The Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat has a theory about artistic creativity. Basically, there are two types of artists: one has a fairly clear vision of the work he wants to create before he begins, while the other has no idea at all. Instead, this latter type only uncovers something that already existed; he is merely a midwife, or as Gat puts it, a sort of scientist discovering hidden laws of nature that have existed all along.
“It resembles a little bit the scientific process,” Gat said of his creative process, putting himself firmly in the latter camp. “You have some experiments you want to investigate, but you don’t know what the finished product will be. … I have no idea of the outcome before I create it,” he said, adding, “What happens at the end is you discover a choreographic structure rather than create one out of nothing.”
Gat’s latest discovery, if you will, is “Preludes and Fugues” and it will have its U.S. premiere at The Joyce Theater this week. Set to J.S. Bach’s keyboard composition “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” the evening-length piece is being staged by Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, a company that dates to the 19th century and counts George Balanchine and Antony Tudor as former choreographers.
“My focus has been to get young choreographers to work with the company and give them a full evening, not just little 20-minute pieces,” said Philippe Cohen, the company’s current director.
Cohen remembers the first time he saw a work by Gat; it was the choreographer’s version of “The Rite of Spring.” Immediately, Cohen felt he needed Gat to choreograph for him. “I was so impressed with how he took the music and with such sensitivity and control captured the spirit of the music with his own choreography,” Cohen said. When the opportunity arose to finance a piece four years ago, Cohen gave Gat the offer: “When you decide you want to do something,” Cohen told Gat, “I’m ready.”
“Preludes and Fugues” grew out of Gat’s longtime love for Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” In an interview from France, where Gat lives and has his own company, Emanuel Gat Dance, he said the music has been on his mind for at least two decades. “This music, all of Bach’s music, has been with me for a very long time; I’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity to use it.”
Gat, 42, has a close connection to music. He originally planned a career as a composer, eventually taking up dance at 23, when he earned a spot with an Israeli modern dance company. But while he carefully selects the music for his dances — sometimes writing his own, or even using no music at all — he does not try to illustrate the music with dance. He sees his dances instead as having complimentary abstract qualities with the music. Dance and music exist in tandem, but none of his steps are actually timed to the music.
“I never choreograph to the music,” he said, sounding like someone who has absorbed the lessons of Merce Cunningham. “I see the challenge in being able to have two separated autonomous entities that through their solid logic and clear character are able to converse and coexist in the same space and time frame.”
Gat’s affinity for abstraction fits well with his wariness with politics — a topic that inevitably comes up with Israeli artists. While he’s made a point to work with Arab dancers in the past, he says he keeps his political views sealed off from his choreography. When he creates dances, he is interested in art, and art alone. “I don’t make work that responds to anything beyond the studio,” he said, “at least not directly.”
Gat took the international dance world by storm almost a decade ago, seeming to come out of nowhere. He had been dancing with the Israeli company Liat Dror Nir Ben Gal Company since 1994, choreographing only a few pieces here and there. But as his stature grew in Israel, he founded his own company in 2004, taking on a sacred cow of 20th-century dance as one of his first major works: Stravinsky “The Rite of Spring,” originally choreographed by Nijinsky and presented by the Ballet Russes in 1913.
Gat’s version, full of intricate patterns and naturalistic gestures, wowed critics, leading to more than 300 performances in cities across the world. Within a few years, he was creating news works for the world’s premier dance venues — Sadler’s Wells in London, Lincoln Center in New York, and even staging a piece for the Paris Opera Ballet.
But Israel eventually proved too limiting. In 2008, he had tried to start a dance school there, but when government funding failed to come through — in Israel, artists often rely heavily on public financing — he became frustrated. “Art and culture are a low priority in Israel right now,” he told London’s TimeOut magazine a few years ago. But donors in France offered to support his company and a base for it in Istres, France, where Gat has lived with his Israeli wife and five children ever since.
Still, Gat identifies foremost as an Israeli. “It’s who I am,” he said. “It’s like an American in Germany or a German in France,” meaning that simply moving somewhere else does not erase your identity. But he does think his choreography has been affected by the move. “When you change something radically,” he said, “it gives you a wider perspective.”
One of his company dancers, Roy Assaf, for whom Gat has staged a wildly admire duet, with himself as Assaf’s partner, agreed that Gat’s work has evolved since the move. Yet while he spoke admiringly of Gat — meeting him “changed my whole point of view about what I wanted to do with my life” — Assaf believes Gat’s emigration was a loss for Israel.
“Yes, I do think it’s a loss,” Assaf said. “There are several aspects of what makes a place what it is. Art is one of them, [and] Emanuel’s activity is certainly one of those things that influence the place he works in.”
But Gat’s move has been a gain for dancers like Madeline Wong. A dancer for Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, she said working with Gat has been a boon. “A lot of the other choreographers [we’ve worked with] have ideas and are certain about what they want,” Wong said. But when Gat first came to Geneva to begin working on “Preludes and Fugues,” she explained, “he sat us down and said, ‘I’m not here to choreograph.’ He wanted us to put the piece together and he would just direct us.”
Yet as the piece evolved, he began to assert more control. He began tinkering, experimenting, Wong said. “It was really mathematical. … You really had to think about how you move this leg with this arm. It was very structured. He really does know what he wants to see.”
Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève performs Emanuel Gat’s “Preludes and Fugues” at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., through Sunday, March 4. Call (212) 242-0800 for tickets, $10 to $49.