With the recent 'nudity scandal' fresh in the minds of Israel festival goers, we sat down with choreographer Amir Kolben of the Kolben Dance Company to discuss his new piece "Silence," which touches on nudity, as well as other pertinent political and personal issues.
What can you tell us about the "nudity scandal" surrounding this year's Israel festival?
The Israeli Culture Minister [Miri Regev] announced that she would not support nudity in productions, and would therefore reduce the funding that the ministry gives to the festival. It was her warning message to all of us Israeli choreographers, theater producers, and directors.
How did this issue come to the surface? And why now?
I honestly don’t even know how it happened. People make a huge effort to publicize these events, so when a person comes to these shows that contain nudity, they are not faced with anything unexpected. Why has it become an issue all of a sudden? That’s a different question because I don’t think it has anything to do with the practice of nudity on stage. Actually, it has everything to do with politics as a social issue. I do believe that people who don’t want to meet nudity on stage are allowed this right. We have to respect them by giving all the relevant information beforehand. This is our responsibility. It isn’t up to the minister to decided what content she supports and what she doesn’t. That’s another issue, it's a political issue that has to do with the general battle over which cultures should or shouldn’t be subsidized in Israel.
So let's talk about the nude scene in your piece...
We had a long conversation about whether or not I should take responsibility for the dancers' nudity. There's a potential nude scene in the middle of the piece, which I insisted on handing over to the public. They choose whether the dancers undress entirely or stay clothed. I felt that once you are confronted with having to make a choice whether you want something or not, you have to raise your hand and bring your own voice – accepting a social responsibility in a way. It also allows those who don't want to see nudity to confront themselves as to why.
Was this scene created to respond to the current conversation?
The truth is, we haven’t changed anything in "Silence" because of this scandal. I feel that the scandal has become an unintentional PR campaign for us since the piece deals with nudity as something that is always in our sphere as a silent issue. I feel my own silencing within myself when talking about nudity, but I silence myself with so many other issues as well that I don’t want the world to just focus on this one aspect in the dance world.
So where did you find your inspiration?
Well, as with any piece I create, I get inspired by things that I am personally involved in or moved by. It is rarely intellectual with me. "Silence" came from my growing awareness in the past few years of how many things I have silenced. We silence ourselves and others all the time. It is a widely spread phenomenon that we aren't even aware of in most cases; we just move on. We've learnt how to censor ourselves against what is inappropriate given the circumstance. No one shares everything, my G-d. We wouldn’t do anything but share if we opened up completely. My quest began when I started questioning those things we hesitate to share.
When I was 16 years old, I was coming back from my girlfriend's house on the bus and I was wearing shorts. All of a sudden, I felt someone touching my thigh tenderly...it was the older man sitting next to me. I felt paralyzed by it for a long time, I didn’t know what to say, I was very embarrassed for both me and him. He was much older than I was and I felt it was inappropriate to tell him how to behave. Years later, when the issue of sexual harassment became more vocal, I found I could identify with the stories others shared.
Is this the sort of disclosure we can expect on performance night?
There is only one scream in the entire piece, and in a way, it's more of an existential scream meant to set free all the things that we silence (the angers, frustrations, unspoken words). In trying to create a world where silence is present at all times, I have to make a lot of noise so that when the silence is there, it is impossible to ignore it. This piece is not just about being 'quiet,' it's about silence.
How would you distinguish 'quiet' from 'silence'?
'Silence' (or “HaShtikah” in Hebrew) is the act of not speaking...it's active. It’s not just some passive process of being quiet on the beach and enjoying a peaceful moment. 'Silence' is about doing something that prevents you from talking, from expressing your subjectivity and who you are.
Besides facing these 'silences,' how have you changed over the years as a dancer & person?
With a story, you cannot repeat the same narrative twice. In a way, you can never be the same person on a stretch of 40 years; all of yourselves are constantly being replaced. While I still try to connect personal issues with the way society looks on a broader level, I am getting smarter in terms of complexity – both in this world in general as well as in understanding myself.
Is there anything particularly extraordinary or complex in this new piece?
One of my proudest achievements in this piece relates to the first 17 minutes where hardly anything external happens. Relative to the way I experience the world, they are the slowest 17 minutes I have ever created. Even though there is a severe intensity in terms of what you see (not what you feel), the work is fittingly the most ‘silent’ piece I ever created.
So what's next?
To be quiet. I always need some sort of hibernation period. The company takes a break for a month, the Jerusalem Dance Academy [where I am the Dean] takes a break soon for a couple of months, and this is the time where I hibernate and consider my next project. I’ll be in China for a month teaching in a dance and theatre academy and I hope to have a good time with the students in Beijing. This is relaxation though, it is something I do for pleasure, not as a demanding project such as a premier.
What words of wisdom can you leave us with?
I always look for those words of wisdom for myself and I never find them. I make so many stupid mistakes as a choreographer so the only thing I can share in this case is: “don’t be afraid of your stupidity” and this is something that I keep challenging my dancers with because I think stupidity is a great source of wisdom. We hardly ever allow ourselves the right to be stupid. People look at you, laugh at you, and while you fear being called stupid, it's a great source of inspiration. Even in this piece, we balance these sections of silence with stupidities.