Ahead of the world premiere of WILDEBEEST and the Australian premiere of Valley, we sat down with dancer and choreographer Omer Backley-Astrachan, who is the creative force behind both of these works, to find out more about the human nature, growing up in Israel and the nature of contemporary dance.
BYO: You’ve just performed Tohu at Fringe World in Perth in its third iteration, and Valley will be performed for the second time at your upcoming performance at Riverside Theatres. When you return to a work, what's the process like of revisiting and developing it further?
Omer: Well I learnt this quite intensely through Valley in that my control over the work as a choreographer, I can give it like the initial push, I can say I want the work to discuss these ideas but then eventually the work really takes its own path. So if I am honest with it and give it really what the work demands, these changes happen very organically. So sometimes [when] I think a section needs to be more elongated or something needs to be removed altogether, it's actually not me making those decisions, it's really just being sensitive to what the the work presents.
BYO: Do those changes stem from working with a cast instead of a solo performer? I understand Valley was initially for a solo dancer but now incorporates an ensemble?
Omer: Yeah. I think because Valley its starting point is the lone body, I thought it would be perfect to do this as a solo work and I had this idea of a woman who is inhabiting two different environments at the same time; one environment that is large and almost endless, and at the same time a very intimate and personal environment. But then I read an article about a photographer who travelled the world and took pictures of remote human settlements and he travelled to a place called Svalbard – which is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean – and what he was speaking about in this article is about how this environment is so protected by heritage restrictions he was almost not allowed to move around at all. He said there was a person on residency with him there and he hung his sleeping bag over a rope to dry and he got fined like 1500 dollars for disturbing the cultural heritage. So there's something about being highly sensitive to your environment that really resonated with me and I think that was something I wanted to deal with not just in the sense of our relationship to our real and physical environment but also how this environment can be replicated as an internal environment.
BYO: I’m really interested in how you, as a choreographer and a dancer, develop these complex meanings out of abstract movements.
Omer: I think if dance could be translated to English directly then maybe it's better to read a book about it. For example, if someone says I love you then of course it means this but if you can read their body language you can get a thousand different meanings out of it. I think dance, one of its virtues is that it can produce meanings that aren't translateable to anything but our human understanding of connection. You look at someone and you can understand behaviour, you can understand their feeling based on their body language. I think that's how dance is negotiating being an abstract art form, where it’s not literal, but also it's a lot more natural for us to understand that because everybody reads body language all the time.
BYO: A lot of your work seems drawn to issues of human interaction and how our interactions are mediated through concepts such as gender, feminism and culture, so I was wondering, what excites you about these concepts as a choreographer?
Omer: Well I can tell you that having lived in Israel you feel that you are surrounded by a conflict and I think through the wars that we have experienced there I really wanted to figure out what is human nature. Are we conditioned to fight? Are we conditioned to love? I wanted to ask these questions in different ways to explore what is it about human nature. So I think in Valley I kind of looked at the core of a person through vulnerability and then I read that article [about Svalbard], a vulnerable space, and I thought, how can that be replicated as a vulnerable person? And then in WILDEBEEST I'm looking more at the artifice of behaviour.
BYO: You talked about the influence of growing up in Israel, but since moving to Australia has Australia affected the way you approach your work?
Omer: When I moved here I was still conditioned to things that were happening in Israel. If I heard a sound that sounded like a bomb alarm I could feel my body tensing up, and when you see a bag on the street, maybe someone forgot it, my initial instinct was to think maybe it was left by someone as a bomb. It took me a while to get out of it and to really feel how different it is here and then seeing how people's behaviour is so different.
BYO: Both WILDEBEEST and Valley use a cast of people rather than yourself or an individual dancer. As a choreographer do you find using a cast changes your choreography?
Omer: I think part of my realisation about the joy of making work is also to do with learning from other people and being with other people and allowing their own experiences to influence the work. It's a really interesting process for me to learn how to let go of what I want and to be more of a spectator [and] for the work to include the minds of everyone else. In that way I have less control which was at first hard for me to achieve because maybe I had specific images or aesthetics or qualities I wanted to use, but then I felt like I was bashing my head against the wall, not because the dancer weren't doing it but the work didn't demand it, the work wanted to be something else and that's because it has people in it see the world differently to the way I see the world and their bodies are different and their minds are different so it will be a blend of all these qualities together.
WILDEBEEST and Valley run from 15 to 17 February at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta. Book tickets and find out more here https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/valley