It is very special to enter into the studio of a working artist, especially at an early stage of a project in process. Generosity and courage are both on display when seeing work without sets and sound systems, in rehearsal clothes, before all or any big decisions have been made. If I’m honest, it is probably my favorite way to experience performance. Without formality, with immediacy.
This was certainly all true when I sat among a small audience in Ella Rothschild’s studio as she presented excerpts and ideas from a forthcoming work. The hour unfolded in four parts with little explanation and plenty of room for revelation.
The activity on stage is already underway as the audience enters. A table, a chair, two women. Their eyes are locked on one another. Our eyes are locked on them. They look up, turn away, repeat. Their movements are quick, swift, definitive. Rothschild and Ariel Freedman are the dancers. Rothschild, also the choreographer, is dressed in all black. Freedman is in lighter colored clothing. Both have long hair pulled up into matching messy buns. It becomes clear that the movements are a sequence, pulling them around and around the table, getting faster as the audience gets settled.
Because I had spoken with Rothschild the week before, I wonder if they are really one woman represented by two bodies – one of them real, one of them the subconscious. One a shadow of the other. The space has the feeling of an interrogation room: sparse, with grey concrete walls, shiny black floor, and large windows covered with scrim, blurring out the city’s blocky buildings beyond. Interrogation room or not, from the start, we are clearly occupying a psychological space, in addition to being in a physical one.
Rothschild is a choreographer and dancer from Israel with an International practice. Like many choreographers, she must travel around the globe to support and realize her work. The piece she is currently developing interrogates the space between the physical world and the subconscious mind, and manifests as individual and collective characters gathering around the multi-sensory site of a dinner table. The project has or will take her to Lucerne, Vancouver, Israel, and New York, and maybe/hopefully beyond. She is working with 14 professional dancers in Lucerne (a commissioned work for the dance company of Lucerne Theater), with a handful of professional dancers in Israel, and intimately one-on-one with Freedman here in New York. I just met her, but in this way, she seems exceedingly agile and omnivorous.
The scene shifts and now only Freedman is in the space with one table and one chair. A new element: elongated, prosthetic arms with stiff, unyielding hands extend from Freedman’s own pliable and knowing arms. There is accompanying sound like electronic punctuation marks or like animals at night. An owl’s hoot, an interstellar communication, or a keystroke.
It is impossible to look at anything but the arms – as she slouches and lurches they slide, lifeless, across and over the sides of the table, reaching the floor, far away from her center. They are simultaneously fully in her control and also dictate every movement. Her proportions distorted, they are elegant because she is so precise and awkward because they are bereft of any suppleness. She moves slowly, intentionally.
Prompted by the arms and Freedman’s prowess with them, I think about how we think about bodies and self, body dysmorphia, differently abled bodies, the body in our mind, the body others perceive, the parts of the body we can control and the parts we can’t.
Then, snapping up my attention, she sits and begins to speak in a disembodied, monotone voice about being taken to a new place, a newly regimented life (in an asylum or something like it), away from a husband to a roommate, away from cooking and following recipes on her own to eating “square meals” on “round plates” prepared by a chef.
She’s up again. She (seductively?) shrugs off the arms, revealing her own. Then, illusion dispelled, her back turned to us, she picks up the arms again but this time wraps them around herself. One body has become two. Or, one mind imagines two bodies. Still in her control, she dances with the arms for one last moment then casually rests them, in their button-down shirt armature, on the back of the chair and walks away. Like none of it ever happened.
When we met, Rothschild talked about loneliness, and it permeates the performance space thus far. Whether there are one or two performers on stage, whether there is silence or sound. There is both a visceral drudgery and forcefulness about the movement that stems from a rift, one she is mining, between body and mind.
I don’t remember at exactly what point I notice it, but gradually or all of a sudden strips of the setting sunlight slice through the space, across furniture and bodies, through the stage and into the audience; no longer contained by the slim window coverings.
Rothschild joins Freedman again on the stage, the second chair returns, and there is a glass of red wine set on the table. Rothschild briefly describes that Freedman is in the room with another being, though it is not clear if this being is real or an extension of the subconscious.
Two women, two chairs, one table, and a glass of red wine.
Freedman releases her hair and lets it hang messily in front of, and therefore obscure, her face.
Strings and horns play ominously throughout the duet.
Freedman slides down onto the floor as if drawn to and along it by a magnetic force. She struggles her way to a chair, onto which she eventually, excruciatingly pulls herself up so her torso and arms rest on and entangle with the seat. With her weight heaped over it, she pushes and pulls as the chair moves heavily with her body, creaking around the stage.
Rothschild stands still for this entire sequence until Freedman pulls herself fully up. Rothschild takes a first sip of the wine. They hold hands. They pass this precarious wine glass back and forth, sipping, manipulating, caressing, holding, pulling, turning. At one climactic point, Rothschild holds Freedman by the neck for an amount of time that feels just uncomfortably long.
Rothschild starts speaking quickly and in a high-pitched voice, then in a lower pitch, a somewhat nonsense dialogue about a relationship with a “bitter and awful man.” A vague story emerges about relationships, perceptions, and what other people think. Then, the man himself, one register lower in Rothschild’s voice, enters the conversation catching the dialogue in progress. And then, all at once, the scene ends.
Continuing to tease out Freedman’s character, Rothschild introduces the final section as an exercise in how two beings occupy space with movement. The furniture has been struck and now the only thing shaping the playing space is the contrast of light and shadow streaming in from the partially scrimmed windows.
Horns, strings, and a fast-beating drum comprise the soundtrack.
The two women make big, determined gestures. Slow and then fast. In unison and then isolated. They appear to be exorcising demons from their bodies or letting themselves be occupied completely. The music shifts and becomes a little more melodic though still with a pulsing beat. The light creates haloes around their messy buns. They contract, bent over. Their stances widen, they open their arms. A tug of war ensues, each pulling the other’s arm as they turn to and from, back and forth and back and forth, until the sound quiets and it is just Rothschild, ever the shadow, pulling Freedman to her as she tries to pull away. Freedman’s movements become smaller and then stop.
We live in a time where the lines between reality and fantasy, fact and fake, are redrawn and redrawn again to suit particular needs and narratives. The liminal space of Rothschild’s studio where real bodies and minds portray the internal and external struggle, the push and pull, to distinguish between and play along a spectrum of real and imagined, physical and felt, is like an alchemical antidote.
Throughout the afternoon, it is clear to me that Rothschild is conveying something personal and universal, of our time and timeless: deeply embodied loneliness, a fear and desire to know oneself, in body and mind, in reality and in consciousness, and to know and convene with others, on a stage or around a dinner table or around a dinner table on a stage.
Melissa Levin is an arts administrator and curator committed to innovative, inclusive, and comprehensive approaches to supporting artists and initiating programs. She is currently the VP of Artists, Estates and Foundations at Art Agency Partners, where she advises artists and their families on legacy planning. Previously, Levin worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for more than 12 years, where as VP of Cultural Programs she led the program design and artistic direction of LMCC's Artist Residency programs, the Arts Center at Governors Island, and the River To River Festival. Together with Alex Fialho, Levin has curated multiple, critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy. Levin proudly serves on the boards of the Alliance of Artists Communities and Danspace Project. She received a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College.
Photos by Maria Baranova