Kibbutznik’s history becomes performance art


Yael Davids was frustrated. After more than a week of trying to set up a time to talk from her home base in Amsterdam, she was finally on Skype, but there was a problem. “I want to see you!” she said, somewhat defeated, as she realized that her video connection just wasn’t going to cooperate, so she’d have to use just words to tell her story. For an artist who’s been feverishly working to turn her own story into something more than just words, this is a unique challenge. When Davids performs at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) on Dec. 6 and 8, the Israeli-born artist will bring a new version of her narrative performance piece that has captivated audiences in Europe and South America.

“I hardly ever start carte blanche,” Davids said, describing how she sets about creating her work. “In principle, I like the idea of molding and remolding, readjusting.”

The work is a combination of performance and a sculptural installation that will be on view at REDCAT for a month. For the opening, she will swing from a rope, interact with huge hanging sheets of glass and read text from a script that she has tailored for each performance site. Vestiges of the performance will remain on view in the gallery.

She describes herself as something of a historical detective, looking back over her own life to create something new and beautiful for her audience. “I’m trying to find a way to configure words in space … because I’d say words are also quite sculptural for me,” she said. “It really starts from personal testimonies into historical.”

Davids was born in 1968, and raised on Kibbutz Tzuba, just west of Jerusalem, and the kibbutz figures prominently in her current work. “My work is very personal, and I do talk about myself. … It’s my history on the kibbutz,” she explained.  

As the story goes, when Davids was growing up, Kibbutz Tzuba was a beautiful place full of “totally utopian ideals,” but it was forced to face a different reality when its economic situation became dire. Today, it survives by producing glass in three varieties — automotive, architectural and armored, including a very special kind of bulletproof glass. To Davids, this is something of a tragedy, “how a kibbutz with a very leftish background, in order to survive, has to supply this glass.”

According to Davids, the armored glass is sold to the American military, as well as to settlers living in the West Bank. It’s a paradox that both saddens and excites Davids, because while the use of the glass produced in her childhood home hurts her personally, the story makes for great art. “The kibbutz presents the glass as a weapon,” she said. “For me, it has to do a lot with Israel, and where Israel is now, today. Nowadays, everybody can see that Israel is a very aggressive country,” she said.

For her piece, Davids suspends huge sheets of glass above the space, an act she admits is “not without risk. The risk is there that they will break,” she said, “and I actually …  wouldn’t mind if they’d break.”  

Davids’ performances also are reliant upon a good audience. “I need the audience in order to lift myself as a performer,” she said. “If I can inspire people, I’d love it. This is the best.”

Her work is undeniably influenced by Judaism, and particularly by her Israeli heritage, though it’s a heritage she’s struggled with. “Israel is a country that continuously manipulates its narrative,” she said, then quickly revised her thought. “I don’t know if I would say manipulates, but reinvents its narratives, and erases, erases a lot of things. Like the Palestinians.”

And while some of Davids’ politics might cause controversy in some circles, she still cares deeply for Israel: “I must say that I would love to go back to Israel if I could. … Holland will never be my home. I will always feel like a foreigner here — the mentality of the people, the weather, but mainly the mentality.  

“But,” she added, “financially, I don’t think I could make it in Israel.”

In that sense, Davids is a little like the kibbutz she grew up on, forced to make choices based on financial realities, though she’s opted to make art, not armored glass. As she put it, she would rather make her glass into art. “Politically, I think there’s something really wrong there. And maybe it sounds very arrogant, what I say. Maybe the work has to be done from there.”

Davids said no one has yet gotten angry at her for her views on the current state of Israeli politics, but as she confided, “My sister told me, lucky you never did it [the performance] in Israel; they’d never let you do it.” 

Yet, Davids feels her attachment to her Jewish roots goes even deeper than just to modern Israel. After a brief discussion on kabbalistic interpretations of the world literally being formed from words, Davids was quick to exclaim, “I’m totally excited by words! They have the power to bring life. It’s not that they document life, they bring life.”

