The Vertigo Dance Company performs "One. One & One" by Noa Wertheim and Rina Wertheim-Koren. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Down to Earth

Vertigo Dance Company's “One. One & One” in a space for the 21st Century

Performance
Vertigo Dance Company: “One. One & One”
Place
PS 21, Chatham, NY, July 28-29, 2022
Words
Karen Greenspan

The Vertigo Dance Company from Israel performed “One. One & One”─a work of incisive sensitivity and raw physicality at PS 21 (Performance Spaces for the 21st Century). Just a 3-hour drive north of New York City, the expansive conservancy with its singular, open-air pavilion theater is arguably the most perfect space to experience Vertigo’s earthy masterpiece. The 300-seat, open-air, state-of-the-art theater sits at the apex of a 100-acre preserve of apple orchards, meadows, and woodlands with trails. As the drama of sunset over New York’s verdant Hudson Valley played out in full view, the spectacle of Vertigo’s nine amazing dancers moving amid 280 kilos of earth filled the stage. There was no inside or outside.

This concept is the crux of the distinctive work by Noa Wertheim, the company’s artistic director and co-founder. How do we transcend the ego and access the interconnected state of no inside or outside─the merging of self with all others? This quest was brought into visceral expression through a powerful artistic synergy of sound, lighting, stage design, Wertheim’s affecting choreography, and the riveting, able-bodied Vertigo dancers.

The absorbing original score by Avi Belleli frames and heightens the experience from the moment the curtain opens onto a dancer pouring earth from a pail. As he carefully forms a defined row of earth along the front of the stage, he lays the ground for the metaphorical journey ahead. The earth provides a canvas on which the dance unfolds. It is the matrix from which tensions erupt, connections form, and final wholeness arises.

Vertigo Dance Company perform “One. One & One” by Noa Wertheim. Photograph by Steven Taylor courtesy of PS 21

The scenes proceed with the fluidity of a dream. A female dancer arches her body endlessly backward, reaches upward, and stretches in every way possible as if to expand beyond the limits of her skin. Standing at the ready, four men catch her as she repeatedly falls into their arms. And in one of the most striking images I have ever seen, they follow her along a diagonal path braiding her long, silky tresses into a single plait all the while braiding their positions behind her.

The hum of droning strings draws attention to an intimate duet for two women. They mirror and complement each other’s movements maintaining an activated six inches of personal space between themselves. Like courting birds, they bourrée on tiptoe back-to-back. Once separated, they quickly reconnect and resume their rapt pas de deux. The duet brings to mind Noa Wertheim’s query during the post-show Q & A, “Do we ever really see the other?”

Vertigo Dance Company perform “One. One & One” by Noa Wertheim. Photograph by Steven Taylor courtesy of PS 21

In a curious interaction, a man and a woman face off standing across the stage from each other slapping themselves and gesticulating insistently. On closer inspection, they are beckoning to each other, but the emotional overlay seems more of a dare than an invitation. The woman runs across, violently jumps into the man’s arms to connect, melts down to the floor, and rolls away only to repeat this desperate ritual with another who is signaling the same invitation. This startling interplay is repeated multiple times. Later reprised with greater urgency in a larger group, a row of men stands on one side of the stage opposite a row of women on the other side. They slap their bodies, run across, and hurl themselves into one another’s arms only to slip away and retry.

By now, two more parallel rows of earth have been laid down. But this neat delineation is short-lived as a cohort of dancers spreads out among the rows─slicing and slithering through it with circling steps, jumps, and descending spirals that roll and swivel over the floor. The dancers repeatedly slap themselves and jump off the floor as if trying to escape the confines of their body. And suddenly in a free-for-all, everyone is pouring out large buckets of the dark brown earth completely covering the stage, particles swirling in the air. The dancers tear through space in a total merging of bodies, sweat, earth, and motion.

Contagious rhythms and rousing melodies of celebratory Arabic music inspire a round of stomping and foot slapping dance patterns with yips and hollers as the dancers revel through the earth energetically crossing the stage─crawling, rolling, slithering, leaping, and jumping─all while kicking up and even juggling clouds of the stuff. At this point, a magical aspect of the dance reveals itself─the dancers’ movements leave visible patterns on the earth-covered floor like a cipher, a map, or a poem.

Vertigo Dance Company performs “One. One & One” by Noa Wertheim. Photograph by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Baryshnikov Arts Center

Receding to the sidelines, the dancers sit on two opposing sleek white benches (part of the stage design by Roy Vatury), from where they observe the action while not dancing. One man and woman remain under the ascendant glow of Dani Fishof’s finely tuned lighting design. Their bodies connect and reconnect─entwining one with the other in every conceivable way. Taking turns─each one tenderly lifts the other. Then, in a complete merging of bodies, they embrace and commence a sustained, trance-like spin─together as one. Counterbalanced in this spinning lift, the woman clings to her partner’s arms as her body and legs fly off the floor in a swirl of sublime union (and centrifugal force).

In the final tableau, all the dancers return to stand fixed in place as they float their arms out to the sides. Their graceful pumping motion to the dreamy music evokes the image of soaring birds. One male dancer rolls through the earth from dancer to dancer desperately trying to connect with each one─anyone. He finally remains huddled and sitting alone, in contrast to the others, who have found a path of transcendence.

Ultimately, Vertigo’s vision of “no inside or outside” extends beyond human interconnection to our relationship with the greater ecosystem. This too is part of the Vertigo quintessence. The company’s home base is an eco-art village located within Kibbutz Netiv Halamed-Heh between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The kibbutz, founded in 1949, was originally part of an Israeli socialist lifestyle movement─rural collectives based on the pooling of labor, childcare, dining, administration, and earnings. In 2007, the company’s co-founders (Werthiem and husband Adi Sha’al), along with much of their extended family moved to the kibbutz and persuaded the community to adopt their concept of an eco-art village─a model for sustainable living, social involvement, and creative arts. Today the Vertigo Eco-Art Village is noted for comprehensive dance activities for abled and disabled participants producing performances, workshops, and classes in schools. The village also serves as an eco-educational model with its sustainability features that include rainwater harvesting, natural building materials (like adobe), alternative energy, and food and organic waste composting.

Vertigo is completing its current North American tour, which included performances at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina. After heading home to initiate a new work, the company will return to New York City’s Baryshnikov Arts Center in January 2023 with Wertheim’s newest creation “Pardes.” The work, with its title meaning “A Garden of Trees,” was created during the Covid-19 lockdown and takes its inspiration from Jewish mysticism. That period during the pandemic, according to the company’s rehearsal director Rina Wertheim-Koren, was incredibly generative as Vertigo was possibly one of the only dance companies able to keep working because of its unique rural facility but without the usual pressures of touring. Already performed more than 70 times in Israel alone, “Pardes,” my intuition tells me, is another stirring encounter with the human experience.

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