From Israeli Folk Dances to The Hoedown Throwdown: Hadar Ahuvia & Site-Specific Appropriation of Bodies in Placeholder

    Hadar Ahuvia is not only one of three guest dancers who is performing on campus for Harper Joy’s 2019 Spring Studio Series, but also a Whitman College O’Donnell Visiting Educator, choreographing for HJT’s upcoming dance production PLACEHOLDER.  During her time here, Hadar lectured on the dance movements of Israeli folk music as it pertains to the appropriation of Israeli cultures in her artist talk “Choreography, Appropriation, and Authenticity: ‘Orientalizing’ Ashkenazi Jewish Bodies in Early Israeli Folk Dance” and in her visit to Professor Semerdjian’s course HIST-322-A: History of Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. She additionally educated the Whitman and Walla Walla community on dance-making during two public workshops: one titled “The Body is Language: Dance and Text,” and another in more specific correlation with her current work titled “Deconstructed Israeli Folk Dance.”
     Hadar Ahuvia was born in Argentina and raised in the US and Israel/Palestine. She currently lives in Brooklyn where she teaches and organizes with a progressive Jewish community and brings her diasporic Israeli identity to the forefront of her contemporary dance performances. Her work reimagines secular Israeli folk and Jewish liturgical material to envision and embody a just future for Israel/Palestine, and as such is an homage to and a break from a lineage of Zionist cultural workers. In the transcribed interview below, Ahuvia speaks more directly about where she started out when she made her work, and the trajectory her new work may take with new conversations about movement as she works with new dancers in new contexts.
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What were you concerned with when you first started your work? How or why have your concerns changed as you developed as a maker?
HADAR AHUVIA. When I moved into the city and continued making work from school … I was interested in making work that wasn’t just work for movement’s sake. I was interested in work that had some urgency to it—you know some like political urgency to it—and that meant what movement was necessary and what material was necessary to put on stage…. I think a big way that my work has evolved in the last almost ten years…is that I’ve developed a race analysis. So at first I was really thinking about class and my experience as an immigrant, you know, doing domestic work with my mom, doing domestic work as a recent grad, but then I began to organize with a progressive Jewish community in New York and I think it was the 2014 Gaza attack—I was already politicized around Israel and Palestine and had made work around that, but that was a turning point for a lot of people, so I began to make work more explicitly around that.
How much of what you perform is a direct outgrowth of your daily physical practice? How much of what you perform comes from a more imaginative, theoretical, or critical form of work? How do the two relate, or intersect?
HA. There’s a dialogue between movement practice and the work, but they are not always related…What I’ve been doing comes from experience and from academic research about Israeli folk dances for the last five years. I’ve been focusing on that so there’s a lot of research to do—sometimes I just read in the studio…so there are different movement practices that I have and sometimes I’m responding to that [research] and I’m thinking about how Israeli folk dances were a part of my movement practice for a while and what does it mean to recall the memory of that and the practices that I have now? Also, I’m thinking about their appropriation now coming to the West and what does it mean that they’re a part of my movement practice? What are the lineages of other movement practices like qi kung… and who am I paying to receive that information? Because they do inform my movement. So…I try to find movement scores that help me hold some of these contradictions together… you know sometimes I make them intersect very concretely so I’ll write text that overlaps with a video or a movement and show the way that steps are transmitted and learned and embodied, and other times it’s pretty abstract.
What scholars or musicians inform your work?
HA. I’ve been reading Ella Shohat who is an anti-Zionist, feminist, Mizrahi scholar who writes about Israeli-Mizrahi experience. She’s somebody I’ve been going to— it’s weird because in trying to drudge up this memory I’m listening to Israeli folk songs from the 60’s which nobody here would know. I’ve been listening to this Israeli-Mizrahi music and thinking about the racism that surrounded the way I was introduced to that music…so in going back and listening to the Mizrahi music again and [I’m] listening to the versions that did make it into Israeli folk dance that…are…smoothed over or something.
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     Since this semester’s start, Hadar has been working closely with Whitman student dancers for her piece in “PLACEHOLDER.” Together she and the students have explored appropriation as it affects their identities, homes, and the Whitman campus. Below, students Anna Johnston and Ashley Person respond to their experiences working on Hadar’s dance piece.
How has this process been different than other dance or creative projects you have worked on in the past?
ASHLEY PERSON. For other dance pieces I have been in, rehearsal time was mostly spent on learning choreography and practicing it. In this project, I have also felt like I’ve…had more of a role [in] the creative process involved in making the dance. We have spent rehearsal time learning choreography, of course, but we have devoted time to brainstorming the piece through thinking, dancing, writing, and talking about personal thoughts, observations, and experiences. Hadar has asked us students about our own identities, experiences, and thoughts to be able to incorporate them, and make the piece relevant to us.

