Jews and chairs (with snarky comment by Countercritic, Apollinaire’s sober response and another Israeli chair example from Eva)

Here is my survey of Pilobolus’s three programs at the Joyce Theater, including the premiere “Rushes” by guest choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, both of Israel, with Pilobolus codirector Robby Barnett supervising (as he put it in an interview; maybe he was being modest).
In the review, I wonder briefly about the chairs that appear in the work of contemporary Jewish choreographers. I was thinking of Israeli Ohad Naharin’s in “Anaphaza” (recently excerpted in the collage of works Naharin created for Cedar Lake Dance), which form a circle for blasphemous prayer; New Yorker David Gordon’s, which serve as a wry aside about functionality in the emphatically nonfunctional realm of postmodern art; the chair in Israeli Yasmeen Godder’s “i feel funny today” that a mousy woman occupies on the margins of a conflict you begin to suspect she herself has fomented; and now the ones in “Rushes.” (Read review for details.)
The chairs are modest and lightweight. They suggest both domesticity and provisionality. This gathering place may be temporary, but it is not uninviting. There is always room for another person as long as a chair can be found.
The spate of chairs brought to mind one of the differences between the New York City Ballet choreographers George Balanchine, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Jerome Robbins, a Jewish agnostic. Balanchine sets most of his dances in a world without objective correlative. Dance isn’t about the day to day for him, but about the state of things. At his best, Robbins imagines the stage as an actual place with a changing population–an open field in “Dances at a Gathering,” a dance studio in “Afternoon of a Faun,” a street corner and bar in “Fancy Free.”
Maybe for diasporic people, with their portable gods, there is no state of things outside of specific contingencies, one of which is place. But the place matters less than the people who fill it. There will likely be another home soon with different chairs, but hopefully some of the same people, who are less contingent than places–or chairs; in fact, they are the state of things.
From Eva:
Just want to throw this in–although not to advance any particular theory–but I think I remember Israeli-born Neta Pulvermacher having a section in a dance about mortality where three women dressed as hospital patients sit on chairs and smoke cigarettes.
Apollinaire: Interesting, Eva. Thank you–I haven’t seen this dance.
From countercritic:
Cunningham has at least two chair dances.
Funny. He doesn’t look Druish.
Apollinaire responds: Oh, there’s lots of dances with chairs, granted–contemporary and otherwise. And I admit I’m not using the scientific method here.
I was just struck–idly perhaps–by a particular aspect of THESE chairs. Since three of the choreographers I mention are Israeli, it could just be that they’ve seen each other’s work and been influenced; it wouldn’t have to have anything to do with their experience, personally and historically, as Jews. (And you ask in your post, am I Jewish? I don’t think I should have to flash my ID badge to wonder how a particular cultural-religious experience shapes the theater that people make, but, so as not to seem coy: maybe.)
Anyway, I’m not sure which Cunningham dances you have in mind, but in general the elements of his sets are divorced from their daily purpose, if they even have any. In the case of these Jewish choreographers, on the other hand, the chairs have all the associations they usually have in the world. They both link the stage to the world and electrify the dynamic among the dancer-characters.
Also, they’re often all there is to the set: the choreographers want to define the setting only enough to charge the relationship between the dancers, not so much as to move into full-out storytelling.
Countercritic responds:
I get what you’re saying.
The first Merce chair dance I was thinking of is the one where he’s got it strapped to his back, you know, the picture from the show at the performing arts library. (It’s the weekend and we’re too lazy to do our research.)
[Ed.: The cafe chair is strapped backward to Cunningham’s back; the dance is the 1958 “Antic Meet.” Cunningham originally gave Robert Rauschenberg, who did set and costumes, these notes:

chair is like a large mosquito that won’t go away, maybe a leech, like chairs are. This can be actual chair or made-up one.

So, the idea of the chair, extrapolated from its function.]
The second dance I saw back in 2000 at Martha @ Mother (remember when…), when Merce made a surprise appearance. Special guest emcee Issac Mizrahi introduced the performance as “Chair Dance.” Merce walked out and sat on a tall chair, then proceeded to subtly raise his arms and legs, shaking, while he remained in the chair.
As for the the whole J thing, we weren’t asking to see your credentials. But wouldn’t we be dealing with quite another situation if some random goy was like, “What’s with Jewish choreographers and chairs?”
Same thing if John Rockwell was ever like, “What’s with gay choreographers and hardware supplies?”
Apollinaire responds: Sure, if the random goy were just saying, “What’s with…?”–that dumb–but if he were looking into it, then it seems fine to me. He probably should avoid the headline “Jews and chairs” –a bit ballsy in its bluntness or faux seriousness or something.
Still, I think you should be careful about calling a person “racist”–because shouldn’t you want people, all sorts of people, to notice the way different cultural experiences show up in art? And if those outside a given group have to proceed on tippy-toe, they’ll just stop asking and noticing. Will they make mistakes? Sure. But it’s better than enforced obliviousness, I think.
Plus, questions about a person’s ethnicity, race, nationality quickly devolve into questions about how muchhow Jewish, Black, Chinese are you?–and what counts. Were you “raised Jewish,” as people like to put it, and do you need to for you to count? Do you know Hebrew? Yiddish? Ladino? It’s probably best not to start down that slippery slope.
But we can still ask why all these chairs in Jewish choreographers’ work. I maintain that’s a different kind of question.
Countercritic responds:
Lo siento, mi amiga. Didn’t mean to call you racist. I had only written that you were getting “borderline racist,” not full-blown racist, like Mel Gibson or Trent Lott.
On a more serious note, though, I agree that we should be able to have open conversations about identity in art, if the tenor of the conversation is sincere in its interest (as was yours, obviously).
I’m surprised nobody else has had anything to say on this subject.
Apollinaire responds:
Yeah, really.
Any thoughts, dear reader?
I’m actually more curious about the chairs–or countercritic’s suggestion, hardware supplies (heehee)–than any more general thoughts on Identity and Criticism, which is such a tangled issue that it quickly gets caught in a thicket when not tethered to something concrete (chairs, hardware, etc.).

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