at the Dance Center of Columbia College, March 9 and 10

Some dances are human, others suprahuman. Human dances are unmistakably enmeshed in social and cultural currents, explicitly testing the dancers’ and viewers’ shared world. The suprahuman ones explore the essential materials of dance–movement, space, time–for their own sake, and offer the dance to the viewer as an object of contemplation. Arie Bursztyn’s jagged, discordant solo A Tin Soldier on the Sea Shore of Jerusalem is painfully human; Sinapsa Dance Group’s fluid and harmonious The Heavy Birds’ Journey is coolly detached. These two very different works–presented on the same program as part of the Dance Center’s “Festival of Israeli Dance”–represent two of the most divergent impulses in dance today.

A Tin Soldier plays with paradox rather than conventional notions of dance composition and performance. The dance seems naked, vulnerable, and autobiographical, though Bursztyn, the lone performer, never speaks. The performance texts–a poem and an excerpt from an article on psychotherapy translated and included in the program–speak for him. Still images appear on a video screen suspended upstage right: crowd shots, TV static, disembodied close-ups of Bursztyn’s hands, his boot. The work juxtaposes a full-length, barely moving video image of Bursztyn with the real Bursztyn downstage; the two dancing images, slightly out of sync, prefigure and comment on each other. The screen blazes into color only near the end, at the performance’s darkest, most macabre moment.

Bursztyn is a creature of earth, grounded and dogged. He emphasizes the ordinariness of dance making by the way he first appears to the viewer: before eight o’clock, before the houselights dim, an undistinguished, skinny, long-haired guy in baggy work clothes sweeps the stage: it’s Bursztyn. He’s methodical, covering the ground in deliberate strips, just curious enough to glance at the audience from time to time. Then he places props–a worn black boot, a portable television, a robe–about the performance space.

The first sounds of the score–percussive, metallic, harmonious–signal a change: Bursztyn’s movement is simple, lyrical, spare, but no longer pedestrian. Lying on his back, he contracts his torso so strongly that it rises from the floor. Sitting straight-legged, he springs up and backward into a handstand, then slides his legs through his arms to resume his starting position. These two phrases return again and again throughout the four sections of A Tin Soldier. With each reiteration, the phrases alter–they’re performed with different timing, different accents, different facial expressions. Repetition renders this movement familiar, but shifts in emphasis allow it to evoke subtly different images each time.

In this first section, “Strong and Light,” Bursztyn covers great amounts of space not by walking but by moving from one seated position to another; he’s grounded both literally and figuratively. Conversely, his backward rolls cover very little ground. Changes in score and lighting suggest sections within each titled section: nonnarrative, nonliteral, nonliterary scenes peopled by characters suggested by the accompanying poem. Much of the movement for one character is playful, even childlike–seated spins, cartwheels and handstands, jogging backward. For another, a standing body shrinks into itself, withdraws from view. Another character carries and places a narrow canvas cot with all the reverence of a ritual married to belief. Another character lies on the cot, his torso contracted and arms waving as if weightless–the very image of a drowned man.

“A Woman Perhaps,” the second section, opens with Bursztyn seated on the cot. He removes his old-man undershirt, gazes at the audience, and visibly gulps; his shoulders hunch and twitch, every movement effortful. He balances, teeters, steps gingerly; his arms extend for balance, their line broken by a bent wrist. He spreads his hands over his genitals, then his body seems to melt, shrink, withdraw. Seated now, his movement suggests not a woman but a caricature of a woman: erotic, self-absorbed, slow moving. More than anything else in the performance, this image made me conscious that I was watching work from another culture, a culture where women are stoned for reading scripture and praying aloud at the country’s holiest shrine.

This movement incarnates a limited, limiting view of women, and later movement carries a stunning weight of self-hatred. It suggests a man caught and robbed of volition by a number of different forces. Repeatedly, one arm snaps up to salute while the other reaches out to the side to embrace; often one gesture thwarts the other. Bursztyn leans on the plain canvas cot, head hanging, spent; he lies down, legs spread and arms folded behind his head as if he expected to be searched or sodomized in his sleep. The portable television downstage arrests his attention (he seems oblivious to the large screen suspended nearby) while he dresses in a long beige robe and a single black boot.

