Choreographer Sharon Eyal is celebrating her 20-year affair with the Batsheva Dance Company with a powerful new work inspired by video art and the digital world.
When asked if being beautiful helps her in life, dancer-choreographer Sharon Eyal, 38, balks. “I don’t feel all that beautiful,” says the former model. “Maybe I would say I feel that other things about me are more powerful than that.”
“Powerful” was the word critics used when describing her 2008 work “Makarova Kabisa.” Indeed, there is no doubt that Eyal’s stage persona, and certainly her choreographic style, are high volume and hard-hitting. “Bill,” her new work for the Batsheva Dance Company, which premiered earlier this month at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, is a natural continuation of “Makarova.”
Like her previous creations, “Bill” is characterized by a primal, wild, almost tribal atmosphere − and at the same time one that is also contemporary, like today’s club culture. This creation, Eyal explains, “seems to start with something pretty and sweet and inviting, and then it gets complex, both in physical and emotional terms. I also laugh at myself in this work, and I’m really pleased with that.”
There is something theatrical about “Bill,” which tells a story in contrast to your previous works.
Eyal: “Yes, I also feel that. I think there’s a story here, from the dramatic perspective. Actually, there are lots of stories, not just one, but they aren’t theatrical per se. I feel less of a connection to theater.
What were your inspirations for this work?
“I’m a great fan of video art, especially that of Bill Viola. In general I really love the three-dimensionality and that digital feeling − the form that video embodies. And when you try to transfer this to living flesh, it’s very interesting ...
“Another source of my inspiration is Spanish artist Santiago Sierra. He’s amazing. He doesn’t have a studio − he comes to places and creates there. He is also political. For example, he took a homeless person, put him in a box in a museum, gave him food and drink − and that was the exhibition. On another occasion he took a group of people who were having sex on rugs, installed mirrors and created a kind of series of white men with white men, black men with black men, black women with black men, and so on [on video and in photographs]. I got to know him through a good friend, who was also an inspiration for this work: [multidisciplinary artist] Michal Helfman. These are things that give my mind a little ‘twist.’”
Eyal worked on “Bill” for three months, albeit not continuously, with 21 Batsheva dancers. At the beginning of April, about half the troupe’s members set out for a tour in Japan, which was extended unexpectedly by the eruption of the volcano in Iceland; after several days’ delay, the dancers returned home via a circuitous route.
“This work isn’t particularly connected to the time I started it,” Eyal explains, “but there is something continuous about it, some sort of process I’m going through. When I started, I was thinking about several short vignettes, like short stories, and somehow during the course of the work I felt it was right to do a ‘journey piece’ − with the element of landscape as the most powerful thing about it. But it also has dominant situations that undergo changes, as if by a kind of manipulation.”
Sharon Eyal was born in Jerusalem in 1971 and started dancing when she was 4, “in one of those rhythmics classes for children.” At the age of 11, she was accepted to the Hora Efrochim children’s folk-dance troupe, then under the direction of the late Bracha Dudai. She attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance until the end of 10th grade, whereupon she left the regular education system and devoted herself to studying at the Bat-Dor studio in Tel Aviv. At that time she also started modelling (for example, in ads for Neshikolada chocolate and Cider Hagalil) and acquired a reputation as a glamour girl. The local weeklies quickly anointed her the queen of nightlife. When she cut off her tresses, they were eulogized in a column in a Tel Aviv weekly. Eyal refuses to speak about this period, or about her personal life in general, in the few interviews she gives to the media.
Eyal’s romance with Batsheva began exactly 20 years ago, when Shelley Sheer and David Dvir, the troupe’s previous directors, spied her during a lesson at Bat-Dor. A few weeks later Ohad Naharin was appointed artistic director and the rest is Batsheva history: Eyal would scream backstage to release tension, he was smitten by the charms of this antithesis of the fragile, precise ballerina − and the two became a professional duo, identified with each other like Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and dancer Ana Laguna, or Jiri Kylian and Sabine Kupferberg of the Netherlands Dance Theater.
“Sharon is one of the most unique women, dancers and artists I have ever worked with,” says Naharin today. “Watching her for over 20 years, both as a dancer and as a choreographer, I always liked and was inspired by how she connects and fuses together her thoughts, fantasies, skills, views, sexuality, madness and love of dance.
While choreographers have found a muse in her, dancers who worked alongside Eyal speak of her wonderful sense of timing and extraordinary aptitude for improvisation. Dancer-actor Yehezkel Lazarov told the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir at the end of the 1990s how, during a duet in “Anaphase” with Eyal, she would tear his hat off spontaneously − and sometimes his pants.
Eyal, who started creating solo pieces for herself back in high school, developed as a choreographer within Batsheva: first in the Batsheva Dancers Create project, then for the Ensemble (the young dance troupe) and finally for the adult troupe. Her first work for the whole company, “Bertolina” (2005), had its world premiere at the prestigious Montpellier Festival.
