Q&A: Netta Yerushalmy on Paramodernities

Michelle Sipes

Feb 04, 2019

Dancer and choreographer Netta Yerushalmy in a performance of her multi-part work Paramodernities, in which she deconstructs iconic dances by Balanchine, Fosse, and other artists

What went into Paramodernities, dance artist Netta Yerushalmy's ambitious deconstruction of some of the world's most iconic movement works? Michelle Sipes, a Graduate Assistant at the Wex and an MFA candidate in dance at Ohio State, spoke to Yerushalmy about inspiration, process, and intent.

Your project Paramodernities began in 2013 and has since expanded quite a bit. Can you speak to the project’s evolution?
It started as a one-off, an experiment, as a contribution to a festival and conference that was commemorating the centennial for the Rite of Spring and [Vaslav] Nijinsky and [Igor] Stravinsky. And this thing I had created along with a scholar for the conference was an experiment of sorts. I didn’t necessarily know—or want to know exactly—how it would land. Once I presented it again in New York after doing it in Berlin, I felt it had again this resonance, an unsettled resonance perhaps, like, what is this thing? And that continued to be interesting for me. So, the project evolved from that curiosity. First, what is this concept of taking recognizable movement and putting it alongside a scholar? And what does that do to the relationship between movement and language? And what is it doing to our dance archives? And so, I thought, OK, I’ll do more of these. 

I began to do a lot of research and talked to a lot of people in the [dance] field—scholars, presenters, dancers—to get a sense of if we have an obvious canon. If I asked people to identify the 10 most famous works, does everyone name the same 10? I just started from a pretend naïve place. I collected different threads and different senses of what the legacy was. I spent a lot of time in the Performing Arts Library in Lincoln Center just watching works and eventually landing on the works that made sense to me. As a way to narrow down the group—the excerpt of the [dance] canon—it seemed obvious to everybody that Martha [Graham] was on the list, but I thought to myself, OK, which of her works? And it was obvious to everyone that it would be Appalachian Spring ... or Chronicle. I had to watch them and decide which work was going to be the one I was going to focus on. That ended up having to do with my propensity and my delight in the movement that I saw. I had to be attracted to what I saw. But also, with [Alvin Ailey’s] Revelations, it actually wasn’t really a question. There was maybe a work or two of Ailey’s that I considered, but it was sort of obvious that it was Revelations. But there were also artists that I had to consider, for instance [José] Limón. I watched the works and something about it—the sentimentality—just didn’t appeal to me. So, I said, “Well, I just think I’m not going to do the [Doris] Humphrey-Weidman strand and I’ll look for other things instead".

It was a combination of scholarly research and asking around and wanting to have a broad sense from the field in general about what we considered to be our canon—and then it was also about, what did I fall in love with? I think [Bob] Fosse is not an obvious addition to the list. That was something that didn’t come from me; it came from someone who said, “What about this aspect of the field, like Broadway?” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know anything about it.” So, that was a conscious choice to expand for myself and to not go the obvious Taylor-Limón route as a way to expand conversations and ways [people] think about dancing. There was definitely an effort to look for female choreographers. And then to question the idea the West is the only way we have access to Modernity in dance. I wasn’t trying to rewrite the [dance] history I was trying to ask, what is it? Yes, we have Helen Tamaris, Anna Sokolow, and Katherine Dunham in there, but the question is, what remains from those [choreographers]? Are they still percolating in our dancing bodies today? 