ANNA JOHNSTON. I grew up learning pieces that were given to me already fully formed. I took the piece, learned how to transfer it to my own body, and then formed it to fit the space. Hadar’s piece came to us as a concept and we got to see her use us to form that concept into the physical. We were the bodies that helped her develop her ideas. At our last rehearsal with Hadar, she said something along the lines of “Rivka Sturmann and a bunch of other people made a dance; I just rearranged it.” This rearranging of preexisting messages and movements to create something completely new…was a fantastically novel experience for me.
What sort of context is Hadar’s piece responding to? How might it fit into PLACEHOLDER as a whole?
 ASHLEY PERSON. Hadar’s work focuses on Israeli folk dance. My understanding is that this piece in PLACEHOLDER draws parallels between Israel and America, particularly Western Expansion and the Whitmans’ history in Walla Walla. The piece considers the history of colonization in both cases through examining appropriation in dance and pop culture.
ANNA JOHNSTON. This piece looks at our place in the world of oppression. We are the oppressors in the past and oppressors now. Hadar’s piece grapples with this idea of colonization and oppression and the different interpretations and manifestations of this. Dance is, essentially, an appropriation of different cultures for a new individual expression, and Hadar wants to reflect on this.

The mention of Hannah Montana’s Hoedown Throwdown caught my attention when looking into this piece—could you speak to what this Disney Channel dance from 2008 is doing in this current piece nearly a decade later?
AP. One day at rehearsal, we were looking for American western settler music and/or dance to see if there was anything we could work with in the piece as a parallel to Israeli folk dance. We found some country fiddle music as a potential candidate, then moved on…
AJ. The Hoedown came from when a few of us were jokingly remembering that dance from our childhood. Hadar’s eyes lit up when she heard the lyrics “Pop it lock it, polka dot it” and then especially when she heard “countrify it.” It was directly correlating to our theme of appropriation into a new culture, becoming the norm and influencing an entire generation. It brings the theme in to hit our generation hard, showing us that we have also seen and done this before.
AP…I think it is included in the piece for a few reasons. Both the lyrics and dance moves show how the dance has been created through appropriation of other styles and cultures (“countrify then hip hop it,” for example). The dance supposedly belongs to a created modern “country” culture that, being part of a Hannah Montana movie, is largely consumerist. Most of Hadar’s work considers similar contexts in the Israeli dances that she has connections to through her family and from her childhood. However, [we] students in the dance do not have previous connections to the Israeli dances. The Hoedown Throwdown is included in the piece because it is something that we remember from our childhoods, making the piece more relevant to us and our pasts. We can think more critically about the song and dance now in wider contexts.
Can you name and describe an ‘aha’ moment that has informed or altered your approach to this piece for the rest of the production process?
AP. The piece involves singing and reciting excerpts from letters as well as dancing. That was a surprise for me, and working on those aspects of the piece has been a bit challenging. The more we practice, however, the more comfortable I feel with these aspects, and the more I realize how interesting these layers are. They add context and commentary to the dance.
AJ. Something really inspirational that we did was a process that Hadar called “nonstopping.” We would improv without music for six minutes, write for six minutes, and then talk to our partners for six minutes. It was meditative in a way that we couldn’t interrupt our thoughts. But the way that our thoughts developed was unlike anything I have experienced before. This allowed me to work through a lot of the confusion I had with some aspects in the piece and trace these back to my own insecurities with identity and place.
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Whitman Theater and Dance faculty members Peter de Grasse and Renée Archibald’s works will also be featured in Harper Joy’s PLACEHOLDER, opening next week. Students Amanda Champion (written response) from Renée’s piece and Augusta Drumheller (transcribed response) from Peter’s piece respond to the ways in which their particular piece relates to this theme of bodies and place.
How has this process been different than other dance or creative projects you have worked on in the past?
AMANDA CHAMPION. This process has differed from other creative processes I have taken a part in because it has really challenged me to seek out my comfort zones and push their edges. Additionally, this [Renée Archibald’s] piece was created solely in the time span of rehearsal, there was no prior choreography from which we built, which has been true of the past two pieces which I have been a part of in the dance concert.
What sort of context is your choreographer’s piece responding to? How might it fit into Placeholder as a whole?
AMANDA CHAMPION. Renée’s piece is responding to the hierarchy of movement that has been explicitly and implicitly imposed upon bodies throughout history and up until our current moment. It is also responding to classical notions of cleanliness and goodness as [they] relate to the body. I think of this piece as creating space using the body and [what] it encompasses, and maybe that relates to the idea of “placeholding.”
AUGUSTA DRUMHELLER. Peter says all the time I’m not giving you an emotion to play I’m giving you tasks and you can react however you want but this isn’t theater…I mean it is theater…but I want you to be yourself during this…so maybe this dance is holding a place for the experience we’re going to have during the actual show. The context of the piece gives me kindergartner in love…really raw and sweet and caring emotion. Like, I’ve been practicing a lot of care for my cast because there’s a lot of intimacy in the piece. We’re touching a lot and hugging each other and some people are experience things that are really intense physically or just really intense to practice and part of our role as cast members is to comfort them.
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AUGUSTA DRUMHELLER. So Renée, when she introduced PLACEHOLDER during auditions she…explained the motive behind calling it PLACEHOLDER…she kinda just said “placeholder” is something that you have faith that you’ll be able to express yourself—like you give yourself that space but also that restriction by putting an x where you want to cite an author or putting in really messy words where you want to go deeper so it’s like something you feel deep inside of you but haven’t yet manifested…I really liked the way she said that.
Come see Placeholder, opening Thursday, April 4 – Saturday, April 6 showing @ 8 PM and April 6th & 7th showing @ 2 PM in the Freimann Black Box Theater. Buy your tickets at the HJT Box Office M – F 12 PM – 4 PM or Here.