking for independence. They use each other like a mirror to see themselves." Weeks and months of work and revision will likely make these preliminary gestures unrecognizable. But what is likely to stay is Shemy's attention to the minute movements of the body. "If you break movement to its smallest fragment, you can build character with it," she says. New York-based Shemy began performing in 2002. Her first solo was presented at The Other Dance Festival and the International Exposure Festival at the Suzanne Dallal Center in Tel Aviv, where she also won a 2003 Gvanim Bemachol Award for her trio ALUM. Shemy was nominated Young Choreographer of the Year by the Ministry of Education in 2004 and won the 2003 Choreographer Award from the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation. Like other Israeli choreographers, she is trying to push the boundaries of the body, to see what it can do. There is an "unshameful physicality" about Israeli choreographers, says Neta Pulvermacher, the artistic director of the A.W.A.R.D. Show, a prestigious if unconventional four-day dance competition which recently awarded Shemy $10,000. Internationally Israel is probably still best known for the acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company founded in 1964. But in recent years, a number of other troupes and independent choreographers have come into the limelight, particularly in Europe and increasingly in the US. Shemy's attention to these fragments of movement combined with an intense physicality, at times verging on violence, won over the panel of judges who unanimously chose her latest piece "Iodine" as the winner of the 2008 A.W.A.R.D Show, which Pulvermacher calls "an exercise in democracy and in seeing." Each of the preliminary events featured the work of four emerging and mid-career choreographers, followed by a moderated discussion between the artists and audience. The artists selected for the series were chosen through a countrywide open call for proposals. Out of the 160 choreographers and companies that submitted applications this year, 12 were selected to participate. Out of three finalists who performed earlier this month, Shemy was unanimously chosen by a panel of four judges, with the audience acting as the fifth judge. "She's not burdened by a familiar dance vocabulary," said Pulvermacher. "Her movement is uniquely hers." Shemy owes that language in part to her background in Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation, a revolutionary way of thinking about, observing and analyzing movement. Eshkol thought that by analyzing movement we might begin to understand how one movement evokes a certain emotion, while another movement produces an entirely different feeling. The use of movement notation could, she thought, also lead to the discovery of new laws of composition in particular dance styles, similar to those found in music or other types of art. Shemy, who never formally studied dance, studied movement notation at the Rubin Academy of Dance and Music, where she says she learned to "break movement to its smallest parts." "All limbs have the opportunity to move almost equally and simultaneously," she says. "The body is like a machine, a system that can move in unexpected ways." One of four judges, Christopher d'Amboise, was drawn to what he calls her style of "emotional storytelling." "It's not programmatic, but what is so vibrant is the emotional clarity that fills every gesture and movement," he says. "That abstract gestural vocabulary gives you a sense of a story without it being direct." In "Iodine," that story relates a world of women both repelled by and attracted to the wound which they guard like a precious object. "As much as iodine covers a wound, it also defines it," says Shemy. "Like the wound of society - it's the most vulnerable place, which you try to avoid, but it's the only place with real life inside, real intimacy." The desire for intimacy, paralleled by the fear of losing personal identity in the process, shapes the abstract vision of this dance which was inspired in part by growing up on a kibbutz surrounded mostly by women. The women, dressed in what looks like schoolgirls' clothes, move between control and abandon, between being victims and victimizers, vision and blindness, dependency and individuation - themes drawn from Shemy's childhood on Kibbutz Yizre'el. "There is something very aggressive in the kibbutz life, and you have no place to put that aggression," says Shemy. "It's intimate because you are all stuck there together, but not, because you have to give up your individuality." The women's movements are awkward, sometimes verge on being out of control as they utter nonsensical sounds in high pitched voices. Their limbs shake and they crash repeatedly to the floor. A review in The New York Times called the piece a "nasty little gem of a dance," likening the women to "cogs in a brutal machine," who manipulate each other into rough, often sexual positions. "Necks were gripped, faces slapped, mouths rubbed by the back of hands." But for Shemy, static moments are as important, charged as they are with hidden, potential movement. "They contain the tension of chained energy that is likely to explode at any moment," she says. "For the most part, the pause comes midway, freezing a moment before the fall." In all her work, Shemy seeks ways to arouse the viewer to an active, reflective experience in which boundaries are blurred. Boundaries between inner and outer reality, beauty and ugliness, moral and immoral interweave, provoking both uneasiness and interest. "The absurd and necessary situations I explore are found at the precise meeting point between real and artificial, light and serious, hidden and revealed."