Overlooking the shockingly blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea from the sleek concrete and glass structure of the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on a cloudless June day, any hint of the conflict that most of the world associates with this region felt as distant as a snow-capped mountain in Switzerland. Which is also about as distant as the conflict feels in most of the dance I have seen this year.
Choreographers in Israel, for the most part, seem uninterested in addressing the political tensions here explicitly. Maybe it’s because they ache to be associated with something – anything – else. Maybe it’s because living in Tel Aviv (where the large majority of dance artists and companies are centered) the conflict can often feel somewhat invisible (if one chooses to look the other way). Which is not to say that artists aren’t dealing with the effects of the tensions in their work. Thematically, however, one would be hard-pressed to find many overt connections or responses to politics.
Yet when an Israeli artist performs abroad, we foreigners cannot help but to view their work through a political lens, filtered through whatever stream of news and commentary we’ve digested. A foreign audience looks to an artist as an ambassador and expects her or him to shed light on the country he or she represents – whether it be Serbia, Sudan, India, or Israel. What an artist says, or doesn’t say, informs our perspectives and opinions.
And then the question becomes: What is the artist’s obligation to the political situation in which she or he works?
Such was the question posed to a panel of Israeli choreographers and foreign arts presenters at a symposium organized by the Israeli Choreographers Association this week, part of a week-long conference that showcased the work of some of the Associations’ sixty-plus independent choreographers.
The panelists included a producer from Norway, a curator from England, an artistic director from Jerusalem, and several Israeli dance makers.
As the conversation unfolded, it became clear that another issue was bubbling up from below the surface: Is there good political art and does it even influence the audience? To which many of the curators seemed doubtful at best. One stated: “I don’t think art should try to solve political issues. But I’m not interested in art that doesn’t think.” Another pointed out that political art can actually stifle conversation if avenues of dialogue are not intentionally included. “The problem with political art,” he said, “is that only one person [the artist] makes a statement. The audience is passive.”
I’m not sure I agree with this. An artist does not need to initiate a debate in the moment. An artist can invoke reflection or dissect a subject that allows audiences to consider their beliefs and assumptions in new ways. The effect of art can be subtle and personal. The debate can begin inside each of us.
But I do agree with the presenter who suggested, “The medium poses a problem. Maybe dance isn’t the best medium [for political discussion].” Dance’s strength is in its evocative nature, the way it creates mood and atmospheres, the way it represents relationships between people and between people and space. It can employ the “political aesthetics” of the moment and help us recognize the world we have created around us but a medium that generally tends to forego words is a difficult place to present an OpEd.
And sometimes, it is the presenters and consumers of art themselves who endow it with a political agenda that the artist never intended in the first place. As another producer put it, “politics interfere more in the dissemination of the art, not in its content.” The way foreign dance companies are marketed often plays up whatever recognizable aspect of that culture a foreign audience can connect to. Conflict, in news and in art, drives interest. There is much responsibility, too, in the hands of those who bring art to audiences.
So how to navigate these dilemmas? How does one both recognize the context in which art is made and yet not allow it to define the art or the artist? At one point the moderator asked of the presenters, “When you invite an Israeli company, do you invite Israel or do you invite dance?”
It was put best, or at least most succinctly, or perhaps it just most cleverly avoided the, um, conflict altogether when the response was: “I invite art.” If only it was that simple.