Dancers perform in choreographer Netta Yerushalmy''s Paramodernities

What was the process like inside of rehearsals? How did the process change or vary between each installment? How did the movement actually come to life for you? 
The approach in terms of working from videos that are accessible to us, to everybody, online—that strand goes throughout the whole project. The basic assumption is that if we have been dancing and are all professionals in the field, and have been working at it for a long time and training for a long time; if we have seen these dances onstage; if we’ve seen a lot of dances; and if we’ve been to dance festivals, then we have some kind of access to [choreography by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Bob Fosse, George Balanchine, Vaslav Nijinksy] that is in some way embodied—even if we have never studied them or trained in these [dance] methods. There is sort of a slightly audacious thing where I can try to figure out what the Graham dancers are doing just because I’ve been a dancer for a long time. That’s how [each installment] started. The primary source is the video; it’s not an expert telling you if you are doing right or wrong. So, that’s sort of a political move away from the hierarchal structures of “yes” or “no,” “right” or “wrong.” It’s a little bit of a probe on how dancing gets transmitted. It’s not that I’m against that—I think we learn a lot from having frontal classes with the expert teachers showing us and them doing it “right". But there are also problems in doing that kind of practice.

The rehearsal process for all of the installments was the same insofar that every group of dancers for each installment studied the material as it is from a video of the original work online. And studied it in sequence. By the first month into the Ailey work, the people who were with me in the room, we knew how to dance each of the sequences just to the music. Not in the sense of the groupings; I never paid attention to that in all of these installments. I never asked people to learn where you went in space and who you went with, but that each person was in charge of learning the movement itself. I would just watch the guy with the yellow shirt and I would do everything that he did for the entire section, but I wouldn’t do lifts. I would mimic liftings and mimic holding a prop if I was in the Graham rehearsal. So, it wasn’t so much about choreography, but about the material. We would learn all of the material verbatim and with each installment there was a different method of disorganizing and reorganizing [the movement].

The installments all have ways in which I chopped movement into bits and I disrupted their sequences. For the Nijinsky, I re-sequenced things in a sort of chance way by ascribing movements to notations on Stravinsky’s score so every time there was a B-flat, I would do this jump, and every time there was a rest sign, I would do this step. 

The Graham installment [Night Journey] has an “attune-ness” to the fact that she was dealing with a narrative and with chronology. All of the movement progresses in the correct chronology, but it’s a four-part weave. I will do a movement from Graham and then I’ll do a movement from the Chorus, then I’ll do a movement from the Blind Seer, and then I’ll do a movement from Oedipus, and then I’ll do Graham’s next movement, and then I’ll do the Chorus’ next movement, etc. 


I was wondering how you were dealing with character inside Graham's Night Journey
Yeah. So, in the Graham installment there’s a constant shifting between genders that’s very clear. Because you’ll do a movement of hers [Graham], then a movement of his [Blind Seer], a movement of theirs [the Chorus], and then a movement of his [Oedipus], and so on. There is a sense of forwarding a narrative and in some way, it is completely disrupted. But it’s not something that the audience is supposed to be able to follow. It’s more that I wanted the methodology to have some kind of thoughtfulness around the original work. 

The Ailey movement is broken into slightly larger sequences that fit into a musical phrase to honor the relationship with the music and the cadence of it. It’s either a song from the gospel, or a line, like (singing), “I want to be ready ... I want to be reeaaaddyyyy!” So, what does the dancer do for that whole phrase? I cut things according to the adherence that the movement had to the music and to the lyrics. These sequences are eight counts, or 16 count sequences [of movement], then I completely jumbled them [in arrangement] as a kind of chance procedure. 

Working with the Cunningham works was different because I didn’t want to do a blatant [chance] thing, like tossing a coin to create a lot of this stuff. I’m going to use my will, my desire to decide what I want to go where. I also put filters on the movement so that we look at Cunningham [movement] being done in a very released, indirect, unsure-of-itself sort of a way. 

The focus is on the material and what the body did. Whether it’s the body’s facial expressions or pretending to hold a prop, but the prop is not there, and yet you still invest in the musculature that would be required to hold a prop—that zoomed-in focus on what those bodies were doing goes throughout the Paramodernities project. 

