There is nothing conventional about the Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat. He spent years training to be a classical music conductor, and then, after a stint in the military, abruptly tried dance. He was 23 and had never danced professionally, but with his natural talent for syncing movement with music, he was quickly accepted into the modern dance troupe, Liat Dror Nir Ben-Gal Company.
What’s more, his first major success for his own company, “Winter Voyage,” from 2004, featured a male duet that somehow transcended gender politics, a hackneyed theme of many same-sex works. And though he is Israeli, Gat avoids making political works, even while collaborating with Arab artists. And finally, despite having no formal ballet training, he has often set works on ballet companies.
Now, “Silent Ballet,” his new commission for the Lincoln Center Festival that has its premiere this week, is choreographed without music. Movement is the only score. The work features nine dancers pacing across a spare white stage, sometimes breaking into synchronized segments, often not, creating a visual poetry out of chaos and cohesion. Dances without music are not unheard of (see Doris Humphrey’s “Water Study” and Jerome Robbins’ “Moves”), but they are still rare, and a seemingly strange choice for a choreographer with such keen musical instincts.
In an interview from Istres, France, where his company is now based, Gat said the point of discarding music was to focus on dancing’s core elements: movement, space and timing. “I want [‘Silent Ballet’] to function in this empty space where it can develop with its own rules,” he said. “My basic motivation is very simple: to speak to the basic elements of dance.”
That is something that Gat, now 40, has been doing for years. When he staged “Winter Voyage” at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2006, critics swooned over its rigorous construction and devilishly precise execution. Those performances won him a prestigious “Bessie Award” and led to a string of bookings at high-profile venues like Sadler’s Wells in London and the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C.
“He seems to put his life into [his choreography],” said the Lincoln Center Festival’s director, Nigel Redden, who commissioned Gat after the success of “Voyage” in 2006. “He lives on the edge like so many Israelis do.”
Now he’s back at the Lincoln Center Festival with another new work that builds off “Winter Voyage.” Titled “Winter Variations,” it uses the same male duet format and the same dancers — Roy Assaf and Gat himself — but changes everything else. Instead of Shubert’s “Die Winterreise,” which provided the score for “Voyage,” the new work is set to music by Richard Strauss, the Egyptian oud player Riad al Sunbati and a remix of the Beatles’ “Day in the Life.” Still, the new piece evokes the same intense intimacy that made the earlier one so mesmerizing.
But don’t think that “Variations” just repeats an earlier theme. “Voyage,” Gat said, “was really just a starting point.” In part, the new piece explores a powerful relationship that has developed between Gat and Assaf over the last several years. In a separate interview conducted by e-mail, Assaf said that when he first met Gat during his last year of military service, “the connection was obvious and immediate.”
After Assaf’s service ended in 2004, he immediately joined Gat’s company and has been dancing with it ever since. When asked what was unique about Gat’s style, Assaf wrote: “The minute you see one [of his dances] you know without questioning. If I need to use one word to describe it, I would say ‘honesty.’”
Intensity might be another. Like Redden, Gat is quick to point out his connection with fellow Israeli choreographers: “Something in common is the intensity, which is clearly something Israeli,” he said. Yet as Gat gets comfortable in the south of France, there is a chance he might mellow. He left Israel in 2007 after a failed attempt to establish a dance school there, an experience that left him deeply frustrated. He recently told TimeOut London that “after a big investment of time, energy and money I realized it wasn’t going to happen the way I think it should, and not within the next 20 or 30 years.” He went on: “The core issue is that art and culture are a low priority in Israel right now.”
They are strong words, but not unique. Though Israeli choreographers have increasingly carved out international reputations, many have left the country. Major stars like Hofesh Shechter and Jasmin Vardimon are now based in England; Yuval Pick is in France; for Zvi Gotheiner and Roni Koresh, New York is home. The problem isn’t that there are too few dance companies and schools in Israel, but too many. Choreographers move to larger countries outside of Israel because there are more venues to perform, more exposure and more money. Gat put it bluntly: “There was more opportunity here.” His studio in Istres is much larger than the one he briefly set up in the Negev desert, and the three-year grant he received gives him more financial security, he said.
Though he acknowledges that moving to France has changed his work — “it really allowed me to grow” — he still sees himself as an Israeli choreographer. “I’m presented as an Israeli choreographer, I’m interviewed as an Israeli choreographer,” he said. And of course, most of his dancers are from Israel, as well as a steady amount of his funding. The Consulate General of Israel in New York, for instance, is providing some funding for Gat’s Lincoln Center Festival appearance.
When asked if moving his company outside of Israel might have a negative impact on the country’s dance scene, he said it would not. The international success of the country’s premier troupe, Batsheva Dance Company, has been “an amazing ambassador for Israeli dance,” he said. But he stopped short of saying that he himself was too. “I’m not so pretentious,” he said. “I would say my move has changed my work, not Israel’s.”
Emanuel Gat Dance performs “Winter Variations” and “Silent Ballet” at the Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street, on Tuesday, July 14, Thursday, July 16 and Friday, July 17 at 8 p.m. each night. $20. Visit www.lincolncenterfestival.org or call (212) 721-6500 for tickets.
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