About the Creative Process for Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder
I presented Yasmeen Godder and the Bleeding Bench Players Present: Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder in 2004, in collaboration with Jerusalem's Lab Theatre (Hama’abada) and the Curtain Up Dance Festival. But even before I entered the studio and started researching, I was wondering: where in the mind do the images that envelop my everyday experience, the images which repetitively represent the local political reality, accumulate? Which significances do these images create in the personal and collective consciousness and sub-consciousness? And which implications do they have on my and our lives, and on our perception of reality?
It was the peak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada: images of soldiers at checkpoints, blindfolded Palestinian detainees, soldiers raiding homes of Palestinian families, scenes of suicide bombings, women screaming over dead bodies and similar horrors were pretty common. The questions that flooded me were caused by a sensation that these images have become some sort of "logos" or icons of the time, of "the situation," unconscientiously accumulating in some sort of an automatic cataloguing process by our rational mind. The continuous exposure to these horrifying images has made us numb, creating an all too familiar, apparently bearable routine, yet their acceptance started to infiltrate into very dark, extreme place. The exposure to these images supposedly enabled us to acknowledge a complex reality; yet in my professional and personal life, I felt that "the situation" mostly existed in images, in certain angles of photography, in the mainstream narrative of the media and in the streets, and through the fantasy and the interpretations I created for all of these in my mind. I found this fact perplexing and disturbing, and for this reason selected it as a starting point for my work – I decided to use the issues that troubled me as a material, as an instrument: were these images truly a reflection of my reality? Did I accept them as components in my self-definition, as a mirror? Or was I distancing myself from them, in an attempt to create an alternative self-definition?
I felt a need to burst the bubble, the enclosed studio and the sheltered lab in which the creative process had taken place until then, by bringing in images from an exterior reality that was simultaneously familiar, "burnout", foreign, and intimidating. When I came back to Israel in 1999, after spending long years abroad, one of the things that stood out to me was the frequent usage of the word "burnout" when talking about "the situation," as well as the common sensation that everything had already been said and that there was nothing more to add. On the one hand, the public space was saturated with a never-ending discussion of politics: in the newspapers, on the television news, and in the radio shows forever echoing everywhere; on the other hand, it seemed the discussion of "the situation" had become meaningless, weary and predictable. I felt a need to spur discussion on a different level.
We held the first rehearsal for Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder at the Beit Tami Community Centre in Tel Aviv. I brought along a collection of characteristically hardcore news images, and asked the dancers – Iris Erez, Yossi Berg, Maya Weinberg, Arkadi Zaides, Inbal Yacobi, Asher Lev, and Kama Kolton – to select a character from one of the images and start working with it. The dancers were free to choose the gender, age, and national identity of their character. In a very simple exercise, we positioned the images as tableaux vivants – static imitations of the original images. At first, the exercise evoked embarrassment and discomfort in the dancers. There was a feeling of touching something forbidden, perhaps a fear of being irreverent towards these situations. I discovered that although they seem deeply familiar, we also feel awe towards these images, and maintain a confused emotional relationship with them.
Some of the extreme emotional and expressive states in the images met with opposition in the dancers, both because of their intensity and because the dancers were unaccustomed to this sort of face work. The images were undoubtedly disagreeable, and I was afraid of using them as a material – after all, they were photographs of real people. It felt as if imitating the image undermined the actual experience of the person who was there. On the other hand, this immensely charged starting point touched a question I found interesting: in working with this content, how hard is it for us to "acknowledge" that reality? Why can we observe this suffering? How come we can pass by it daily – when it is in the form of an image, of course – yet feel uncomfortable to become its representations? What came up on the first day of rehearsals provided the basis for the entire research.
My creative processes have developed, both outside and inside the studio, in collaboration with Itzik Giuli. For each work, these processes are reconstructed through a shared formulation of exercises, leading to the creation of a specific movement language and structural logic. One of our guidelines in this process was not to create a story around the images. Not to try to explain why these people were where they were, nor describe their histories. Not to try to explain their situation. I was afraid that if a story were to be created, the political logic of us artists and performers would come in and explain "the situation" as we perceived it. I did not want to know the reason for whatever was happening in the logical sense, in the explanative sense of family Friday dinner conversations, or café discussions with friends. I felt that this was where the emotional burnout was taking place – in the attempt to organize and explain the situation. I was interested in using the stage and our body to find these human situations, to see how they resonate in us on the personal level.