The whole idea of roots began to disturb Davids during a recent six-month residency in Rio de Janeiro, where even the landscape offered her a different way to see the world. 

“Israel is literally very dry and arid … it’s very reduced.  It’s reduced to the Jewish people,” she said. “In Rio, you see life that has nothing to do with roots. You see the freedom of not relating to the ground.”

But Davids’ strong link to her homeland, despite her problems with it, is why her struggle with her Israeli identity creeps so strongly into her work.  

“I cannot run away from the responsibility,” she said, adding, “Now, I could run away, maybe that’s why I’m not living there.”

Yael Davids’ exhibition at REDCAT opens Dec. 6, with a performance at 6:30 p.m., repeated on Dec. 8 at 4:30 p.m. The exhibition continues through Dec. 22. For more information, visit redcat.org.

‘The Interview’ explores dystopian world of parenting


Imagine a world in which having a child is more difficult than getting into Harvard, a world in which government bureaucrats decide who is fit to be a parent. That’s the idea behind Susan Josephs’ new play, “The Interview.”

On a recent afternoon at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Josephs and the play’s director, Diana Wyenn, sat down for an interview about “The Interview,” which will be performed Oct. 4-27 at the Studio/Stage in Los Angeles.

According to Josephs, the idea for the play was born more out of academic frustration than parenting. “In 2010, I was applying to graduate school,” she said. “I hadn’t been subjected to an academic application process in quite some time. Going through that process of applying to school started getting me thinking about how everything in our society … often feels like you’re getting interviewed, or there’s a competition involved.”

Josephs had also recently married, and she’d begun receiving the inevitable question from friends and family: When are you going to have kids? “It seemed to me that biologically being able to bear children seemed like the last thing in our society that people could just do without having to compete or apply for,” Josephs said.

But it was an exclamation overheard at a dinner party that really spurred her to write. The guests had been discussing an article about child abuse, when one exasperated woman yelled, “Oh my God, there really needs to be a license for parenting.” 

Josephs, whose previous works “The Manhattan Bible” (2002) and “Un-Lonely Planet” (2004) were produced at the 92nd Street Y and The Theater for the New City, respectively, decided to write about a world in which having a child required an exclusive license. Her first draft was, by her own admission, “pretty terrible” and far too steeped in science fiction, with robots, strange technology and futuristic lingo that distracted from her central premise. But she rewrote and revised, and soon she had a working draft.

Josephs approached Wyenn in 2012, after a dance performance at REDCAT, where Wyenn worked in the PR department. The two had known each other for a while, because Josephs was a frequent freelance dance writer for the Los Angeles Times. Josephs asked Wyenn if she knew any directors who might be interested in helming “The Interview.”

“As soon as I heard it, I said, ‘We as a society need to be talking about this,’ ” said Wyenn, who boldly suggested herself for the gig. Besides doing marketing and PR at both REDCAT and LACMA, Wyenn has also worked as an actor and director since graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2004.

The play is set largely in one room, a government office, in which a couple, Jenna (Jacqueline King) and Steven (Marshall McCabe), meet with government interviewer Veronica (Melissa Sullivan), who is to decide whether they should be granted the right to bear a child.

“The most universal stories are always the most personal, and Susan has created this three-character drama set in a larger world,” Wyenn said. “In this world, the government mandates how you have to parent.”

Neither Wyenn nor Josephs has children, though Wyenn said she “would like to have kids,” when the time is right, but both acknowledge how passionate people can get about child rearing. In Wyenn’s eyes, that passion can sometimes be troubling. She related a story one of the actors had told about friends who recently had a child after several failed attempts. “Their happiness rests on this child,” Wyenn said, adding, “and it’s dangerous.”

