Dancers Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor have been a couple for eleven years and working together for nine. Their works are marked by simple, striped-down stagings, more often then not free of costume and artifice, focusing on explorations of personal relationships and issues of identity.
Their latest show is an adaptation of an iconic Israeli work “Two Room Apartment,” which was first performed by Nir Ben Gal and Liat Dror in 1987. The show has received strong critical reviews in Israel and travels to New Jersey for performances on October 24 and 25, a single performance in New Mexico on October 29 and two more dates at the beginning of November in Atlanta.
Up until a year ago the reinterpretation of a dance work was unknown in the world of Israeli dance. For Sheinfeld and Laor the task was even more challenging since the original work is credited with changing the face of contemporary Israeli dance.
For some time Sheinfeld and Laor had wanted to perform a duet together with the intention of “confronting themselves onstage.” From the start of what became a year-long process, they grappled with infusing an old work with relevance for themselves and an audience and, not least, finding a personal approach to a work previously embodied by others.
“We wanted to make the work our own. We studied the material, watched the original performance on video and began working in the studio,” says Laor. “But, it didn’t happen for us. We struggled to find our own language. We realized that if we continue in this way we will not give the audience insight into who we are and how we behave,” he continues.
Sheinfeld elaborates: “We were in the studio all the time, just the two of us — one on one — working together, living together, it was quite intense. And then we just started reflecting on our process, communicating and changing things,” he explains.
The pair had already been given full permission by Dror and Ben Gal to do with the work as they would. Sheinfeld and Laor visited Dror and Ben Gal in their dance school, a kind of retreat, located in Mitzpe Ramon and took the unusual step of asking them to sign a contract. It wasn’t Sheinfeld and Laor’s intention to radically change the structure of the original work, but it would allow them to improvise freely and make significant changes where they saw fit.
And Sheinfeld and Laor’s “Two Room Apartment” is very much their own. Whilst not exploring traditional gender roles, vis-a-vis male and female, the audience is made privy to some of the in’s and out’s and up’s and down’s of the pair’s relationship.
The performance takes place in the round, with the audience surrounding the stage on all sides. Sheinfeld and Laor enter and mark out the space (the apartment) with masking tape, thereby separating themselves from the audience. A line is drawn down the middle, creating each other’s individual space.
Sheinfeld and Laor’s approach to performance and movement is strongly influenced by their backgrounds: Sheinfeld danced professionally for many years, while Laor studied theater and drama. This combination has led to a mix of various elements in their work.
The movement and gestures in “Two Room Apartment” are not supposed to be pretty or complex, rather minimal and well-defined.
“Dance has a tendency at times to present scenes that are very polished. We are not interested in seeing perfect figures. For us, people and their imperfections are more interesting,” says Sheinfeld.
In a show that varies in tempo Sheinfeld and Laor begin by marching around their own rooms to the sound of what could be military music, all the while executing a set of essentially male gestures — alternately rolling up their sleeves, flicking up their collars, readying themselves for action.
Initially both performers preserve their individual space, acknowledging the other, but not intruding. This soon gives way as the pair ventures into each other’s territory and begin engaging. Over the course of the show there are moments of intensity and frustration, but also of play, intimacy and humor.
In keeping with Sheinfeld and Laor’s preference for a naturalistic approach formalities are occasionally dispensed with: The pair verbalize if they feel so inclined, drink water if the need arises and towel themselves down. This is a Brechtian device, allowing the audience to briefly step outside the performance and see the performers as they really are.
The give and take between Sheinfeld and Laor and their differing physicality is emphasized in the show’s high point. Laor, a strong and imposing presence standing at well over six feet, undresses and insists on being held by his much smaller partner.
The image of Laor being comforted in the arms of Sheinfeld to the strains of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is an emotional moment and soon after Laor appears invigorated by his partner’s affection. He strides around the stage — now in boots and pants — primping and posing, reveling in his masculinity.
The preparation and performance of this work, its exploration of public and private space, has been rewarding and possibly cathartic for Sheinfeld and Laor. Original performer Liat Dror, who having witnessed the recreation, said to Laor, “you were more together and we were more alone.”