Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder

Michal Sapir

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violinDance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely inTouch me with your naked hand or touch me with your gloveShow me slowly what I only know the limits of Dance me to the end of love

Leonard Cohen

When The Place Theatre decided to stage Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder’s latest piece, “Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder” (2004) in London, they encountered an unexpected problem: the strips of wood-imitation linoleum that covered the surface of the stage in the original production, chosen by the designer because they were dirt cheap and easy to get in Tel Aviv, were extremely hard to find in the UK. In the end they had to bring the whole set over from Israel. Ironically, the cheasy and shabby look and the sense of casually improvised solutions that is so central to the Israeli way of doing things, were achieved at a great cost to the production.

This story is telling because Godder’s work deals, to a large extent, with the way inventories, availibilities and values change as we move between different places and cultures. Godder herself was born and raised in Jerusalem, and moved to New York with her family when she was eleven. She graduated from the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City, and received her BA from the TischSchool of the Arts at NYU. After graduating, she worked for a few years in both New York and Tel Aviv, winning the Bessie Award in New York in 2001 for the presentation of her piece “I Feel Funny Today.” Recently she has been based mainly in Israel, but questions of cultural differences and their bearing on identities still occupy her.

“In time I realised that my work started being presented here on a regular basis, and things started getting into a kind of rhythm. In New York most of the time when you have a premiere, you have a season, one or two weekends, and basically that’s all you do throughout the year. In Israel it’s very different. I get to run my work almost on a monthly basis, and it allows me to build something and to commit to it. In New York when I was there I had more difficulty working as much as I like to work. I like to work a lot, and I found that really difficult given the financial situation there. In Israel it’s not necessarily easier financially but you can find solutions – there are other ways of finding space to work or places that can help me with my production so it isn’t as difficult.

“It’s really interesting to take work I’ve created in Israel to New York, you see the differences or what people’s perceptions are. I had a very extreme experience with some of my work, in terms of the difference in the reaction of the audience here and in New York. It has to do with where you grow up and the kind of references you have, or the associations that come up. And I appreciate that it’s a privilege to have that, and I also think that because I grew up in both places, because I connect to both cultures in different ways, because I have my baggage in each culture, I also have a fascination with what each culture sees in my work. Somehow it’s a reflection or a mirror image of an identity under question.

” Godder’s work centres first and foremost around the body, which appears in her pieces in all its diverse potentialities – as dumb automaton, as malleable rag doll, as freely riding the momentum, as exhilaratingly powerful, as disturbingly fraught. Sometimes the body seems ridden with involuntary convulsions, seizures and tics. At other times it seems totally in control and infinitely open for exploration. Godder has developed a richly inventive vocabulary of movement in which every piece of clothing and body part counts, down to the smallest fibre, tissue and cell. She asks “big” questions about representation, cultural capital and power relations, but in her intricate compositions, it crucially matters where you put your tongue, how you angle your toes, how much you show your teeth. Her repository of textures and surfaces extends to include the edgy near-evanescence of cloth, hair, flab, a layer of sweat, a shiver, a goose-bump, a mood. But it is also crystallised around a feisty and uncompromising creative core that endows her pieces with a very powerful presence.

Perhaps due to her exposure to New York’s artistic traditions, Godder’s work has less in common with the sometimes spectacular theatricality of Israeli
companies such as Bat Sheva and Inbal Pinto Dance Company, or of Israeli-born,
London-based choreographer Jasmin Vardimon, and more with the rigorous
experiments of 1970s’ artists such as Bruce Nauman, Marina Abramovic and Trisha Brown, who explored the relationship between representation, physicality and mental states in performances that combined both the mundane and the extreme.

Would you say your work is very culturally contextualised?

“It is and it isn’t, this is what’s so interesting. When I make work I acknowledge things that come out of the culture that impacts me. Yet there are things I create on a more instinctual basis. Most of my work is derived from a lot of instinct work, and from places that are not so defined. And so it’s always interesting to see what comes out, which often relates to cultures or places where each of us grew up or  to values we grew up on, all these things that you’re not aware you’re carrying with yourself, about your body, about your being. And it’s also very much what the audience brings to the show, what context the audience brings when they watch it. So I like to play with these layers of representation.”