For Josephs, the play boils down to a meditation on free will and choice. “What happens when one set of rules or recommendations is imposed on an entire society?” she asked. In her fictional world, the government began with good intentions, hoping to eliminate child abuse, but ended up paving the road to a living hell. “How can these good intentions spiral into oppressive outcomes?” That’s what Josephs hopes the audience grapples with.

For her part, Wyenn said she has “loved” the process of putting the play together. “Last night was really surprising to me,” Wyenn said, “because for the first time I heard a line and I thought about my love life.”

And though the struggles of Steven and Jenna are fictional, both Wyenn and Josephs see echoes of their story in the world we live in today. Wyenn was careful to not make the staging too futuristic because she wanted people to see our own world in the alternate reality of “The Interview.”  

“We’ve left enough room for the audience to see themselves and imagine what the rest of the world might be like,” Wyenn said.

Josephs believes Steven and Jenna’s fight to have a child will resonate with audiences. “If you get to this interview in this world … you’re almost at the finish line,” Josephs said. But, as in our own increasingly competitive society, “Nothing is just going to get handed to you; everything must be fought for in some way.”

“The Interview” premieres Oct. 4 at  Studio/ Stage in Los Angeles and runs through Oct. 27. Studio/Stage is located at 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles.  For more information, visit www.theinterviewplay.com.

Architects ask: What might a Palestinian West Bank look like?


“Decolonizing Architecture,” an exhibition on view at REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, assumes that the current residents of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank will ultimately have to evacuate their homes. The three architects behind the show appear to have no doubt that those areas will be transferred to Palestinian control.

The question the architects attempt to probe in this compact and provocative display is simultaneously politically theoretical and architecturally concrete: What will happen to the houses left behind when Palestinians take over Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

A query inscribed on one of the walls is more blunt: “How to inhabit the house of your enemy?”

REDCAT’s gallery is currently configured as four rooms, and this exhibition, which has attracted 2,500 visitors since opening in early December, is the first presentation in the United States by the Bethlehem-based organization known as Decolonizing Architecture/Art Residency (DAAR). Established by architects Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman in 2007, DAAR brings artists and architects to Bethlehem and encourages them to examine — in a hyper-local and highly critical way — the built environment of the West Bank. The show at REDCAT uses the tools of architecture — including drawings, models, maps and video — to explain one view of the situation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank today.

After viewing the exhibition, Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of the Israel education organization StandWithUs, called it anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and accused the organizers of omitting important context, including the Jewish historical connection to the West Bank. “Israel’s presence in the region was described in ugly terms, without any mention of the terror attacks that necessitate Israel’s military oversight of the area,” Rothstein wrote in an e-mail.

Weizman is no stranger to controversy. The Israeli-born, London-based architect is best known for co-curating “A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture,” a show intended to be the official Israeli submission to the 2002 World Congress of Architecture but which was withdrawn at the last minute by the Israel Association of United Architects. The association’s president later called it “one-sided political propaganda” in The New York Times. (A version of the exhibit was mounted in New York and Berlin; the catalog was reprinted in 2003.)

By putting forward a vision of what might happen to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the REDCAT show harkens back to questions asked in advance of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005 — explicitly so. Visitors to “Decolonizing Architecture” are welcomed by an ominous two-minute video clip of one settler’s house being torn apart by a backhoe — one of the more than 1,000 residential buildings destroyed before the disengagement from the 22 Israeli settlements in Gaza was complete.

In the section titled “How to inhabit the house of your enemy?” the show looks past the currently stalled peace negotiations and offers a bricks-and-mortar vision for the evacuated settlements in the West Bank radically different from what happened in Gaza. “The guiding principle,” the architects write in the text that accompanies the exhibition, “is not to eliminate the power of the occupation’s built spaces, nor simply to reuse it in the way it was designed for, but to reorient its logic to other aims.”

