Letter from New York
For anyone who attends a lot of theatrical dancing, every so often one is present at a performance where one feels like an alien being, incapable of understanding either the art or the audience response to it—and this, for me, was one of those times. “Screensaver,” a 2002 multimedia work by Rami Be’er (the Kibbutz Company’s artistic director since 1996), runs for 73 minutes without intermission. Its 17 dancers are capable and handsome; the set of screens and platforms that transform themselves into beds, prison bars, and biers is ingenious; its projections of excerpts from videos by Irit Batsry of what seem to be Israel, including Israel at war, are brilliant; and the stage lighting, by Be’er, is some of the very best I’ve ever seen at the Joyce.
Yet those 73 minutes felt like 73 hours. To a great extent, the disconnect in my case was a result of what the program calls “sound design”: a layered mix (by the Kibbutz Company’s Alex Claude, a sound designer with an extensive background in advertising and film) of high-volume heartbeats, artillery, pained weeping, and musical splinters from a variety of sources, among them 16th-century. . .I guess madrigals, Scarlatti, and Sondheim. There were moments when this emotionally loaded concoction of sound was so intrusive and abrasive that it was difficult to look at the stage. Appropriation in itself, the splintering of someone else’s work once one has appropriated it, relentless 4/4 time: these are techniques in art-pop that have pushed a lot of careers into the limelight. The fact that I find them destructively manipulative and insulting to the music appropriated is surely a. . .I was going to say blind spot, but perhaps the phrase is deaf patch. On the other hand, the sound, alone, wasn’t the only problematic factor. Nor was I unique in feeling severed from the stage; despite the fact that the Joyce was completely filled the night I attended, a handful of individuals did walk out in the middle. Those who stayed, I must also report, were heartily appreciative, and some people applauded while standing. In spirit, then, mine is an outsider’s report.
The press release explains that “‘Screensaver’ explores humanity’s public and private realms in a rich and diversified stage language drawn from the world of images and computers, the field of advanced technology in video and sound, and the soul and body of the dancer.” In titling his work, Be’er was referring, on a denotative level, to the screensaver on a computer. His note in the program reads:
“We all have our own personal ‘screensavers,’ a framework and living space, which, either consciously or unconsciously, we activate.
“Unfortunately, both as individuals and as a society, especially in these troubled times, we all need a shield, perhaps this same ‘screensaver.’”
Be’er carries through this conceit with dogged literalism, and, for a while, it’s charming. The work opens promisingly, with a shooting gallery of spiraling shields projected through a scrim onto various set elements that are placed so some shields seem to be in deep space and some close to the eye. Each shield also seems to spiral both centripetally and centrifugally. Although, at first, the aquamarine forms within the spirals appear to be abstract characters, the forms turn out to be all the years between 1900 and 1999; when the entire 20th century has been enumerated, the shields black out for a moment, then begin to spiral again. This is one screensaver—in a color reminiscent of, if not exactly, the blue in the Israeli flag. A second screensaver image, downstage left, is effected by the lovely dancer Renana Randy, facing the cyc and wearing a white frock with a skirt like a cumulus cloud and a bodice that exposes her back. Positioned there in a waterfall of downlight while the audience enters the theater and the projected shields are churning, she remains in place and repeatedly performs what look like several variations on an ur-phrase—a kind of ripple down the body, deeply involving the muscles of her torso and causing her legs to slightly reposition themselves when the ripple reaches her pelvis. She looks gorgeous, and one admires Be’er’s wit, which has simulated, in human movement, the Lava-lamp quality of computer graphics. It’s the best part in the show.
Gradually, section by section, the rest of the cast is introduced. They, too, perform choreography that has been fashioned from the repetition of slight variations on basic movement phrases. Much of it is highly physical, and some of the momentary body sculptures are striking. The contexts and rhythms of the sections, however—coupled with the increasingly martial imagery in the projected videos—lock the audience into a relentlessly hammering rhythm that, after a while, loses its power to startle and just looks as if Be’er got stuck in a groove. When couples who have stripped down to their underwear go onto the beds to perform, with bludgeoning athleticism, what, in other circumstances, would be sensual transitions between erotic poses, the action is so rhythmically unforgiving of its executants—some of the beats require the dancers to fall from heights, for example—that it robs them of any look of interior life. It flattens them as performers and, I think, seals them off from us as individuals. After a half hour of it, I began to scour the program for a credit to Elizabeth Streb. Only two figures are exempt from this La Ronde: the living screensaver and a lanky guy in a silver Mr. Rivets outfit—a Harald Kreutzberg character, absent Kreutzberg’s legendary charisma, who stalks the girl in white and menaces the stage borders without really interacting with the other dancers. Eventually, he seems to be brought onstage merely to divert attention when the set elements have to be shifted into new configurations. Be’er takes him quite seriously: in a stage talk with the audience afterwards, he spoke of this figure as representing the flaw that everyone, or all of us—I forget his exact wording—possess: the bug in the computer. It’s an interesting idea, however it doesn’t work on stage the way Be’er describes it. The sinister “bug” looks like the lead singer of a freak band who wandered in from the Paramount. He doesn’t look like a demon; he looks out of his element.
With a different score—or even no score—and more attention to rhythmic texture in the movement, would “Screensaver” have appealed to someone like me? It did have an underlying visceral effect that has continued to haunt; I admired the dancers and the optical effects; and I loved the bit of literature it called upon: a poem by the late Yehuda Amichai—“ The place where we are right”—through projections of its text, in both English and Hebrew. Amichai’s poem, which is deeply plunged into the tragedies governing the public and private realms of human beings in a world of military oppositions on matters of all kinds, a world where privacy cannot exist, speaks of “the place we are right” as a landscape that is barren and trampled. “But doubts and loves / dig up the world / like a mole, a plow. And a whisper will be heard in the place / where the ruined / house once stood.” It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking cri de coeur. Be’er has attempted to embody, through choreography and technology, the moments in which “the house” (individual relationships, relationships between peoples) was ruined and, primarily through the progressively weakened and tensionless stage crossings of the girl in white, also the “doubts and loves” that constitute a whisper of hope. However, his choreography is wedded to the rhythms and concussively repetitive gestures, not of the mole and the plow, but rather of the thresher and the assembly line. I thought that, perhaps, his difficulty there was that he had commissioned the score and was stuck with that contract; but, no. In the audience talk, he explained that he had worked out the movement first, and that the sound was added later.
In composing this review, I was keenly aware that, in searching for the exact words here, the precise frame of reference there, I was practicing some version of wanting to be right. Yes, I wanted to be right about my own experience of this work.
To be right in such a way is, for a critic, the expression of honesty. Yet “Screensaver” has lasted three years, which is a comparatively long time as dance-theater repertory goes, and it has been acclaimed by audiences internationally. I would not send you to the theater to see it, but they would; and, historically, their enthusiasm may prove the more lasting response. History tends to discount the exception. Still, even as I ruminate on this matter, I must add that it is Amichai’s issue, not Be’er’s, which I address. When distinctions like that are glossed over, there is no reason to ponder art.—Mindy Aloff