Much of the complexity in Godder’s work comes from her explorations of these interacting layers of impulses and social physicality. She is interested in those junctions where the body operates as a social tool, where the symbols of identity that are inscribed in us with the mechanical repetition of socialisation get embedded under our skin and become prohibitive or generative at the root of our capacity for intimacy, with ourselves and with others. Michel Foucault called these junctions “technologies of the self” – those mechanisms by which our relationships of interdependence with our surroundings and our adherence or otherwise to conventions of nation, race, class and gender inform our processes of subjectification.

In “Two Playful Pink” (2003), another work which was shown at The Place, Godder and dancer Iris Erez appear as an enticing and enigmatic pair, slipping gleefully from lovable Marx Sisters gags to a female version of Max and Moritz, the vicious double-acting tricksters in Wilhelm Busch’s classic children’s story. Their mixture of self-consciousness and euphoric scopophilia, of being looked at and at the same time assuming control over the gaze, recalls the work of photographer Cindy Sherman. This concern with who has whom in their sights, and to what aims and effects, receives a particularly affecting treatment

in “Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder”, which looks at the Israeli-Palestinian situation through the prism of Susan Sontag’s book “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003), in which she examined Western viewers’ increasing exposure, at a distance, to images of atrocities and suffering occurring elsewhere. “In ‘Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder’, what I was interested in was to see how some physical images become icons of a period of time. It is sometimes beyond our awareness how much they represent a period. I wanted to be able to touch this, to be able to try and tap into these images that have become icons of our period and see how these images resonate in us, whether they resonate in us, and how we perceive them. I wanted to reach them in different ways and question them through different approaches.“

Movement is one such vehicle. Our body, our consciousness, our memories and our thoughts, all have information that we carry with us throughout the day, that collects in us, and I like to stop and give that a place where it can be expressed or questioned. To stop and have the time to listen to it, not just to go through the moves. Using the body as a medium to question these, let’s say, icons or images of a period is a way to touch the information.

“I was questioning whether this is a deeper way of touching it, rather than let’s say the intellectual way or the political way, by which I mean a very clear, rational thought – by seeing what the body can say about it. It was an interesting question, I feel like every time we perform the work, it still remains a question that’s not necessarily solved for us. That was part of the aim of the work, to allow that to stay fresh and real on a performance level.”

This sense of urgency and unrest is also part of the experience of watching “Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder”. It induces a kind of emotional exhaustion reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line (1998), which conveyed both the numbing brutality and the rich subtlety of emotions experienced by a company of soldiers during the Second World War. It also has something of the punishing relentlessness of Sydney Pollack’s scrutiny of the ethics of spectacle in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969), a relentlessness which Godder peppers with moments of Beckettian absurdity.

The piece unfolds in a repetitive yet elastic time. Jerky and nervy sequences in which limbs seem to do as they please are suddenly arrested in deliberate freeze-frames. Periods of incisiveness are interspersed with stretches in which the dancers seem to inhabit a dense and viscous space, filled with high frequency vibrations and a low-level buzz, their movements difficult, grappling, squeezed and teased out of bodies under physical and emotional duress. It’s a detailed and discomforting intensity which prevents the coagulation of smoothness, self-evidence and complacency. The abrupt changes of perception allow the viewers no moral respite. Instead, they experience friction and the crossing of interpersonal boundaries: in this landscape, even compassion can be an invasion of privacy. Godder’s warinness of falling into easy notions of empathy is reflected in the temporary name given to the company for this piece, “The Bloody Bench Players”.

“The idea of the bench players who sit on the side and bleed is an acknowledgement that we are playing these roles. We’re not trying to recreate a reality, we are presenting it, we’re not saying that it is what we’re presenting. It’s a very thin line. We’re sitting on the side and watching, and it’s almost like the process of the piece is the process of entering these images that we watch, that we’re seeing from the outside. We’re trying to enter them like they’re somewhere in our space and we’re trying to embody them. And so there is a real clear acknowledgment, I think, in the work for the idea of entering something that is outside your experience. And throughout the work what happens is that slowly, through the process of entering, we come in contact with some of the possible ways of filling up these images. It’s very complex. Part of the work is about this outside view. And part of it is about trying to enter it. And part of it is about getting lost in it. So it’s these different processes of dealing with it.”

And how do you see the role of the piece or you as a choreographer in terms of the audience or the larger society? Can the audience also go through a similar process?