The show presents the Israeli settlement of Psagot (population 1,600) as a test case for this kind of transformation. Founded in 1981, Psagot sits on a hilltop east of Ramallah (population 27,000) and south of the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh (population 38,000). First and foremost, the DAAR architects propose that the settlement — which today functions as a gated community for religious Jewish settlers separated from the Palestinian areas around it — be woven into the urban fabric of the Palestinian cities nearby.

“You see, it is suburban in relationship to Jerusalem,” Weizman says of Psagot, in a video on the “Decolonizing Architecture” Web site. The settlement is about 15 miles from Jerusalem, but sits practically adjacent to Al-Bireh and Ramallah. “It’s very close to the Palestinian urban fabric,” Weizman said, “so it’s urban in the context of Ramallah and Al-Bireh, and it’s suburban in the context of Jewish Jerusalem.”

What might actually come of Psagot in a negotiated peace deal for a two-state solution remains unclear, as is true of the entire West Bank. “If you try to make a line around Psagot as a settlement bloc, you’ve got some trouble,” Americans for Peace Now West Coast Regional Director David Pine, who also visited the show, said. “There’s no line that you can draw without cutting communities of Palestinians in half.”

“Decolonizing Architecture” doesn’t attempt to draw any such lines. Instead, it simply assumes that places like Psagot will one day be evacuated and transferred over to Palestinian control, and that the transfer will necessitate some architectural modifications to the houses left behind, if only to turn the settlers’ homes —highly visible representations of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — into something that could better serve Palestinian purposes. (One of the simplest changes they propose is the removal and reconfiguration of the pitched red-tile roofs typical of Israeli settlement residential architecture.)

To be sure, the DAAR architects aren’t the only ones proposing architectural visions for a future Palestinian state. Doug Suisman is a Santa Monica-based urban designer whose infrastructure plan called “The Arc” recently won the “2010 Future Project of the Year” at the World Architecture Festival. Developed over the last six years in partnership with the RAND Corp., Suisman’s plan calls for a mix of railroads, motorways and bus routes to connect the primary Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to one another.

“We assumed that there was a peace accord in place,” Suisman said. By this, he meant that an agreement about borders — including a solution for Jerusalem and for the West Bank settlements — had somehow been reached. “Huge assumption,” Suisman acknowledged.

In creating “The Arc” — an inherently hopeful, self-consciously apolitical vision of a future Palestinian state — Suisman avoided looking at Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “It’s an important question, but it’s not the most important question,” Suisman said.

By contrast, “Decolonizing Architecture,” which looks directly at the settlements, does not make the same assumption of a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, as the architects explain in the exhibition brochure, DAAR was launched as a way to entertain “the possibility of significant transformation” in the theoretical realm, despite its being “blocked by the political impasse known as the ‘peace process.’ ” Despite numerous attempts to reach them, none of the architects involved in the show responded to requests for comment.

“Decolonizing Architecture” is on view until Feb. 6 at REDCAT. Architect Alessandro Petti will participate in a panel discussion at the gallery on Wed., Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd Street, Los Angeles. 213-237-2800. redcat.org.

‘Tov’ Gallops Onto Stage in Blend of Jewish History, Tradition, Dance


Dancers simulating the behavior of horses gallop across the stage, stepping, prancing, tossing their heads as though shaking their manes.  Their performance is mixed with spoken text, music and vocals in “Tov,” a dramatic dance work by choreographer-director Rosanna Gamson linking her Jewish heritage with the attempted reviving of the extinct Tarpan horses by the Germans in the 1930s. The work has its world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall’s REDCAT through March 27.

Gamson was inspired to create this piece after seeing the CHOREA Theatre Association, a Polish company based in Lodz that was visiting Los Angeles, and being struck by each performer’s ability to sing, dance and act. She visited Poland last summer and spent three weeks training with CHOREA (the name is based on the Greek idea of “chorus”). Because
Gamson is half Polish, she asked her father about her relatives. He told her that family members had been horse traders for many generations.

