By Diyanah Kassim
“As an Israeli artist living in Germany, critiques about my cultural and my national background come to play regularly in my work. Due to my background as an immigrant, I can look from a certain distance at the way of living in my homeland. This perspective allows me to remain critical yet stay in touch with my origin. I find the artistic dialogue with my country, my people and my identity a necessity.”
Reut Shemesh, Cologne-based choreographer for ATARA – For You, Who Have Not Yet Found The One
With all sorts of beliefs, cultures and traditions in the world, there is so much that we may not know about or have yet to discover. To explore the juxtaposition between a secular/Orthodox upbringing, M1 Fringe Festival 2020 presented ATARA – For You, Who Have Not Yet Found The One by Reut Shemesh, which ran on the 14 and 15 January 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. The theme for this year’s festival revolves around My Country And My People, inspired by Lee Tzu Pheng’s 1967 poem, which was banned from performance on radio. This year also marks the sixth and final tenure for M1 Fringe Festival’s Artistic Director, Sean Tobin.
Reut Shemesh, Cologne-based choreographer of ATARA – For You, Who Have Not Yet Found One, is a Jewish and Israeli woman who lived in Germany. Being exposed to the different cultural and national backgrounds, Shemesh took inspiration from the practices of Hasidic Orthodox Jewish women in everyday life, ceremonies and rituals. She then choreographed a piece about a secular and Orthodox woman battling to exist as one.
With one of the main focus of the show being about women, the two female and one male cast were noticeably dressed in similar outfits from head to toe. They were donned in skirts long enough to cover their knees, tops that covered their collarbones, and a shoulder length wig. Yes, even the male cast was dressed as a female. The wardrobe choice made me wonder if it was an indication of how Jewish women are expected to dress. The existence of a male cast could also possibly portray how women are constantly restricted by external voices or figures even if they are in an all female community. Their thoughts and actions are constantly criticized by the people around them, be it by the men or other women.
In a world where we are revolving into a gender equal society and working towards female empowerment, there are still certain backgrounds and cultures which hinder women from performing to the best of their capabilities. Especially in a secular/Orthodox background, there are complications which comes from years of social constructs that have been taught to the newer generations, and the roles of women in society.
Every detail was well thought out as I watched the performance come to life. From the Jewish costumes worn by the cast, to the staging of the lights and sound effects that followed, it was carefully crafted to detail her emotions as she explored the complex way of life that followed her. The word “atara” means crown in Hebrew, which was depicted by a triangular colour changing stage light which was visibly seen throughout the entire performance. On the other hand, sound designer Simon Bauer wanted to create a space for the audience to fully absorb the minimal sound effects or long, dramatic pauses and silences during the performance. The composition created an immersive experience as the audience anticipated the next scene.
After the performance ended, Tobin hosted a short discussion where the audience could express their thoughts about what they understood from the performance. The discussion aided me to get a better understanding of what was shown and to hear about others’ opinions about it. One particular discussion that caught my attention was the debate about how women are not allowed to sing or dance in public and their restricted choice of clothing.
In my opinion, writing or choreographing a performance based on cultures is a challenging task especially when there are conflicting views about the topic. Listening to the discussion between the two women also got me curious about what others might understand from my own background or culture. In a world where the tiniest thing can be misunderstood by the masses, what are people’s stance about the secular/Orthodox beliefs in Israel? Can we live in an inclusive world without having any divide or social construct? What does it take to create a world where we can live collectively as one?
Photography credit: Öncü Gültekin