Dancing from the inside out: An essay on expression

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All day, our bodies go on expressing themselves with movements and postures that we might not even be aware of — actions and reactions absorbed from our parents, friends, movies.

What if we stepped back and began noticing with heightened awareness these changing postures throughout the week — the sagging head-drawn body of defeat, the upright and poised torso of adventure and promise; the dramatic movements of passion; the lifeless body we carry around with us when we feel helpless.

In middle school, my art teacher showed us paintings of ballerinas by Degas and pointed out that rather than show them in graceful poses, Degas chose to draw and paint them bending over to lace up their ballet shoes or taking a timeout in the studio. That idea fascinated me, and it’s one that contemporary dance has honed in on.

Vertigo Dance Company, a traveling troupe based in Israel that performed in Germantown last week, examines these everyday poses under a magnifying glass to show their uniqueness, and therefore, their art and their beauty. Through practice and improvisation in the studio, they string together these basic human expressions in all of us and build on them, incorporating the movements of animals and nature until they become a whimsical world of dance, familiar and yet dreamlike.

Case in point: choreographer Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al founded the company in 1992 after meeting, falling in love and marrying. Sha’al now serves as its general manager and co-artistic director. Falling in love feels a lot like vertigo, Wertheim told the audience at BlackRock Center for the Arts. The creative life and the dance that results seem to be one and the same for Wertheim, who lives in an eco art village outside of Jerusalem with her extended family.

During their show, the group performed a dance sampler, drawing from longer performances in their repertoire, such as “Vertigo 20,” while Wertheim talked between each piece.

In the first dance, the group of eight moved like cogs in a machine or boat, forming a cluster toward the front of stage left. Afterward, Wertheim explained that she likes “to work from inside to outside” when choreographing. She starts with movements already inside the body, then explores and exaggerates and juxtaposes them; in the case of the first piece, the fluidity of the body, as we are made of 70 percent fluid like the Earth itself, she said. She explored that fluidity in combination with our connection with gravity to create the dance. “I don’t feel like I’m creating,” she told the audience. “I feel I am just using what does already exist.”

During a completely improvisational piece, Wertheim stood to the side of the stage, inviting dancers out one at a time. Each one would let the music take the body wherever it wanted to go. Though it was kept loose, Wertheim gave instructions from the sidelines: how to utilize the space to change the composition; how to move (“with more intensity,” for example) and, later, to use what she called contact improv by dancing together and working off one another. Those interactions sometimes came in a soft way, and sometimes they were more violent, “because we have both,” she said and smiled. “It’s about listening to each other or controlling each other.”

The choreography often contrasted robotic, toylike and lifeless movements with organic, asymmetrical ones. In one dance, a girl leapt from body to body in slow motion, a visual display that was accomplished by her being lifted and carried by two men to the next stump of a human on the ground, her legs opening up in a split leap each time, as if flying through a magical world.

At the beginning of another dance, the ensemble incorporated foot stomping, moving in time, across the stage, like an army of dance, then one by one running off stage, out of step, until finally music came in to match their rhythms, and eventually a new dance ensued. At another point, the group used rhythmic, shouted words in combination with movement. Both of these elements worked well, crescendoing with intensity.

In a lighthearted dance, with perhaps some somber undertones of social commentary, dancers — four men and four women — expressed sexuality through the lens of each gender. Guys flexed their muscles and girls walked as if on a catwalk, among other stances and interactions. “In art, I think we cannot be so serious and heavy” all the time, Wertheim said, and, standing off to the side of the audience seating, she was often the first to laugh to herself throughout the piece.

Wertheim collaborates with dancers until they get about 90 percent of the piece worked out, she said, and then their composer, Ran Bagno, writes music to it — with hints of klezmer, electronica, tangos and waltzes and orchestral pieces made of bells and chimes and piano that are as fantastical, shocking, contradictory and, at times, abstract as the dances themselves, examining every inch of the spectrum and what’s possible for the human body — and heart.

Originally published in October 2015 in The Frederick News-Post.

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