“That surprised me, because horse traders didn’t seem very Jewish to me. But that was the family business, and Poland is a big horse culture,” Gamson said. “Then I came across the story of the Tarpan horses, and things started to stew around in my brain about the reconstruction of an Aryan race of horses. At the same time, I started looking at the underpinnings of eugenics and breeding and thinking about my own ancestors as a tribe, and then everything started stirring together, and it came out in this piece.”

From her research, Gamson learned that, leading up to World War II, German zoologists at the Munich Zoo believed they could re-create the Tarpan by selectively breeding for the most Tarpan-like characteristics in domestic horses, trying to bring this extinct strain back to life as an Aryan horse.

For Gamson, the crux of her work lies in the irony of the Nazis trying to resurrect a lost genetic line while trying to destroy the Jewish genetic line, but she doesn’t deal directly with the Holocaust. The title of the production, “Tov,” means “good” in Hebrew, and the director said she wants to focus on the good and to present images of beauty.

In that vein, the evening begins with the lighting of a candle and a depiction of the Shabbat blessing.

“I’m only trying to show tov, because the real tragedy is much stronger and more horrific than anything I could put on stage,” Gamson explained. “It’s going to be apparent, hopefully, because I’m making visual metaphors that you’re going to understand on some kind of gut level. You’re going to see the horses; you’re going to feel the menace in the air; and you’re going to have a response to things on a metaphoric level.”

The only actual reference to the Holocaust occurs when a graveyard is made on stage, where the performers lie down, their outlines drawn in salt.

“We’re basically koshering the stage. We’re trying to pull out the blood of violence,” Gamson said. She stressed that she’s alluding to genocide in general, through the example of what the Jews experienced.

“We make this graveyard, and then a horse comes and desecrates the graveyard. When you see a herd of horses charging around, they look so strong, and they make decisions as a herd. It’s a metaphor for a mob, or the idea that once you’re in a group of great power, you get carried away by that group.”

Emphasizing the universal meaning of her work is a multiracial, multiethnic cast, along with three performers brought over from CHOREA — two Polish, one Bulgarian — who will create music for the piece in the Slavic tradition. And, while most of the text is in English, the audience will also hear a little bit of Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish, with a great
deal of singing in Polish and Bulgarian.

Tomasz Rodowicz, CHOREA’s artistic director, was drawn to Gamson’s vision largely because, although he was raised as a Catholic in Poland, he is actually Jewish on his mother’s side. Rodowicz, 60, said one reason his family never told him about his roots is that during his childhood it was not easy for people to identify themselves as Jewish.

Rodowicz added that his father, who was not Jewish, spent four years in Auschwitz for being in the underground.

“He told me stories from before he was in the camp about what he saw of the Warsaw Ghetto, and then he told me of some of the terrible experiences in Auschwitz. It was very emotional when I talked of these things to Rosanna, but, when I was finished, she said that the work she wanted to do was not about these terrible events, with their pain and suffering. She wanted to create something about beauty and the need to find hope.”

There is another aspect to the story, according to Gamson. She has an ancestor named Nachum ish Gamzu, who was a rabbi and lived during the days of the Roman Empire.

“He was famous for saying, ‘Gamzu l’tovah,’ meaning, ‘Even this is for the good.’ He meant that God makes everything, thus everything is good, even though we don’t understand why, and, given the horrific events that have come to pass, this position, philosophically, becomes incredibly suspect. I’m not saying that he’s wrong or right. I am presenting [these questions]: ‘Is there good? Is there evil? Is everything good?’  I think I’m illustrating it by telling the story of the Jews and the Tarpans.”

And did the Nazis succeed in bringing the Tarpans back to life?

“Well, you can’t bring anything back from the dead,” said Gamson. “They bred horses that looked like the Tarpans, but, scientifically, they were not the original breed. The experiment was a failure. They were trying to resurrect one animal species while exterminating a whole group of people, and both experiments failed.”