As I had chosen photography as my starting point, I was trying to touch the moment caught by the camera and revive it in the living and breathing theatrical medium, to reconstruct it in 3D using a movement language everyone can recognize and read. As a dance artist, one of the constant challenges is trying to place people, subjects, on stage, and use a seemingly abstract medium for communication. In Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder, the goal was to use movement "as is," so that whatever happens on stage communicates in a recognizable language, one we all already know from the images. When it is a soldier holding a gun, the dancer simply stands and represents a gun with his hands and fingers. A crying woman is a dancer opening her mouth wide and crying, a child in his mother's arms is a dancer held by another dancer. This dramatization, the direct and simple staging of the images, may seem over-literal, perhaps even pathetic, but this was precisely what I was interested in: finding the most direct translation for the image performed by the dancer through the medium of the body. Together with Itzik, I developed exercises for finding physical mechanisms to revive the static images. These included breathing and vocal exercises, imagination exercises, exercises for finding a personal kinetic connection for body and face positioning, and an individual search for a mental refresh method, which will enable each dancer to experience the current emotional moment continuously and repetitively. In this process, it was hard not to get carried away by the characters' emotional states, not to try to explain them; but the goal was to give into the image, to let the body tell whatever it can. Thus, although the performance includes a physical 3D interpretation of these static images, the liveness of the performers, who experience the work through an emotional and physical score, grants each spectator room to consider their perception of the codes represented onstage.
The research for all my works until Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder began inwardly, with personal experiences and private research which slowly materialize and receive external expression. I have already begun to challenge this process in Two Playful Pink (2003). Iris Erez and I worked with feminine images which we have internalized in the process of becoming women until they have physically become a second nature. It was a reflection on the sociological perceptions of the female body and the expectations it is faced with, as well as on different female archetypes, many of which include a component of seduction, and our need to fulfil this stereotypic image and adopt it as a tool which strengths and limits us at the same time. To do so, we consciously used classic positions, stereotypic female representations. At the same time, the work still focused on us, 30-year-old dancers-friends-women, with the entire range of significance of those facts at that time. The work was created out of the encounter between the social perception of the female body and our personal connection. In Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder, on the other hand, the starting point was completely external, admitting our distance from the photographs of "the situation," but also attempting to use such an external starting point to relate to a less-familiar "I".
Another central aspect of Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder, which continued to be significant in my later works, is the instability of the roles of "victim" and "victimizer." This topic was somewhat present in prior works, such as Suddenly Birds and Two Playful Pink, especially is the form of role play, but in Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder these roles became more concrete, around local politics. The costumes in Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder were supposedly neutral, at least in the sense that they did not match the images; they did not indicate the character's identity as a soldier or a Palestinian, nor defined any specific social status, but generally tried to blur the idea of a character. In addition, each dancer worked with more than one photograph, so their total performance was constructed out of several, often contradicting images: a soldier in a checkpoint and a crying Palestinian man, a woman soldier guarding detainees, a mother holding a baby while soldiers raid her house, and so on. The audience may have perceived what they saw as a character, but in most cases, it was several characters each dancer integrated into their performance. This was partly motivated by the wish to prevent a continuative narrative for each character, but also by a wish to clarify the commitment of the "bleeding actors" to the totality of images, and not to a single role or point of view, in order to enable identification with multiple and contradicting situations, and a transition between the role of the perceived "victim" and the perceived "victimizer." This attitude brought forth questions about the role of the "victim": what is its role in "the situation"? Is it a given role? Can we always identify the victim? And who do we identify with? Do we have preconceptions of victimhood, and where do we position ourselves in relation to it?
The roles' stereotypy was challenged inside these questions, so that a character we automatically perceive as "weak" actually contained tremendous powers, and vice versa, characters that seemed strong turned out to be weak and impotent. These thin boundaries continued to resonate between attraction and rejection, dependency and independence, in the relationship created between "victim" and "victimizer," roles that were revealed to exist one within the other.
