Mourad Bouayad, left, and Hillel Kogan in We Love Arabs, which is at the Dance Centre April 13-15. (photo by Eli Katz)
“I don’t have answers so I can only ask questions,” Israeli choreographer Hillel Kogan told the Jewish Independent. “If this is changing people’s political views, I doubt it, but at least what I’m trying to do is to put the questions on the table and make people, audiences, and myself see that art is not a separate sphere, that art is part of politics and social and cultural systems … and this is what I’m trying to expose in my pieces.”
The JI interviewed Kogan in advance of the Vancouver run of We Love Arabs, which is being presented at the Scotiabank Dance Centre by the Dance Centre and Théâtre la Seizième April 13-15. There will be both English- and French-language performances of this work, which also has Hebrew and Spanish versions. Kogan will dance the duet here with Mourad Bouayad.
We Love Arabs premièred at the 2013 Intimadance Festival in Tel Aviv. The brief outline for the piece, which Kogan has on his website, begins: “I address the audience, my name is Hillel Kogan. Some say that I do political art. I want to show you today how dance has the power to promote coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel. I invited an Arab dancer here….” The video teaser offers a glimpse of Kogan’s physicality, humour, tenderness, intelligence.
Born in Tel Aviv, Kogan has performed with and created for companies and choreographers around the world. At Batsheva Dance Company, he is director of educational programs. He is pursuing a master’s degree in cultural studies.
We Love Arabs garnered awards, and it has traveled to more than a dozen countries. The Vancouver show was postponed twice, said Mirna Zagar, executive director of the Dance Centre. First due to a scheduling conflict and then due to COVID. “However, I believe the work is just as relevant now as it was when we started,” she said. “It is an exceptional work that continues to engage audiences internationally.”
The Dance Centre often partners with other arts organizations, as a means of pooling resources and amplifying opportunities to show international artists. “This collaboration is along these lines,” she said. “I have known Esther Duquette, the now-outgoing artistic director at Théâtre la Seizième, for some years and the nature of this piece – multilingual and straddling theatre as well as dance – made it a perfect opportunity for our organizations to work together.”
The April 14 performance and talkback will be in French; the other two shows and the April 15 talkback in English. Kogan speaks six languages: Hebrew and Russian because his parents were born in the Soviet Union and he was born in Israel; he studied English in school; he learned French from working two years in Switzerland, and Portuguese and Spanish from working in Portugal for seven years. He doesn’t speak Arabic.
“This is interesting,” he said, “because this piece, We Love Arabs, is an autocritical peace that asks exactly this. Why am I facing the languages and cultures of the West and not the languages of my neighbours and of my co-citizens in Israel? Why don’t I read the books of Arabic writers? Why doesn’t Arab culture interest me, and why do I identify myself as ‘Western,’ which is a bit strange?”
It is both a geographic question, he said, living as he does in Israel, and a social, historical, cultural and political question. “And the piece deals with this question: who decides what the general culture is, and why I am – and why the Israeli art field, at least as I see it, is – so orientalist, which means looking at the Orient, at the Arab as inferior and wanting to impose on it the Western culture.”
The different versions of We Love Arabs resulted from Kogan’s wanting to perform the piece abroad, in the language the audience speaks. “I think it brings more this idea of relevance to the space,” he explained. “If I did the piece in Hebrew with subtitles, it would be more like a piece from Israel … and be framed as something local and in my perspective. The universality of the piece is one of the ideas – I want people to identify with it and, by choosing their own language, I feel there is more chance to make them sense that they are part of it as well.”
Kogan had no idea of how much impact We Love Arabs would have. “It was created for a small niche festival in Israel,” he said, and “for a specific audience who is already convinced in the political opinions that I hold. So, I didn’t imagine it ‘big.’… As I performed the piece out of Israel, I understood that the question of Jews and Arabs in Israel is just a microcosm of a more universal question: of the situation of power between minority and majority, and the way we see ‘the other’ – who is the master of the culture in any nation?”
In looking at the question, Kogan asks: “Who is invited to participate in creating a national identity, what is Israeli or what is Arab Israeli? It is not very different than the question of, I don’t know, for example, in Canada: who is invited, what is Canadian? Is it French? Is it American? Is it English? I don’t know the minority situation in Canada, but I know there is a history with Native Canadians. So, are they also invited to take part in culture? How much are they participating in mainstream dance, literature, music? How do we define what is high art and what is popular art? What is folk and folklore? And what is universal art?”
Initially dancing the duet with Kogan was Adi Boutrous, an Israeli Arab dancer who is also a choreographer and so not always available. Bouayad, who is French, danced in Israel in the Batsheva junior company. “This is how we met, so I invited him to perform with me,” said Kogan. “And, of course, it’s very different for an Israeli Arab to play the role of an Israeli Arab than for a French half-Arab person, because to be an Arab in France is different than to be an Arab in Israel.”
Not wanting to speak for Bouayad, Kogan noted that, while Bouayad may define “himself first as French, and his relationship with his Arab origins are just an extra part of his being,” for Israeli Arabs, he said, “I’m not sure that they are first Israeli and then Arab because of their own perception of themselves – but also the way the majority looks at them, the state looks at them, society looks at them, Jewish society looks at them.
“We often make the mistake even in the language, and we forget to say that Arabs are Israeli as well. We say Israelis and Arabs – even when we refer to Arabs who are citizens of Israel and who hold an Israeli passport, we call them Arabs, and we call ourselves, the Jews, Israelis…. We are both Israeli and the difference between us in definition is our religion. In a country like France, where it’s a republic and religion has at least formally not such an important role in the definition of citizenship and of nationality, then, of course, the change of cast is also changing the relationship.”
Kogan has no illusions that art can change the world. Elected politicians “are the ones who should change the world,” he said. For him, art is there to reflect, to inspire. “Art, for me, is a place for the imagination, for the possibility of not necessarily escaping reality, but giving an alternative to reality…. If art can feed the imagination and then, as an outcome of this feeding of imagination, can change the reality, OK, that’s great. But I think that … when artists try to change the world by their art – in history, at least as far as I see, it ends in political propaganda and just serves the hands of politicians.”
As many funny moments as there are in We Love Arabs, they have a profound purpose.
“I have anger towards some of the cultural systems, and the questions that I’m asking are involved with hard emotions. I feel that humour allows me to take some distance from the aggression and from being so emotionally involved,” said Kogan. “It allows me to laugh about myself as well. It allows me to invite people to laugh about a question without making it not serious. The laughing, I feel, is a tool to invite people to enter a conversation, to agree to criticize, to agree to ask questions … to see the bias, to be aware of the stereotypes, to be aware of the prejudgments that we have…. The laughter is just a means in order to speak about something very serious.”
For tickets to We Love Arabs, call 604-736-2616 or visit thedancecentre.ca.