Dance at Chutzpah! 2018: Ezralow Dance, Roy Assaf Dance, MM Contemporary Dance, Machol Shalem Dance House, and Derida Company

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Ezralow Dance, Roy Assaf Dance, MM Contemporary Dance, Machol Shalem Dance House, and Derida Company | Chutzpah! Festival | Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre | February 15 – March 15, 2018

Honouring the late dancer Lisa Nemetz, the Chutzpah! Festival always puts a large emphasis on their dance programming, and it pays off. This year’s festival brought another impressive selection of dance companies from the United States, Israel, Italy, and Bulgaria. The offerings began on the energetic, lighthearted side and ended with a more abstract, weighty double bill.

Ezralow Dance - OPEN

Moving video screens, vibrant costumes, and energetic choreography made Daniel Ezralow’s OPEN pure joy to watch. The piece was composed of various vignettes, including a scene of bustling businessmen and women with briefcases and bowler hats, a wedding ceremony that morphs into a boxing match, and a mermaid romance.

It’s not often that you see trees planted on stage, but two dancers poured out wheelbarrows full of dirt on each side of the stage and then placed a palm tree in the mound. The others came on stage with their arms up and covered in tall brown sacs. As they waved back and forth they evoked trees in the wind. Slowly, they worked their way out of the sacs as if emerging from a cocoon.

Another striking sequence had the dancers in black and orange jumpsuits and wellington boots, marching and stomping around the stage. Smiling, they stomped and clapped to create their own rhythm to accompany the music.

The final scene topped off this exuberant show with the dancers running back and forth one at a time across the stage wearing mismatched colourful clothes. They all converge on stage and swap clothes to create a rainbow. The most impressive moments, however, came when the dancers used the video screens to make it look like they were morphing into different people as they moved behind them. It was an effective use of video technology and an impressive execution of the precise timing to make it all work.  

With little narrative or overarching message other than being “open” to love and new experiences, Ezralow’s collection of amusing scenes is accessible, fun, and easy to digest.  

Roy Assaf Dance – Six Years Later and The Hill

Israel’s Roy Assaf creates emotionally rich choreography that explores complex relationships. In Six Years Later, two dancers begin by moving in slow resistance, performing a tender waltz, and engaging in complex contact manoeuvers.

With all the emotional highs and lows of a typical romantic relationship, Madison Hoke and Assaf moved seamlessly through scenes of tension, conflict, and affection. In one scene, Hoke swiveled her shoulders back and forth, hitting them into Assaf’s chest. In another, they glide around the stage in peaceful serenity.    

The Hill, a trio for three male dancers (Ron Cohen, Avshalom Latucha, and Assaf), is a visionary, fast-paced piece full of cause and effect sequences and a sprinkle of humour. Seemingly inspired by ceremonial and folk dances, one scene involved the men dancing around a bright sparkler. Holding hands, they danced in a line evoking a classic folk formation, and they finished off with an energetic series of jumps set to the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke.”    

MM Contemporary Dance – The Rite of Spring and Bolero

Presented with the Italian Cultural Centre, Italy’s MM Contemporary Dance presented contemporary works set to two classic pieces of music. In Rite, a body is slowly dragged across the stage and ominous “s” shaped hooks hang from the ceiling. There’s a sudden flash of bright light and the dancers are marching aggressively forward with expansive arms movements and wide stances.

The dancers filled the stage with their busy formations lifting, throwing, and battling each other. One dancer would gradually be singled out and attacked by the rest and the whole cycle would repeat again. Dramatic and synchronized, they moved to Stravinsky’s trademark drums with determination.

Bolero involved a unique stage prop: a huge paper accordion that snaked and morphed around the stage, dividing the space an engulfing the dancers as they moved in and out of its folds. In contrast with Rite, this piece has a calming tone that framed the various fluid sequences as the dancers seamlessly moved in and out of the accordion and peacefully interacted with each other, breathing new life into this soothing music.

Derida Company – F 63.9

Jivko Jeliazkov’s F 63.9 is an esoteric duet set to electronic, ethereal music. An abstract representation of love. As it says in the program notes, it’s about “when love is not an infatuation, but a problem that requires a solution. When love is a conflict between two individuals.” This analytical perspective on relationships is translated into robotic movements, complex lifts, and acrobatic manoeuvers including contortions on a gymnastic bar.

The two dancers were indeed in conflict, jumping over each other, struggling against each other’s opposing force, until finally coming to a calm seated position next to each other, seeming to have reached an understanding and sense of peace. The athleticism and complex lifts in this duet were impressive, but the cold, robotic nature made it difficult to buy into the narrative.

Machol Shalem Dance House – Black Label

Ofra Idel’s Black Label was co-created and performed by Tzvika Iskias, an Ethiopian immigrant living in Israel. Iskias speaks to the audience, invites a few people onstage, and immerses the crowd in his visual spectacle of identity building.

Iskias begins the piece laying centre stage, almost nude. His fitful, urgent movements convey a sense of desperation until he dons his first costume of the piece and sits down as if at a job interview. His game show, “My First Time” has audience members guessing how old he was the first time he became a father, got arrested, went to boarding school, became a dancer with the Batsheva Dance Company, and had a sex change.

Referencing his Batsheva training, all of a sudden the contestants, along with the whole audience, were encouraged to take a Gaga break and let loose. Gaga is a movement style pioneered by Batsheva Artistic Director Ohad Naharin.

Choreographer Ofra Idel took the stage to speak about the piece, lampooning the way choreographers talk about how their works highlight important issues, but rarely give a voice to dancers or members of those groups. Iskias ends the piece by frantically trying on all the costume pieces hanging on a rolling bar, switching between them as if trying to find his true identity. For the finale, he stands centre stage in his underwear as a stream of white paint covers his black skin. It was a powerful image to drive home the message that people of colour still grapple with oppression and inequality in our societies.   

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