Gal Weinstein, the artist who created the set design, addressed the direct and concrete nature of the movement language by using non-organic, store-bought familiar objects, ready-mades, to construct the "landscape" for the piece. Roles of parquet-like linoleum (for Weinstein, a reference to the classic ballet studio) were stretched across the stage in waves, creating a landscape of desert dunes. A plastic plant, resembling a ball of tumbleweed rolling to the stage from some American Western, made this landscape all the more pronounced. At the side of the stage, he positioned a boom barrier, like the ones used for private parking spaces in Tel Aviv, with the manufacturer's name and phone number. The dancers used this barrier every time they left or entered the stage. But the Hebrew word for barrier, machsom, also means checkpoint – charging it with political connotations, especially in the context of that time. Using this entertaining device in the work increased the poignancy of the representation, as if it were a children's game of "the situation," whose rules dictate when the dancers may or may not enter and exit the stage. On the other hand, the presence of the barrier was a constant reference to the significances and connotations of the word, reminding the audience what it was really about. Using the barrier as a limitation, and placing it at the side of the stage, served to clarify the meaning of entry and exit control, and the transitions of the performers between the centre of events to the part defined as "backstage" become the crossing of a metaphorical boundary. The set created an analogy between the visual "landscape" of the obsessive dance world and the aesthetics of "the situation."
The work's title, which took shape during the work process, describes a group/company of actors sitting on a bench, bleeding the pain of a reality in which they do not actively participate. Gabi Eldor has written a review of the work and mentioned Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others. Reading the book later, I discovered how much Sontag's research was relevant to the materials that came up in the work process. Sontag surveys the history of observing the suffering of others through the medium of photography, especially war photography; she describes how we got used to looking at pornographic works of pain and suffering, especially of "the other." The question the book raises is how it is possible that on the one hand, looking at horrifying documentation produces stimulation and excitement, and on other hand, the repetitive exposure to that stimulus makes us numb and inhumane.
The work was first staged in 2004, but I kept making changes for about a year, until I felt it was done. This was different than most of my works – it took a while until I found a stable structure I could stand behind. In retrospect, I think it wasn't for nothing: the contents, intensities and questions raised by this work were too overwhelming at the time, and it was difficult to clearly fixate them. Perhaps performing the piece for a while helped achieve a certain distance from the original images, allowing me to understand how to create a coherent structure for both the performers and the audience. The dancers also had a hard time performing, because of the emotional challenges. The audience reaction fluctuated between great difficulty and deep identification. At times it was so powerful, that at the end of one show, a suicide attack survivor asked me: "How did you know what it felt like?"
In a scene which takes place towards the end of the work, two men drag a body over the bodies of the others. At the same time, three women – laughing or crying, we cannot say for sure – sing the disco song "hands up." In a performance in Amsterdam in July 2016, an older man was heard shouting from the audience, in Hebrew with a slight foreign accent: "Enough, children, enough." It caused confusion and embarrassment onstage, both because of the breaking of the "fourth wall" and due to the tone of his voice: was he concerned with what we had taken upon ourselves, or did he expose his inability to cope with the pain we represented? At the end of the performance, the dancers bow while one of the characters keeps moaning over a dead body (usually a manipulation for some of the spectators, who automatically clap), and that was especially hard that day. The audience response was always strong, and sometimes it was too hard for me to contain the powerful effect of the gunpowder I exposed and chose to display. Yet for me, the uneasiness and discussion this work continued to provoke clarified the importance of direct engagement with emotionally charged contents and the power of the theatrical medium.
In retrospect, the research I conducted for Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder had clear and evident echoes in many of my subsequent works. I used images for developing content and physical material also in I'm Mean, I Am (2006), which deals with power and domination through the lens of the dance world, the studio. I play the "stereotypic choreographer," who uses manipulations and aggressivity in her attempts to realize a creation of her imagination: I tyrannize the dancers and exploit personally charged situations to make this fantasy come true. During the research for this work, I used climatic images from football and other sports, as well as horror films and American teen romance movies, to examine questions of ambition and physical male expressions. Although this subject is closer to our everyday lives, all the roles we played included exaggeration and conscious insincerity, aimed at exposing a certain truth.
Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder clearly paved the road for working with non-personal content and emotional states, and for the belief in the power to be transformed and change as a performer, even when the expression seems to be distant, foreign and exaggerated. In Singular Sensation (2008) there was an attempt to realize a fantasy of a different identity, one who has powers the performers do not possess on the personal level, but that they would like to embody in order to feel something different or new. In Loving Fire (2009) the journey became about images of gender, intimacy and romance, which I naturally found intimidating, but became accessible through the work. So, although I did not return to dealing directly with "the situation,” something in the intensity of the subjects, the contexts and relations arising from Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder, as well as the access to body work and the processes of connection and identification in the performers, continue to penetrate my works ever since, affecting its contents, which revolve around personal and existential subjects alike.