Today she lives in Tel Aviv with her two children − Noa, 8, and Charlie, 16 months, and her life companion and creative partner of the past five years, Guy Bachar, a musician and organizer of underground arts events. She gave birth to Charlie in Norway during the course of creating “Killer Pig” for the Carte Blanche dance company, and will be returning there to create another work in the coming months. In 2011 her piece for the Hubbard Street Dance troupe will premiere in Chicago, sharing the stage with a new piece by Naharin, as will another work she has been commissioned to do for the Oldenburg dance company in Germany.
The local arts establishment’s recognition of Eyal’s abilities was relatively fast in coming: She won the 2004 Education, Culture and Sports Minister’s prize for young creative dance talents, has been a “chosen artist” of the Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation since 2008, and was awarded the Mifal Hapayis Landau Prize last year. Eyal says she is totally loyal to the artistic team that accompanies her − Bachar, “the amazing” DJ Ori Lichtik and set designer Avi-Yona Bueno, aka Bambi (“He can feel me from his soul”) − about which she says: “This is a team I sign my name to − it is organic as far as I’m concerned.”
Eyal left Batsheva in 1998, after returning from a sabbatical, and went to Europe where, inter alia, she participated in a project of Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen. After a year and a half abroad, however, she returned to the company, which since then has been her permanent home. In 2003 after Naharin resigned, she was appointed artistic co-director of Batsheva, together with with Japanese choreographer Yoshifumi Inao. A year and a half later, Naharin returned as artistic director and in 2005 appointed Eyal as the company’s house choreographer.
Eyal’s major strength as a choreographer lies in ensemble work, but dancers who have performed her solo dances tell of an exciting experience with a warm, generous woman who creates from the gut.
How would you sum up your first 20 years at Batsheva?
“First 20 years, hmmmm,” she smiles. “I think it’s a pity to sum up. I would say mainly that it’s been really good. I have my place, the freedom to create. Beyond that, I’m a sworn fan of Gaga [the special movement language Naharin created]; I was lucky to be there from the beginning of this process. To my mind Gaga is one of the most wonderful things in the world; inspirational material for my works. As far as I am concerned it is the realization of personal potential. That’s the beauty of it − that you succeed through it in refining something in yourself.”
To what extent do you use Gaga in your work?
“It’s hard to say. It’s as though you’d asked how much of this or that I spread on my bread. Gaga is very strong with me ... but I have been influenced by many things, collectively.”
Do you still watch video clips of Natalia Makarova, the prima ballerina whom you said you admired and who inspired your 2008 work?
“Not so often. As a girl I was a sworn fan of hers. I would watch tapes of hers all the time. Yes, I admired her. Today I see [her dance] and admire it very much, but I immediately want to do something else. I adore it, it’s classic, it’s like hearing good music.”
Of her own work, Eyal says: “I have these contradictions − there’s a place within me from which I feel I only create, and yet a moment later, I turn into some kind of wild animal.”
As for working with Naharin: “The language we use is free. I consult with him and he with me. There was a period when I designed the clothes for his works. It’s a very open [communication] channel.”
Dancers in the troupe relate that Eyal has total artistic freedom and that Naharin usually only comes to see her creations for the first time at the premiere.
“That’s true,” she says. “I share my ideas with him, but I feel I am totally trusted. I think I wouldn’t be able to work any other way, because of the wildness in my mind. And it’s amazing, this freedom. They just say to me, ‘Go ahead with this and everything you want.’ The dancers, too. Sometimes I have hallucinatory ideas, God help us! I’m in favor of trying everything, always, every option, anything from which something could happen. I can come in after I’ve had a dream and tell the dancers: Listen, I want you to fly.”
A trend has developed in recent years whereby choreographers sometimes allow their dancers to take part in the creative process, and sometimes even credit them as “dancer-creators.” Eyal makes up all the movements herself, whereupon she goes into the studio with her ideas and transmits them to others. That, she believes, is where the real freedom lies for a dancer or choreographer who seeks his own personal meaning or interpretation of a piece.
Eyal: “The way I work is to ‘build’ the materials onto the dancers. That is, the materials come from me, but also make use of the qualities of the dancer alongside me. I think the moment he gets it, he has the freedom to create lots of worlds of his own. I think that in ‘Bill,’ there are small moments that are kind of the dancers’ ideas, more so than in other works of mine.”
Eyal has an exclusive arrangement to create works for Batsheva: “In Israel I don’t create for other companies. It’s always possible to discuss it, if there is something out of the ordinary that I want to do, but as a rule I am the house choreographer for Batsheva. It was important to me to have the freedom to create abroad, because I want to develop and grow, and part of my creativity and what I believe in is change. I think that in other countries there’s a different air, other people, different energies. As creators, it is our experiences that influence us more strongly than anything else.”