The lights fade, and he’s illuminated only by the TV’s blue glare, which simultaneously distorts and reveals a face alternately threatening, frightened, manic, and inhuman. The props’ military overtones and Bursztyn’s inscrutable expressions combine to prepare the viewer for the last two sections’ embittered, equivocal approach to violence and conflict.

Bursztyn is capable of large, lyrical movement, and A Tin Soldier uses enough of it–especially huge, tensionless turning leaps–for the viewer to feel distortion of line and constrained energy quite keenly. In “Stained,” Bursztyn’s right arm whips behind him while the left slowly describes a line down his torso and tries in vain to still the other. With each repetition, his arm whips faster and hits harder, lifting him into a balance, impelling him in circles through the performance space, hurling him to the floor. The robe swirls around him, hampering, entangling, dancing a dance of its own, and ultimately engulfing him entirely. When he emerges, he is shrunken, twisted: arms bent, torso contracted, legs turned in. He gasps, retches, and doubles over. Bursztyn folds his hands on his knee and stares out at the audience. His gaze challenges us: Why do we watch his grueling struggle? Does violence stain spectator and perpetrator alike? To what extent does the silent, inactive individual participate in his country’s or culture’s wrongdoing?

Bursztyn answers these questions about complicity only by suggesting that violence begets more violence. For the last section, “Ha Ha Ha the Next War,” Bursztyn changes to red trousers and ties his hair in a clownish topknot. The movement is large and unrestrained: big running circles, fast rolls, goofy falls, airy leaps. His gaze suggests menace one moment, flirtation the next. With a single drumstick, he drums on the stage and on his body, amplifying and illustrating the driving pop score. The drumstick suggests many things: a cigarette, a bow across a violin, a conductor’s baton, a murderer’s or a mohel’s knife, a prop in a sword swallower’s act. Most chilling is the way the final movement image recalls the first: Bursztyn stomps a long downstage diagonal carrying the drumstick; it’s the same path, the same movement, the same rhythm he used to carry the TV. He’s presented all these characters–all these facets of himself–and the viewer has witnessed all this struggle, only to return to the beginning. The question that remains, and the question Bursztyn refuses to answer, is whether the psychic movement of A Tin Soldier on the Sea Shore of Jerusalem is a spiral, or just a horrid, vicious circle.

A dance as politically engaged as A Tin Soldier on the Sea Shore of Jerusalem is apt to overwhelm–or at least stir–the viewer. In comparison, Sinapsa Dance Group’s three-part The Heavy Birds’ Journey struck me as positively underwhelming. Heavy Birds should be seen alone: it is lengthy and deceptively simple. The first time I saw it, I simply couldn’t muster the concentration the work deserved; as my companion remarked, “I’m not sure what they were trying to tell me, but I know they told me four or five times.” The second time, the work struck me as a complex, carefully crafted, conventional dance made within the confines of a deliberately chosen movement vocabulary.

In the first and third parts, choreographed by Sinapsa member Smadar Imor, stepping and skipping predominate; the torso is quiet; the hands point or manipulate the performers’ skirts. The four dancers move without relating to one another; only occasionally do two perform the same phrase at the same time, and very rarely do they perform that phrase in close physical proximity. Canons are central: the viewer sees long phrases of movement pass from dancer to dancer, again and again. Solos pick up other dancers like a black sweater attracting cat hair; they dance a phrase or two and waft away. This focused, unified ensemble performs very little ensemble movement except in the second section, choreographed collectively. Here the dancers move together, slowly stepping in place and turning in circles, arms leisurely drifting from position to position; they emerge from the group one or two at a time, move off, and then return.

While the movement of The Heavy Birds’ Journey is easy and relaxed–well within the dancers’ natural range of motion–the pace is relentless, wearing. At the end of the performance, the dancers are spent. The viewer is too.