Liat Dror and Nir Ben Gal Company

at Northeastern Illinois University, March 4-6

Sometimes dance of a certain bright and cheery kind seems artificial and limited, almost sterile. “They’re so quiet,” I say to myself. “I can hear their feet. When are they going to start talking?” And sometimes, watching even the best theater, I find that I’m happy when they stop talking: in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone–where the talk was brilliant and fascinating–the music and dance interludes were like grace descending, as fresh as rainwater.

That sense of one form refreshing and invigorating another is what made Circles of Lust, performed by the Liat Dror and Nir Ben Gal Company, so effective. This group of eight dancers and two musicians–the first troupe to appear in a two-week “Festival of Israeli Dance”–brought theater, music, and dance together in the most natural way. Natural, but not easy or pleasant: this dance is at once exhilarating, horrible, and true. Though it’s not overtly political, it embraces conflict–without endorsing it–in a way that could perhaps come only from a country that lives with violent dissension every day.

Dror and Ben Gal, who are married, jointly choreographed Circles of Lust, which addresses the relations between men and women. The dancers are divided into four couples, two of whom are feuding and interrupt the dancing with their verbal and physical quarrels. The stage almost seems set up for a party, with a semicircle of ten folding stools covered in red velvet, a grand piano behind them, and a cart filled with glasses and bottles center stage rear. These glasses regularly get broken–first by “accident,” then on purpose; and finally the dancers systematically smash a whole tray of them to the floor.

The performers enter in ones or twos or threes until there are nine of them, each crossing the stage to sit on a stool and play a drum or tambourine (original music by Ori Vidislavski). The wave of percussion builds, powered and given a military flavor by a bass and snare drum, and then suddenly stops–but not completely. Pit-a-pats on several drums keep the buzz going, and the music builds again. A tall woman with spidery arms and legs (Naama Gafni) strides on in an impossibly short dress and starts to dance, her torso and arms forming sinuous S curves, her hips flipping her long legs out to the side: it looks like folk dance, improvised and sexy. (Gafni has a remarkable stage presence–she often seems lost and helpless in the midst of her own motions, but when she does focus on the audience her intensity makes you shudder.) The others gradually leave their seats to join in the dancing.

The crescendo and sudden near stop in the opening music are repeated in the dance’s structure: drama and movement alike heat up and cool down, over and over, as one section evolves into another, in one cycle after another. The floor patterns too ebb and flow as the dancers advance and recede from front to back, from side to side. They never leave the stage until the end, though they sometimes retreat to a corner or behind the piano.

The first time a couple start fighting it’s surprisingly upsetting and distracting. Still seated off to the side, she takes his face in her hands, and he jerks it away; they start arguing softly, then loudly, and shove each other into the midst of people dancing. On one level we know the scene is acted, yet this nugget of theater has an amazing power to create anxiety and draw our attention from the “pure” movement in which it’s embedded. It’s the most artificial moment in the piece, as if Dror and Ben Gal were setting up a tension between theatrical gesture and abstract dance so they could destroy it.

Later sections erase such distinctions. Four men, tossing a glass from one to another, play keep away from a woman. Two women perform a blatantly “sexy” dance while two men, mesmerized, eye them greedily (then the men and women reverse roles). Three couples slow dance in a deeply sexual embrace, partnering each other in a droopy slow motion: the men, their backs to us, pick up the women, who wrap their legs around the men’s thighs (later the women hold the men). A man tries to make up with a woman: both are seated and he leans toward her avidly while she pulls her head away, exposing her neck to him in a gesture at once inviting and cold.

In Circles of Lust hands are often instruments of war. One woman tries to manipulate her man using “loving,” motherly gestures, cupping his cheek in her palm, holding his face and talking into it. As you might expect, this enrages him. In the other feuding couple the man drives the woman crazy with big-brother physical teasing: pulling up her skirt, tickling her, mussing her hair, poking her, all the while keeping her at arm’s length. It sounds like it might be funny, but it’s not: under the veneer of loving or good humor it’s hostile as hell. An extended sequence of teasing–which exhausted both the man and woman and made me want to shout “Deck him!”–ends with the man repeatedly lifting the woman and throwing her to the ground.

And how does this sequence end? In an embrace–yes, an embrace, a tender moment when she wraps her legs around him and he holds her, both of them breathing heavily. It’s horrifying–he’s been abusing her–yet it feels true; not right, but true. Not long afterward a woman dances alone balancing a clear glass bowl on her head while her partner watches her, sometimes swaying along with her in the slow-motion underwater driftings necessary to keep the head steady and the bowl in place. After this couple’s bit of serene communion Gafni comes out, strips off her dress to reveal black bra and briefs, and performs the most obscene dance I’ve ever seen, with hip rolls, cancan steps, a high-class hooker strut–all the cliches of “sexy” dancing–while she holds the dress coyly in front of her and eyes the audience with overstated lasciviousness. It feels like an assault, but we don’t know who the victim is.

Alternating between frenetic, crazed sexiness, that dreamy slow-motion trance of connection, and cliches of what’s hot, Circles of Lust oozes the violence common between men and women, who might as well come from different planets. But if you’re straight it’s the only game in town, a fact that can make you grind your teeth and tear your hair. Near the end of Circles of Lust, when three couples start slow dancing again, twining arms and hands around the narrow, graspable parts of the other person’s body–the neck, the waist–all the while crunching broken glass underfoot, it’s impossible to deny the horrible attraction. And what happens if you do reject the other sex? Then you’re left alone, like one woman at the end, turning a glass ball like a head in her jittery hands, laughing to herself. Maybe it doesn’t break, but so what? What have you got? An intact object, when what you want is smashed glass and something intangible.