Bridging Borders: Nina Haft & Co. in the Middle East

By Claudia Bauer


Nina Haft visited the Middle East in 2007 to experience the culture and see firsthand how people there use dance to address the immense challenges in their lives, from restricted travel to conflicts that last for generations (In Dance, September 2009). Choreographing her latest work, SKIN: One Becomes Two, was Nina’s way of processing the experience and exploring “what happens when boundaries are crossed during times of love and conflict.” This May, she and dancers Lisa Bush, Becky Chun, Rebecca Johnson, Edmer Lazaro, Mo Miner and Frances Sedayao, accompanied by Frank Shawl, performed the piece at the Ramallah Dance Festival and at a refugee camp in Bethlehem, a dance school in Jerusalem and in Amman, Jordan. Claudia Bauer sat down with Nina and Rebecca before and after their trip.

Describe the piece and what you hope to achieve with it.

Nina Haft: The piece is about borders, like the border between this country and that country; we tend to think of them as real things, but they’re not. They’re agreements, they’re constructs. [In 2007] I had much freer access back and forth across that wall than any Israelis or any Palestinians. There were dancers that I met, probably living within 20 kilometers of each other, who had little or no understanding, or willingness to learn about each other’s dance forms.

So the wall [in the West Bank] is an emotional one as well.

NH: Emotional and physical, and it’s an economic barrier, it’s a political barrier.

Do you see this trip as bridging that somehow?

NH: I would like to think that this piece, by being witnessed on both sides of the wall, that simply by being present and being open, does something to change what is comfortable.

Rebecca Johnson: All the questions of race and culture and religion and space—we actually have similar things going on here. We just don’t have an official wall or barrier, but these imaginary boundaries are still all around us.

We grew up with the boundaries here, so we accept them as part of life.

NH: With this piece, SKIN, there’s something that felt very specific to that location because it’s hot, humid, and you could just feel the perspiration, like there was this physical boundary that separates me from you, but I let some people in that skin and I keep other people out.

RJ: It a sensory feeling. It’s like an animal response of, When in this piece am I allowing another dancer to really permeate this boundary and when am I shutting it off?

Rebecca, how do you feel about representing that message in this politically charged area?

RJ: It feels pretty intense. I’m probably more curious how people will respond to it there than I would think about here, where I tend to be thinking more about just doing the work. How does having a variety of different beliefs and ideas, cultures, religions, in such a small space impact the way people see art?

What are your hopes and expectations for the trip?

RJ: My only expectation of myself is to attempt to remain open-skinned, stay as open and present as possible.

NH: I’m hoping that people will be open to all kinds of artistic approaches, and to what we do as an expression of us as a community. That’s what I think a dance company is; that’s how I like to approach making art.

Many amazing things happened on the trip—dance, of course, but also shawarma, Turkish baths, new friendships, political awareness. The trip was also marked by tragedy: The day the group arrived, the festival chairman’s 14-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident.

So…how was the trip?

NH: Artistically and dance-wise, the tour was a tremendous success. We got to meet dance artists from all over the world, and what we had in common was that we all felt it was important to be in Ramallah. Because…this tragedy happened, on our first day we went to a funeral for a very young person. It sort of cut away any concerns any individual dancer or choreographer might have.

How did that affect your experience?

NH: It made me connect with grief and loss, and what that means to me. By the time we performed, I felt like the show that we did was part of an ongoing conversation with people about the dances we’d seen together, about what had been going on in Ramallah. We’d had time to make friends with the people who were running the festival, with the Algerian dancers, the Tunisian dancers, the Croatian dancers. And when we performed the piece, people really connected with it.

We performed it at a refugee camp in Bethlehem, and I said to the kids, “Modern dance is a lot like poetry. You can have your own story for what it means.” They did a piece about being refugees in tents, and then we performed. I said, “What did our piece remind you of?” And this boy raised his hand and said, “It reminded me of the wall and the occupation.”

