Animal instincts and open-heart surgery: Lior Tavori in conversation

by Terence Kohler

Ahead of his new creation for the Autumn Matinees 2022, choreographer Lior Tavori spoke with Terence Kohler about his roots in Israeli Folk Dance, in bringing the animal kingdom to the studio and how physicality drives an honesty in the dancing body.

Terence Kohler (TK): Dance… Why dance?

Lior Tavori (LT): Dance is life. Dance has been my life since I was dancing at home as a four-year-old. My parents said, “You have to go and do something with it.” I cannot see myself without dance in this world. It is my way of expressing my thoughts and feelings; I need it like other people need oxygen. It’s a way of living and an amazing part of my identity, not just a profession.

TK: So how would you describe yourself?

LT: I don’t think I can call myself Lior without saying that I am a choreographer. By the time I was fourteen or fifteen, I was already making dances. Not as a professional, but I had the need to bring people to my house and tell them, “Let’s do this, let’s try that”. To put them in a space and see if a structure I had imagined could become reality. I remember a time when our teacher asked, “Who here wants to be a choreographer?”, and I was too shy to put up my hand. But inside I knew that I had to try this. After making my first dance, I felt so good – like being outside of myself. Then I knew that it’s something I have to do daily.

TK: Your roots are in folk dance. Can you explain what folk dance offered you in its formality and how it has influenced your practice?

LT: I trained as a folk dancer as a child. It means that I went to a community dance group and we learned a few basic steps. Many of my friends also participated in this, so apart from the dancing, it was a group to hang out with. When we became better, we started to perform in Israel and abroad. So, at the age of ten, eleven, twelve, I had the opportunity to go to incredible places like Japan. This gave me a lot, but it also meant that I had to figure some things out quite early on. Like: “Who is Lior in this group?” When I went on stage, I was representing not just myself, but also my country. Israel is not a nation with a long history and we are therefore still discovering our roots as Israelis. We have many different influences from all over the world, and I believe that it will take maybe another hundred years until we have a more solid understanding of who we are as a people. One of the things that surprises people about us is that we typically dance with bare feet. When we travelled abroad, we would be asked: “Why don’t you have your traditional shoes?” And we said: “It’s because when we got our land, this land of Israel, we wanted to feel it. The land gives us energy.”

One of the things that folk dance gave me as a young dancer was the experience of dancing in a couple. Always a boy and a girl. And also, the practice of dancing in a circle. In the circle, everyone is equal; there is no leader of the group. I feel that this represents the building of this nation and the necessary breaking down of boundaries of people who came from Yemen, from Yugoslavia or from the USA. Everyone has to be equal.

TK: I’m interested in your experience of the role of the individual within the group in folk dance.

LT: It’s a good question. When I was dancing in these groups, I didn’t feel like an individual very much. I felt there was one single truth… I’ll explain it this way: When you get into a folk dance group, you cannot ask questions. The “Dance of Jerusalem”, for example, has to be danced in a very specific way, like ‘we love Jerusalem and we hope for Jerusalem and Jerusalem is the best thing that ever happened to us’. Several years later, I started to think differently about the topics I was brought to deal with when I was a child. Israel, Jerusalem, the Palestinians… there are many problems that I now want to ask questions about. And it’s not just politics. Love, for example, only happens between a boy and a girl in folk dance. Because it’s traditional. When I got older, I also started asking questions about this. Is there an option to make a more contemporary folk dance and change this rule – and many other rules? Can I discuss Jerusalem? I’m really interested in untouchable subjects and want to propose different ways of thinking about them.

This also connects me to how I started working in the field of contemporary dance. At first, I felt that being a folk dancer is something you’re not allowed to say in contemporary dance. That there is a stigma around it. It took me a while to realise that folk dance gave me many tools that I want to use in the contemporary field. And I want to use them to address questions that we all share, everywhere in the world, not just in Israel. Questions about Israel, too, because my work is always connected to Israel in some way. There is so much inspiration… every time I meet new dancers in the studio and they get into the topic that I bring to the table, something new comes up. It’s very interesting.

TK: What are the topics that you bring into the process? Does it have to do with identity?

LT: I am interested in history, for example the Roman period or Ancient Greek statues, and I try to draw parallels from there to our reality. It’s like a dialogue between times.

