“A Covenant of Surrender”
“Godder outlies circles of images extracted from the personal, the local and the universal and discovers that unambiguity may exist in none. That is probably why she chooses to restrain shouting out her messages and rephrase them time and time again.” Dana Shalev on “Demonstrate Restraint,” Yasmeen Godder and Tomer Damsky’s new piece.
Yasmeen Godder’s new piece, “Demonstrate Restraint,” co-created with musician Tomer Damsky is just that; A powerful – yet restraint – female duet. The artists experiment with expression using common molds and imagery taken from the Israeli female landscape and question the relationship between the message they wish to deliver with their help and the audience’s interpretation.
I had a conversation with Godder after the show, where she told me that during the work in the studio on “Demonstrate Restraint,” the ensemble went to perform other pieces abroad, where they encountered the BDS movement’s resistance. This resistance triggered questions with her regarding the things she represents as an Israeli and the chasm between her own thoughts and the way she’s perceived by others. “You have this notion that you represent something concrete, and it turns out that you might be representing something completely different,” she says. In this piece, Godder outlies circles of images extracted from the personal, the local, and the universal and discovers that unambiguity may exist in none. That is probably why she chooses to restrain shouting out her messages and rephrase them time and time again. Godder imparts that for her, this piece is the result of personal and professional maturity; She recently celebrated her 46th birthday, and the show conveys her search for new language and for containment of the characteristics she has formed over the years that are now affiliated with her work.
The show opens with a short drumming and singing number where the two women face each other with their profiles to the audience. There’s a big white flag at stage front, and it appears that the covenant between the two women in front of the audience is first and foremost that of surrender. The powerful drumming combined with loud cries charge this surrender with strength, of all things, as if the women are proclaiming “we decide not to fight,” and with this independent decision, they challenge the concept of struggle as a necessity. Godder and Damsky later adopt the white piece of cloth, transforming it into an essential part of the language they’re creating. Further down the line, using the fabric they try to express their protest and pain – the white flag serves as an element in silencing, motion restriction and cutting off tactics, sometimes as a flag on a pole and others wrapped around their heads and bodies.
Godder and Damsky’s cooperation began three years ago, in “Climax” and continued in “Shared Emotion” and “A Simple Action.” In “Demonstrate Restraint,” the dance and music have equal status, and Damsky moves to the front of the stage. Godder recounts that when they worked on the piece in the studio, their goal was to find a new language from the combination of the tools and experience each brings to the table. The structure of the piece also got a “twist” as far as dance performances go and it is comprised of “numbers,” much like a rock concert, or, if you will, a lineup of topics to be discussed as in a political manifesto, a campaign or a demonstration speech. But even when Godder and Damsky shout out their messages in song and in sampled beats, they are cut off, hard to hear, inaudible. Here despair and surrender start creeping in the rock & roll vibes.
The stage and costume design are also inspired by rock & roll culture – jeans, a black bra, a drum set on stage. In one of the numbers, Damsky is seated at the drum set shirtless, with nothing but a bra. The exposure of the female body, Godder explains, is symbolic of female power at the hands of women: “If we want to be exposed, we’ll decide on the context.” Here too Godder plays with the images to find if their meaning alters when the people producing them are different – men or women. She displays the power struggle between those creating the images and those who decipher them, and here too, as in the rest of the messages conveyed, this nudity will not necessarily be titled female power, and that’s precisely the heart of the matter.
At the apex of the show, Godder addresses the audience and asks them to share their thoughts and interpretations regarding the images they displayed. Damsky records the interaction and plays it back to the audience while Godder repeats the movements she offered for interpretation. Godder reiterates: “I examine what I display outward, what people see in me.” After hearing the interpretations of her movements, she repeats it with the goal of fine-tuning its expressiveness, to better express the interpretation. Similarly, Godder puts on and takes off the white cloth as if it were the covering garments of Muslim and Christian women. She experiments with mimicking gestures and tries them out to see if they’re “suit her,” whether she could adopt them and what they say about her. The conversation between Godder and the audience is honest and direct, and it seems like Godder is genuinely asking, she’s not assuming a role or cynically using the audience. During our talk, she adds: “The more I refine my exchange with the audience, allowing them to say things that are more honest and true, the more interesting it becomes. Banality is also interesting. But despite the effort, Godder’s gestures and images remain obscure, and it’s impossible to extract a clear message from them, the demonstration fails to exist, and the surrender white muddies the youthful rock & roll atmosphere.
The white flag and a hollow male torso sit at the front of the stage. Godder and Damsky use these two elements throughout the show in various ways to address issues such as gender politics, religion and state. One can’t help but take into consideration Godder’s personal biography, for it seems the collection of gestures and images she tries to emulate, adopt or perform as an act of alienation, is the result of her inquisitive gaze. She observes Jerusalem, her hometown and Jaffa, where she’s been residing for the past twenty years. In that respect, Godder mentions that the piece was commissioned by and premiered at Jerusalem’s “Mekudeshet” Festival, and was first conceived from thoughts of her childhood in 70’s Jerusalem, across the wall in Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood. Throughout the work process, Godder kept asking herself which images from her childhood had an effect over the shaping of her identity and she came up, for example, with the looking from afar on Arab women. In recent years, she says, she’s been experiencing a similar process through her daughter, who grew up in Jaffa and unlike her mother, attends a bi-lingual school system and has real relationships with Arab girls. For her, this work traces the journey that the Israeli-female body goes through as it evolves and through which an identity comprised of spectated/adopted images is shaped.
Godder’s exploration of these complex images is based on her wish to contain multiplicity and variety. Unlike the post-modern deconstruction, which empties symbols of their meaning and leaves the audience with meaninglessness as an act of teen rebellion that denounces everything, Godder is interested in deconstruction which ultimately aims for a more elaborate reconstruction. In that sense, she not only demonstrates restraint, but also optimism. Having said that, the show itself doesn’t reach cathartic success in the act of reconstruction and so leaves the audience feeling like they missed out on the “correct” reading. This way, Godder creates difficulty and forces the audience to be present in it with her, to observe it and act within it.
“Demonstrate Restraint” is a piece that presents compelling imagery, it is thought-provoking and highly enjoyable. I heard someone say of it: “It’s very unlike Yasmeen,” and I liked this definition. It expresses the maturity Godder and I discussed, that allowed past works to be assimilated in their past time and a new one to be born. For those of you who have viewed Godder’s work through the years, those pieces will be the sub-text of her latest work, and you will be able to say: “This new one – is very Yasmeen.” And, smiling somewhat bitterly, but not cynically, we might be able to say that it doesn’t really matter because after all, we will understand each one differently and no one can hold on to meaning and dictate it, one can only aspire to get the message right and hope it is fully understood.