Do you feel you are working too much? Too little? Do you also create things and store them away for later?
“I want to create more, to dance more, to be a mother more, to be a life partner more − everything, a lot more. But I’m creating all the time.”
How do you feel about the fact that your works are performed in Israel less than Naharin’s?
“I don’t want to compare myself to Ohad. Ohad is Ohad; the comparison is superfluous. I would of course be glad if there were a great many ‘Makarova Kabisas’ and ‘Bertolinas’ − that’s obvious.”
Did the experience of being artistic director leave you with a taste for more?
“I wasn’t really the artistic director − it was tangential to that.”
Do you see yourself founding a company of your own in the future?
“It’s crossed my mind, obviously. I’m not living within a ‘shanti’ mindset; I do things to get ahead. But things will happen in their own time, and this isn’t occupying me at the moment.”
You once said you wouldn’t get along with a dancer like yourself. What did you mean?
“You should ask Ohad. I think I was very difficult. There was a period when I was very young and very wild. During the past 10 years, it hasn’t been like that. As a mature dancer it has been completely different. When you do choreography and you understand what it is to face people, it gives you a different perspective.”
What do remember about your first days in Batsheva?
“I remember that Ohad came and we did ‘Wall.’ I had a solo there called ‘Happiness’ and I was embarrassed to do it in front of people and he asked everyone to leave so I could do it.”
And today, do you still get embarrassed?
“Less and less.”
With “Bill,” for the first time in her career at Batsheva, Eyal is not dancing in one of her own creations (“At the moment, not,” she says in her mysterious and noncommittal way, “but maybe I’ll surprise people”). She hasn’t danced in the company for two years now. In fact, she was not slated to perform in “Makarova Kabisa” either, but stepped in during rehearsals, when one of the dancers was injured.
“I don’t feel as if I am in a transition,” she explains. “It’s the same: I feel choreography is dance. True, at the moment I’m not performing physically, but I am dancing all day long. And, yes, I have a more focused ‘take’ on choreography. The process is becoming better and better.”
There are many choreographers who find it hard to dance in their own works because it’s too personal and exposes them too much.
“I enjoy it, it is the most fun in the world. It’s like putting on your bedroom slippers, feeling comfortable. The audience sees who I am most strongly when it sees my work − it doesn’t make much difference whether I dance or not.”
So your personal life gets translated into your choreography?
“It is an entire complex of things that I’ve experienced, my feelings, what I see now and will see.”
What in your opinion is needed to be a good dancer?
“Being a good dancer is something chemical. It’s something you feel about a person, his totality, even if he isn’t absolutely the most talented. Beyond that there are the usual things: being musical, having coordination. These are very important, but there are non-musical dancers who are marvelous. What’s most important is the totality.”
You are a woman in a predominantly male artistic field. In your opinion, why is choreography like that?
“I ask myself the same question. It’s interesting. Maybe to be a choreographer, you need balls. It’s terribly hard work. I don’t have an answer. I’ll think about it.”
Do you go to dance performances?
“Seldom. I have to admit that if there’s a good film or music I really love, I’ll go to that first. I love dance, I love movement, I love the body, I love the vitality of it, but it isn’t always tangible enough for me. I love to think, and for things to stir something in my heart.”
What is your biggest professional dream?
“I have tons of dreams, but what I really want to do is film. I admire Tim Burton, Lars von Trier, who to my mind is totally a choreographer, the Coen brothers, all the greats.”
Is there a moment in dance history that you would have liked to experience?
“I would have been glad to have seen Balanchine − he caused such a revolution.”
Do you have anxieties connected to age and your body? Are there things you can’t do as you did in the past?
“It seems my body is only getting better. Both my body and my mind. I know, and I can do, a lot more now.”
Next year you are scheduled to travel to Norway, Germany and the United States. How does one combine an international career with two children?
“First of all I haven’t yet mentioned the most important thing in my life, my partner, without whom I couldn’t be doing what I am doing. I could cry when I talk about him; I am crazy about him. It’s very much thanks to him that I manage to combine things, because we do everything together. He’s truly a partner in my creative work. I listen to him; I’m glad there’s someone I can also share the difficulty with. Take the poster for the performance [“Bill”]: It’s his idea. The costumes are his idea, we work together totally and it helps me a lot. It takes a heavy responsibility off me. We are together. On the family front it is an amazing boon that we are together. He also has a mother who helps us a lot, and my parents do as well.”
Would you want your children to become dancers?
“I want my children to be whatever they want to be.”
Can you tell me how you met Guy?
“I prefer not to.”
Why this reluctance to talk about your personal life?
“Because I love my privacy, the intimacy of my home and my family. This is important to me. I’m not interested in reading about people and their lives; I’m interested in what they do and what they create. I feel that no one really needs to know what happens in my personal life. It’s very private and intimate.”