Yossi Berg & Oded Graf Dance Theatre: Come Jump with Me

I apologize to everyone between Emory and my place in Virginia Highland: I should not have driven home right away after the performance that I attended tonight at the Schwartz Center Dance Studio that was part of the Exposed festival of dance and theater from Israel. I was stifling sobs by the end of “Come Jump With Me” by Yossi Berg & Oded Graf Dance Theatre, I was so moved by this duo’s work, performed by Yossi Berg and Olivia Court Mesa, about the social and emotional pains of life in Israel. I broke out in tears again on the brief drive home and am shaken to the point that all I can do is sit down and write about my experience. My apologies to my future self for not being able to go into more detail about the piece, but hopefully I’ll have enough to remember what touched me most.

The performance was on a stage that was demarcated by thick, white gaffer tape. The shape was like the outline of four intersecting squares of varying sizes with the inside lines erased. The left side was slightly smaller than the right but of the same shape. Where the lines went towards the back, black boarding was raised and the lines made out peaks, like a child’s sketch of mountain tops.

The piece began with the two sitting upstage in chairs, angled about 45° toward center stage, lit by side lighting from the floor slightly downstage of them. They were talking, repeating the same things over and over: the words that are heard and the responses made so often that they have little meaning but as a frame for a life. Their alternating phrases almost seemed to be in response to each other, but they weren’t. Physically, they were talking past each other but, between them, their shadows were facing each other, as though chatting with each other. In their hands they held out coiled jump-ropes, the shadows of which looked like long fingers reaching from their hands towards the other person. They repeated their phrases in different tones, ranging from friendly idle conversation to frustration to anger.

They then got up and began to jump-rope. With a fast pace and in perfect synchronization, they skipped as they repeated their lines, filling them out here and there to tell a story of stress and fear and expressions of hope that may not sound so much sincere as desperate. They skipped rope like it was a children’s game while they sounded like they might be suppressing a nervous breakdown.

The rest of the work had this tone: the implication of playfulness while fragments of thoughts were expressed that painted a picture of people pushed to their limits. At one point, they broke and used color tape to flesh out their borders. One used blue along one border and used more white tape to label it “SEA.” The other used yellow and orange to frame a sunrise over the “mountains” in the back, above which she had spelled out “SKY.” A golden, foil balloon was taped up with amber lights on it that they celebrated as the sun being up. This made the borders of their performance seem like cheesy, artificial symbols: like something a child might draw. This made it all the more poignant as, during some parts of the work, they seemed hemmed in by these borders. Towards the end, they flung themselves toward them, as though they’d love to leave but were constrained by imaginary lines that someone drew — no more physically real than Les Nessman’s office door but with a social and political reality that could be the death of them.

In one segment, Berg recounts the pieces he’s danced in in which he danced the role of a soldier. He states a couple of times in the work that he took the gay exemption from service in the IDF. Even in art and fantasy, though, he cannot escape the militarism of life as an Israeli citizen. Between recollections, he is pestered with questions from Court Mesa about who he is, sometimes seeming, perhaps, to exoticize him and others seeming to imply an attempt to confirm certain assumptions. The two begin to play what looks like a very violent game of dodge-ball with folks outside of the borders of their staging area, taking their hits and dealing them back out again with manic looks on their faces.

Later, Court Mesa plays an immigrant who has converted to Judaism and loves Israel. She tells her story and then goes into mad displays of erotic affection for Israel, shoving as many heart-shaped lollipops as she can fit into her mouth. She puts on blinders with little heart-shaped lollipops stuck to the front as Berg is drawn like a moth to a light bulb that is hanging in the center of stage. He then enacts, even more frenetically, all the stressed out madness that the duo had gone through before. He goes to war, he slings Court Mesa around, all the while she is oblivious. He pulls up the tape by rolling along the front border and wrapping the tape around himself. He rolls around the lollipops and looks like he’s bandaged and bleeding. He comes out into the audience, as though looking for threats. Finally Court Mesa removes her blinders and the piece crescendos into madness, with the two trying to sit down and talk and then frantically moving about, swinging and hiding under their chairs. Between shouts of “Go!” they cycle between all of the expressive parts of the show, frantically, never able to stop and rest and process what they are doing or feeling. They sit, exhausted, singing along to a pop song about the tears that keep coming. Finally they make their way to the sea and, with looks of fear and earnestness on their faces, try to paddle away from everything.

Throughout everything, the music was all over the place, with popular music, dance music, Shostakovich’s waltz no. 2, Ravel’s Bolero, and a baroque violin concerto that may have been Vivaldi, though I was, for once, far too caught up in the dance piece to notice the music as much as I normally do. The sound design had some moments of brilliance, like when a small phrase from Ravel’s Bolero was looped into an electronic work, but for the most part it was a pretty straightforward compliment to the choreography and book.

It was a somewhat jarring and disjointed piece but my writeup is much more disjointed and out of order than the work was. Needless to say, it was pretty intense. I’d love to clean this up but I’ve had to pause several times from the emotional intensity that still grips me and I think that I need to just get this out there so that I can just take some time to stop and process the feelings rather than the imagery that caused them. It is truly worth living to be so moved by a work of art.

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