They understood your message.

NH: I think they did. We did it the next day at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. I said, “I made this piece as a result of traveling here, and recognizing that I could move back and forth across this wall, but you can’t and they can’t, and this is not what it’s usually like for dancers; we’re usually able to share.” After the formal conversation, people came up to us and they all had things to say…they just didn’t want to talk about it out loud in front of each other.

RJ: There was a big pause and a moment of silence. I was wondering, Do we try to open that door? And it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. It didn’t have to be a big public discussion about “What does this mean?” The big conversation wasn’t necessary, but I think the small conversations were very important. And it was educational to learn that sometimes the dance is enough.

It sounds like art as a human experience instead of art as an intellectual exercise.

RJ: It made me see the work differently, that something is changing because it went back to where it was born. Not that I ever question the value of doing movement, but I came back understanding how important that is. I just feel like that’s where I want to go—more being present, less of “doing a show.”

NH: For me to bring this piece into a community of artists who are all highly sensitized to place, it read differently. It wasn’t just the Palestinians or the Israelis who were responding to it, it was the Norwegians and the Italians and the French and the Swiss. I never imagined that was possible. I sort of thought you had to be much higher-profile, much more funded, to be able to have that kind of conversation on an international scene. And it was a really good wake-up call that dance is a conversation you can have with anyone, at any time.

It sounds like you transcended the rules from here and from there.

NH: On this trip, dance and art were what I hoped they would be, which were ways for people to come together who didn’t speak the same language, weren’t from the same place, but maybe had a similar reason for coming together. That was so validating—I left feeling so lucky to be an artist, and I don’t always feel that way. Even being in a place that is under siege, so to speak, the way that artists are treated, with such respect and honor, was a real eye-opener.

RJ: Even when we didn’t share a language, we shared [a level of integrity] with the people there. It was such an honor to be a part of that. This is why art’s important and this is why we do it.

How has this experience changed the way you you’re looking at future work?

RJ: This opened my eyes both to the value of what we do, and also that there is no right answer about what art needs to be. If we approach it honestly, I think what we make will connect with people in some way. I’m not sure I was so clear about that before. But having all of these borders, boundaries, different countries, different languages going on, trying to communicate with each other—it was like, the dance will speak.

NH: The next phase of [this project] is a year from now; we’ll be performing at the San Francisco International Arts Festival with Leyya Tawil and dance artists from the Middle East, as well as possibly another Bay Area artist. And I’m already trying to figure out how we’re going to get back to the Middle East.

RJ: We’re on a permanent fund-raising mission!

NH: It feels like it’s the work that I want to be doing. Not just going other places, but finding ways to bring those people here. This idea that dance can be a uniquely powerful tool for diplomacy; in some ways, I think it’s new to the American sensibility. People [in the Middle East] really get that physical culture is a really, really potent way of shaping how people feel about themselves and others.

I think the way art gains meaning here is that people compete with each other to see who’s “doing it better.”

RJ: And it becomes about: Can I make money doing this, can I sell this, can this be famous, can this be important, can this have status? What I’ve taken away is that other places in the world, [dance] has its own status. It doesn’t need to be given a price tag.

NH: Both in Amman and in Ramallah, they have a sense of dance as a profession. The reason they’re making art, and the people they want to be affected by art, are the young leaders in their communities. So there isn’t that dichotomy, like if you were really good, you wouldn’t have to teach, you could just make dances, which is something that runs very strongly in this country. A lot of the reason why they bring [artists over there] is to enrich the lives of those young people, who are their next generation of leaders—they see that as absolutely essential, because dance is how their sense of identity stays alive.

Any final thoughts?

RJ: It was an honor to represent the Bay Area and to share what we’re doing. And while our work doesn’t represent all that goes on in modern dance here, it just felt very special to get to do that.

Look for performances of Nina Haft & Company’s Skin: One Becomes Two, at Bay Area venues this summer.

This article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of In Dance.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and