“For me it’s about a dialogue, and maybe a dialogue on another level. Part of what drew me to create this work was that I felt like there was a repertoire of images that had become icons, or a representation, that we’d come to “accept”. And my interest as a choreographer, as a person, was to try to see if I can bring that into the studio and bring it into a different kind of dialogue, rather than a dialogue of the media or the usual daily dialogue. I wanted to see whether I could allow that to enter the form that I was working with. And in part the work has to do with this issue – can we bring this into our world, or can we allow these themes to enter the studio, and how do we deal with these themes entering the studio?”

“Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder” examines what the presence of other bodies in its proximity does to the body – containing, constricting, distorting, supporting, propelling, manipulating, jostling and poking it, making skin and muscle cry out and sing. Godder’s interest in physical relationships fuelled by pent-up violence, tension and vulnerability recalls early works by DV8 such as “Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men” (1988), in which the dancers explored the limits of aggressive corporeality and its dehumanising effect. But whereas Lloyd Newson’s dancers went through their ordeals with impassive faces, Godder’s ensemble explores an impressive array of facial expressions, from eagerness, reluctance, disgust and enjoyment to gloating, conspiracy, bewilderment and beyond. This variety of nuances brings to mind the experiments in “electro-physiology” conducted by the French physiologist and psychiatrist Duchenne in the nineteenth century. Duchenne attached electrodes to various facial muscles of his subjects and administered electric shocks of varying degrees of intensity so that the targeted muscle would involuntarily contract. He then photographed the subject’s face at the moment it contorted in reaction to the electric shock. But Duchenne’s pictures[1] purported to establish a direct link between internal states and external appearances. In Godder’s work, however, instead of cold electrodes, it’s the warm hands of other dancers that touch the performers’ faces, and the result is a much more complex web of relationships between stimuli and reaction, interiority and expression.

Moreover, by bringing in the obfuscating context of everyday life and its social realities of mediation, stylistic conventions and personal temperaments, Godder does not only undermine the positivistic assumptions of modern scientific experiments, but also examines the very possibility of such contemporary dance idioms as “contact”, “improvisation”, “release” and “technique”. As in the work of Sacha Waltz, whose Körper trilogy (2000) explored the human body with all its baggage of memories and representations, everything that happens in Godder’s work has a corporeal logic, yet not as ‘masterful’, ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’, but as operating within interrelated systems of power relations, histories and psychologies. That is why the dancers in her pieces, with all their obvious ability, always seem somehow damaged, inept in the roles they think they should play, clumsily struggling in their blurry, caged Francis Baconesque ruptures.

“This idea of clumsiness is also a tricky concept, I think. Clumsiness allows sometimes for some truth to come out, but it’s also putting on a role. You can see it on the one hand as a stripping down of training and getting back to something very basic in the body. But I also find that to be another layer of playing with identity. Clumsiness is a quality that could be very authentic and could be reached. But I think that in trying to reach it there is also this whole process that you enter. It is about a place in the mind that you connect to and that you relate to that brings up a whole world of associations. So it’s just another place for me. But I do search for physical fringes. I like fringes of movement or places where each person’s body allows something from that maybe personal clumsiness to enter.”

Godder’s notion of clumsiness can be linked to the Levinisian concept of the face as kind of a failed experiment: “For Levinas,” writes Judith Butler, “the human is not represented by the face. Rather, the human is indirectly affirmed in the very disjunction that makes representation impossible, and this disjunction is conveyed in the impossible representation. For representation to convey the human, then, representation must not only fail, but it must show its failure.”[2]

Godder’s dancers seem to be dancing at the edges of their being, pushing and pulling at extremities and nerve ends, almost literally dancing out of their skins. In the brief for one of her pieces, Godder wrote that she intended to explore the idea of “the transformation of one’s identity as a way of communicating in a relationship”. It’s as if, for her, only an identity permanently under question can ever hope to enjoy some kind of stability, to make some kind of contact, perhaps even to achieve some kind of release.

“I see dance is a daring undertaking, in that it’s willing to experiment in real time on stage with an idea. Whether that idea is a movement phrase that you’re going through and questioning and experiencing in real time, or whether it’s a task or something else. It could be a lot of different things, but I think that it has this incredible energy. And it’s somehow brave.”


[1] Published in 1862 in the book The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression.

[2] Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London & New York: Verso, 2004, 144.

Dance Theatre Journal

volume 21 no. 4