"I’m not delusional that the project can change the hierarchy between language and movement, but hopefully it can provide an even playing field for people to experience the two together. And to question that hierarchy."
Dancers perform in choreographer Netta Yerushalmy''s Paramodernities

I would love to know more about the creation of the scholarship written for this project and how the relationships were built between the scholars and you, and the movement. Was there a sort of collaboration that existed? What was the rehearsal process between the scholars and the dancers? 
In general, my aim was the reach out to people who don’t necessarily spend their time thinking about dance as a form of knowledge or as a form of study. But, I reached out to people that were able to and had desire to think about the body and think about dancing through their own research. Essentially, I sent them on their own and I said, “Here’s our primary text, it’s a video. This is the artist’s name. Go do your research.” And they know how to do research. As a historian, they’ll do some research and the artists will do some different kind of research to figure out what kind of juice they find in this figure. Then they’ll come back to me and say, “This is what I want to say.” There was some kind of direction on my part in terms of who I approached. I invited people from disciplines that would make sense to interact with the particular work at hand. But, I didn’t say, “This is my agenda. This is what I want you to say about Graham or Fosse.” It was more like, “What can you say? What would you like to say?” 

Then the back and forth started. The scholars would come with a big chunk of text and either most of it was kept and rearranged or it was thrown out and rewritten depending on what they discover in the rehearsal process. It’s also about them being in the room and us feeling together how much their body kind of belongs as a body in the work. In other words, what is the resonance of their physical presence? What’s that resonance in the room with the dancers and how might it be appropriate to incorporate that body among the other bodies? And to pull out different tensions that have to do with performance. On the drier side of the answer, the eye of the viewer can take in information but only so much. When there is a lot of text and a lot of movement happening at the same time what are the ways I can structure this or we can structure this together so you don’t have a didactic experience that’s like, she’s saying this and then they are showing it. I’m not trying to say that the scholars are telling you what the dancers are doing. It’s a much more complex relationship where the dancers are supplying a certain amount of research and its happening in their bodies and the scholars are doing a different kind of research and its happening through language and theses—and they have to coexist—they have to reflect back on one another, but it’s often not one-to-one. It really is not a documentary situation, it’s not like, and then this happened; look at this. 

I like creating things that are confusing and that sort of don’t land. I personally like to exist in worlds and artistic experiences that just leave me kind of completely unable to language my experience or whatever. So, I started off wanting to not organize it at all and just say like, “Screw it. The audience has to figure out how to reconcile the different information that is coming at the them.” But as I’ve worked on the project it became clear to me that I do have a responsibility to make some of this really land. I do want this to land in a way that is sometimes concrete; and is moving; and is an agenda moving forward. It’s a very different project from anything I’ve ever made.

How do you see Paramodernities impacting the dance field? How do you see the project growing the relationships between scholars and choreographers and dancers? 
What I want the project to do and what it has done already [is to open] doors for people to think about what we do, and to seriously include it in their frame of reference; their worlds of research; and definitely in their understandings of different kinds of knowledge. But we live in a culture that, you know, it’s just really hard to get people to think and pay attention to what bodies are doing in and of themselves. 

I think that for the dance community that’s already attuned to bodies and movement and that kind of knowledge, it definitely has something to offer. It has something to offer to a lot of different kinds of audiences. I’m not delusional that the project can change the hierarchy between language and movement, but hopefully it can provide an even playing field for people to experience the two together. And to question that hierarchy. There’s purposefully a lot of questions and they’re not meant to be resolved. They’re not meant for us to all agree on. Some of the questions exist just in the confusion of doing—all of us who have done a movement that we have learned from somebody else, I question how is this me and not me at the same time? How is this mine and not mine at the same time? 

It really has been an aim from the beginning to get academics who have different resources than [dance artists] do who have communities of other academics around them, and more institutional support than dance artists often do, to get them to look at what we are doing and to think through what we are doing; and to come see, think, and learn about dance. 

Are there any lingering thoughts you want to put out there? 
I’ve always said the project is really about conversation. Yes, we are offering a product and we are performing it for you, and it starts and it ends, but it really is about conversation and the participation of those who are there with us to challenge what we are doing; to say they disagree; and to talk to us afterwards about whatever it brought up for each person. 

All images courtesy of the artist.