Also, the word ‘survival’ is one I use a lot in Israel, because Israel is not a simple land to live in. Sometimes I describe it to my dancers as ‘survival mode’. The passion and the eagerness to work in the studio is not taken for granted. Two months ago, for example, we were rehearsing and there were missiles, so we went to the shelter and then came back and started to move again. I thought, ‘It’s like a war, but we’re still working’…. You drink coffee, you go to the shelter, you go back – it is our reality. This issue is at the centre of my latest creations. In recent years I have also been dealing with themes of gender fluidity; playing around with these ideas.

TK: How would you describe the physicality you are looking for?

LT: I have two different approaches: One is that I am looking for something that is very intense in the body. Like you are imagining that you are moving through honey and every movement takes effort. The other approach is less physical and more of a mental state. I am looking for passionate movement, for instincts that come from sexuality, from the world of animals. I might come into the studio and say, “Ok guys, we’re not in a dance studio, we’re in a zoo.” And then we start developing things. In terms of evolution, we are still mostly animal. When we are hungry, we must eat. Or bite. For me, the studio is a place of freedom where I can do things that I’m not allowed to do, or won’t do, outside. It’s an opportunity to deal with things that maybe you’re afraid to deal with in real life.

TK: What role does provocation play for you in the studio?

LT: Do you mean in the creative process?

TK: I’m thinking of a moment in rehearsal, where you walked up to a dancer and confronted them with a physical motion.

LT: Every creative process is totally different. In the first days I just learn about the people, their realities, their passions, their loves… and then slowly I dive into a world which has another layer of things that the dancers might share with me. And then I use these things to push them to a place that is interesting. We use writing tasks, for example, where dancers write down whatever comes into their mind for five minutes, and then I use these texts to create solos for them.

Or I might work with a dancer in the studio and ‘force’ her to do something, and afterwards she will dance differently. Because this meeting forced her muscles to work in a different way. Or her mind to work differently. Or, she is really pissed off at me, and when I leave her, she can express the movement with a different focus. It’s a bit like open-heart surgery.

Afterwards, I ask the dancers for feedback, how they felt in this moment. So it’s always a dialogue, a process of give-and-take. And it also allows other dancers in the group to share their own experiences and connect with what he or she said. This layer of speaking about the mental and physical experience is a very important part of the environment of making a new piece.

TK: You’re now three weeks into the process of creating a piece for these young dancers, who are straight out of school and have a very strong classical focus. And at this point in the creative process, it is really about getting them to be present as human beings. What is it about the Junior Company here that interests you?

LT: First of all, they are so young! It means they don’t come with a long history or an established creative process. They are making their first steps in building their identities as dancers. Now, at the end of the third week, I’ve seen a few of them really opening up. Yesterday we had a rehearsal and there were a couple of moments when I was actually in shock – in the first two days I couldn’t have imagined that we would get here. I think the tools we are developing together will bring them more curiosity and more richness in their movement.

TK: Can you already see where the piece is going?

LT: Yes. But… you know, the creative process is horrifying for me. It’s almost a nightmare. Sometimes you enter the studio and you don’t know what to do. You don’t even know how to speak. And then, suddenly, something appears in your mind… and you try it and you fall in love with it, but two days later you see it’s no good and you say, “Ok, let’s cut it.” For me, being in a creative process is like being in love, but at the same time being in the presence of the devil, who tells you, “It’s not good enough.” It can be really frightening.

TK: Can you tell me about your process of working with Itamar on the new music for the piece?

LT: Yes. Itamar Gross is the musician for this piece. I felt that I needed a soundtrack that combines aspects of folk with the tension of the contemporary dance field. I had previously worked with Itamar on some folk dance pieces, many years ago, so I asked him to make the music for this piece. It is not ready yet; it’s still in progress, but what is interesting about it is that some of the ‘folk layers’ in it received an added twist in the studio. Something suddenly appeared when I heard the music – a ‘folk flavour’, but with so many contemporary resonances.

Working with Itamar is interesting because there is give-and-take: He watches videos from our rehearsals, then sends me a new version of the music, then we talk about it, change it, try it differently. For me as a choreographer, working with original music is an opportunity to bring the movement and the atmosphere of the music together and to make it perfect – because the music is made to serve the dance!

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