Soldier Dances, From a Land Where Everyone Serves


Of the works in New York this week, “Come Jump With Me” is the most direct in its dissection of, and ambivalence about, modern Israeli nationalism. “From the beginning, we knew we wanted it to be a love-hate poem to Israel,” Mr. Graf said. With spoken text, assorted props and extensive jump-roping, Mr. Berg and Olivia Court Mesa, a South American immigrant to Israel, investigate their complicated relationship with the country.

The conversational and confessional work, in which Mr. Berg lists his theatrical portrayals of soldiers, is a departure from the type of abstract, highly physical work that has come to define much of contemporary Israeli dance. Jodee Nimerichter, the director of the American Dance Festival, said she was attracted to the work’s nuance and intimacy. “They’re not afraid to reveal themselves on so many levels,” she said.

For his part, Mr. Assaf, 35, said he wasn’t initially interested in tackling politics or engaging in self-examination. He was just drawn to the urgent rhythm and mood of the military song, “Ammunition Hill” by Yoram Taharlev, which his choreography matches with quick gestures and combative partnering. “The tension was right,” he said of the music in a Skype interview from Israel.

But as “The Hill” evolved, from a solo to a trio, he found that the lyrics and gender dynamics added unexpected layers. “Maybe I unconsciously wanted to deal with this subject,” he said. Referring to his all-male cast, he added, “I needed this unit, this brotherhood.” In the work, the men catch and console one another, and get tangled up in one another’s bodies — an illustration of both the vulnerability and camaraderie of being in the military.


Yossi Berg and Olivia Court Mesa in “Come Jump With Me,” which will be at New York Live Arts this week.

Gadi Dagon

Military service is compulsory in Israel — three years for men, about two for women — and, like his peers, Mr. Assaf joined the army at 18, serving as a paratrooper and commander. Though he had very little dance training before joining, he said his dance skills proved useful. He approached military exercises like choreographic routines, and was praised by his superiors for his agility. “I was aware of my body and that I’m using it in the same ways I learned movement,” he said. After his discharge, eager to continue dancing, he joined Emanuel Gat’s company, with which he danced for six years.

Mr. Graf, 38, didn’t have any dance to draw on when he served in the air force but found refuge in it afterward. The day he was discharged, he said, he left his base in the desert and entered an “inexperienced guy” dance class at the Kibbutz company’s school at Kibbutz Ga’aton in the verdant north of the country. “I really, really wanted to do something different from the military service,” he said. “Suddenly I’m in an atmosphere surrounded by art. It was magical.” Mr. Berg, 41, didn’t serve in the military, a decision he discusses in “Come Jump With Me.” When it was time to enlist, he had just been accepted to Batsheva, and military service would have forced him to leave the company, so he sought and received an exemption. (About a quarter of male prospects receive exemptions for a variety of reasons like religious observance or health.)

His decision would not have been necessary had he been accepted into a program that the Israel Defense Forces, or I.D.F., began in the 1990s. It allows promising dancers, called “excellent dancers,” to continue their training while fulfilling their service, an option that was already available to musicians and athletes. The excellent dancers — there are currently 63 — are given administrative positions at bases near Tel Aviv, where the majority of dance schools and companies are, and have flexible hours for training and performances.

But whether a dancer served in a combat unit, behind a desk, or not at all, the symbol of the soldier follows Israeli artists throughout their lives and can fight its way into their work, even if that wasn’t the intention. In Mr. Assaf’s work, the military feels like an elusive memory, while in Mr. Berg and Mr. Graf’s work, its continuing presence haunts them.

“This obsession with being a soldier, the army mentality,” Mr. Graf said, “it’s about a mode that you are, and how you relate to your country.” Or, as Mr. Berg put it, it’s about “still not being able to escape the reality here.”


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