Close Encounters Series: Yasmeen Godder

Deborah Friedes Galili

If you’re part of the New York dance scene, you’ve probably stepped through some of the same doors as Yasmeen Godder. Born in Israel and raised in Jerusalem until age 11, Yasmeen moved to the U.S. with her family, attended the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City, studied at Movement Research and the Klein School, and received her undergraduate degree from NYU’s Tisch School. The Kitchen, DTW, and Dancing in the Streets have all commissioned work from her, and she was awarded a Bessie in 2001 for I Feel Funny Today.

If you’re part of the Israeli dance scene, you’ve undoubtedly felt Yasmeen’s influence and quite possibly crossed paths with her. I had heard of Yasmeen prior to arriving in Israel because of her activities in the U.S. and the acclaim which has greeted her works both in the states and Europe, and as soon as I arrived in Israel, I began to realize the impact she has made in her home country. Her name frequently came up in conversations about both choreographers and teachers, and many people urged me to see her work and take her class. So it was that I ventured down to Yafo to take technique at her studio, attended a performance there of Sudden Birds (see the video above), and went to a performance of I’m Mean, I Am at the Suzanne Dellal Center.

Months later, I’m not surprised that I heard so much buzz about Yasmeen. I found Yasmeen’s classes to be quite challenging and enormously helpful in their specificity, especially as I attempt to widen my body’s range and move with less muscular effort. She welcomes students’ reflections in class and presents her own ideas with clarity and details that enable me to adjust my mindset and body to a more unfamiliar technical framework. I also found Yasmeen’s choreography to be as challenging as her classes, and refreshingly so. Since my earliest research on the socially conscious New Dance Group, I have always been attracted to choreographers who examine social issues, but while many choreographers try to touch such subject matter, it is all too easy for their investigations to remain superficial and cursory. Not so with Yasmeen. She doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, and regardless of the subject at hand, she isn’t afraid to display even the most disturbing findings from her creative process onstage. It’s a tribute to her artistic integrity that at the second performance of Singular Sensation at Suzanne Dellal on Friday, the packed audience was peppered with dancers, choreographers, artists in other disciplines, and committed dance enthusiasts who were eager to see her latest work. The five dancers’ exploration of sensation was surreal at times – with green slime oozing down dancers’ bodies and a nightmarish section in which four dancers covered the fifth performer’s head in pantyhose and saran wrap, shoved oranges into his hands for squeezing, and pulled him into splits over a jello mold – but the applause filling the theater at the work’s conclusion was very, very real.

Back in April, Yasmeen sat down with me after a rehearsal so that we could chat a bit about her work. As in most of these conversations, we started at the beginning, talking about Yasmeen’s pathway from ballet and Graham technique through to her investigations of Klein technique, more broadly labeled release classes, improvisation, and yoga. Yasmeen had prefaced some of her classes with a disclaimer that she did not teach a particular technique, and so we talked at length about the various influences on her approach to movement. Klein features prominently in this array of influences, with its emphasis on releasing the exterior muscles and finding the bones; from Yasmeen’s exposure to this and other classes in the release spectrum, she also developed her strong connection to the floor, deep trust in space, and ability to use less effort. Yet Yasmeen also incorporates approaches that are, in some ways, at odds with the typical release practice and aesthetic. She can be shape-based at times, and through both her own process of questioning and her collaboration with a dramaturge, she ventures into a world which is more emotional and (for lack of a better word – this is admittedly inexact) theatrical. Yasmeen also discussed yoga’s impact on her training, which is evident in her use of particular sequences and stretches in the classes she teaches, and she further noted that the combination of physical, mental, and emotional aspects within yoga meshes with her own creative process and development of movement for choreographic works.

Speaking of choreographic works, we spent some time discussing one of Yasmeen’s dances which had a particularly powerful impact on me. Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder was made during the second intifada, and when I screened it on DVD in the autumn, it kept me up all night thinking and writing. I had wondered if I would see any dances here which tackled the Israeli-Arab conflict head-on, and I have found remarkably few either on stage this season or on video from previous years. Thus Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder stood out for me not only because of the strength of the choreography and its performance but also because of the subject matter. Surrounded by images in the news media in 2004, Yasmeen felt that she simply had to deal with what was happening in her country, and she assembled a series of photographs – a “catalog” of images – as a starting point. Dancers were instructed to “be” the photograph, without political or emotional comment, and each artist worked with a few photographs so that they switched roles: male, female, young, old, wounded, able, civilian, soldier. In this way, the boundaries between “victim” and “perpetrator” become blurred, just as these roles aren’t always clear or constant in the actual events of the situation here. I had recognized this particular blurring upon watching the piece, but listening to Yasmeen recount the choreographic process, my mind reached beyond the dancers’ appearances – their genders and ages – and I realized even more how complex and intense this exploration must have been.

Yasmeen continued to talk about images of war and images of heroes, raising questions both about how these subjects are photographed and how people look at and identify with these pictures; Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, she said, delved into many of the issues which were at the heart of Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder. We also discussed the response of audiences, which varied based on geographical location (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and cities abroad) as well as performance space (more intimate settings versus traditional proscenium stages which create a stronger division between the action onstage and the spectators in the house). Some Israelis didn’t perceive Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder as being about the situation here, whereas outside of the country – of course billed as a work by an Israeli choreographer – the dance was almost uniformly viewed as a piece concerning the Israeli-Palestinian situation. While audience members in any country are subject to the flood of war images these days, though, the Israeli crowds contained people who were directly connected to the dance’s source material including survivors of suicide bombings. As Yasmeen recounted one Israeli woman’s emotional response to the work, I couldn’t help thinking of how a woman mourning her young son tearfully approached Martha Graham after a performance of her signature solo, Lamentation. Like Graham before her, Yasmeen Godder knows that she may move members of the audience with her dances – and in my experience, she moves many viewers with her honest, probing work.