This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 11th of January 2018. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
This interviews was recorded during Melbourne Festival in 2017.
Transcripts are a new initiative of Delving into Dance and over the following months we will be experimenting with the form of the transcripts, we welcome any feedback regarding the form and layout. These transcripts are paid for through the support of audiences and supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. It would be wonderful to have your contribute to this initative, You can contribure here. A big thank you to Tobias Orrells, whose support got this episode over the line.
The interview started by asking, where did dance start…
Hillel Kogan: It started at 16 years old, between 15 and 16. I was a child actor - TV series, and I always thought that I would be an actor. Everybody thought I went to the High School of the Arts, a very famous arts school in Israel, Thelma Yelin school, which at that time, the beginning of the 90s, was one of the only schools where you could do the Baccalaureate and arts. I went to the drama department but my mates were from dance department and drama department and my best friends were the dancers and female dancers. I was quite jealous of them, I wanted to dance myself. So yeah, I started in a suburb of Tel Aviv just taking classes secretly without telling many people because I was ashamed-
Hillel Kogan: I was shy - people would know that at the time. Yeah, that I started dancing its like how you said: ‘how dare you at 16 years old! Who do you think you are that you will start dancing so late?’ Yeah, it was this kind of feeling so then maybe half a year later, I decided to come out of the closet dance wise, and I signed up myself to a course at a dance school in Tel Aviv and from then on it was clear for me, that I want to do dance and not think.
Andrew: What did it feel like? What was it about dance that…
Hillel Kogan: It's too far for me to remember the sensations, the interest there, hmm, now I think it's a mixture of things. I think for sure it's the work of the body and the attraction to the pleasure of moving, but I guess also something gay in me that was back at the time, very oppressed, and I came out of the closet much later when I was 23 -25 and back then also I didn't have experience, gay experience. So I think it has to do also with that attraction. I don't know, flexibility to us, and the lyricism, and an image of a more romantic self. Also I'm connecting to the kind of dances that I like back at the time. Today cannot bear this kind of dancing.
Andrew: To back at the time?
Hillel Kogan: Now I'm too shy for that type of dance - lyrical, yeah lyrical, and romantic; I guess I was amazed by the beauty of the body, specially the ballerina, that the female has long lines, curves, all these high leg extensions, flexibility… yeah, a fairy world that’s-
Andrew: What do you like now about dance?
Hillel Kogan: I like many things and I dislike many things in dance, I still think most of the things are boring me actually, and more embarrassing to me but I guess that's normal.
Andrew: Work or in terms of your own work
Hillel Kogan: No, it’s embarrassing I can't believe that that people are still doing this, the choreographers are really interested in this approach. I don’t, I mean, it's very arrogant of me to say that, but as a viewer, I guess I'm more demanding, and I don't - it's not enough for me to speak about aesthetics and about virtuosity, abstraction, time and looking for something else. I cannot say what because many things excite me, can interest me, so there is not something particular that I could say: ‘okay this is what I'm looking for in dance.’ Dance should be the same that when I see a show and it appeals to me, I know I recognise it. I can enjoy many things I feel that in my everyday experience; it’s more unusual that I will not enjoy that piece.
Andrew: You have a different lens that you look at it through-
Hillel Kogan: I call it broken eyes, and I’m not a good public, I'm not a good audience. I know how to imagine and I criticize it, or I examine it as a creator myself. So there is a lot of things involved not just a free lecture. It’s like me going to the movies or appreciating plastic art, something that I don't do, you know? So it's easier for me to enjoy music than to enjoy dance, for example.
Andrew: That was me in theatre, because I couldn't go anymore and just watch it and completely enjoy it.
Hillel Kogan: No, I don’t.
Andrew: And then I used to go to dance, but I didn't have the language so now I'm saying too much about dance and I'm not a dancer.
Hillel Kogan: That’s a good question to ask, do you need language? Do you need knowledge in order to appreciate that side? I don’t know.
Andrew: I guess that I've become more critical again, like I'm not - before I used to just being in awe of everything that happened. Whereas now I've kind of seen so much that I'm a little bit more critical.
Hillel Kogan: I guess what I'm looking for in every art piece is multi-layers. I would like it to attack many parts in me, you know? Not only the heart, not only the eyes, but stimulate me, raise new questions. Something that gives me, I guess, what you expect from a book, not a nice book, you know, something that will give you a different view of the world. And it’s another thing that you're jealous of. Also, I like to be, I like this feeling of going to a show and feeling jealous, ‘Oh, I wish it was my idea. I wish I would be the author of this piece.’ This is a very nice feeling, actually. Yeah, to be jealous, I like it.
Andrew: What is it that you want to say through dance? You're talking about connecting with the heart…
Hillel Kogan: It would be too pretentious of me to say that I want to give a message. For me, the first reason and the basic and most of what I do is for myself, it's a very ugly, sick, narcissistic place. I like being on stage. So when I create, I create for myself unless I'm invited. And then there is an opportunity and it also interests me to work with other companies and to, to do pieces on other people. But my main goal is to, to create a form for me to be onstage so I create the piece of for myself and for group of people around me. Lately, it's when I'm interested in me and another person. It's also a way of confession for me, and releasing some ghosts. So it's - I don't like this comparison, but it is in a way, like psychological treatment for me, you know, to bring out things that I'm dealing with the form of sublimation, I guess, and transcending things that are complex and things that are inhibiting me or issues that I feel bad with myself. They stimulate me artistically; I tried to find a form to transcend them. And to do sublimation and to create something around it. For example, with We Love Arabs, it's a lot about my guilty feelings about my prejudice, my racism, my sense of superiority, as an Israeli as a Jew, as part of the majority in Israel, towards other minorities, ethnic minorities. But not only that, and it was a form for me to create the piece with regard to We Love Arabs, confess about myself, and by that, to reflect in many other people that are like me, very prejudice, very racist, and not conscious of this.
Andrew: That puts yourself in a quite vulnerable position in some respects…
Hillel Kogan: Me from the outside, I don't feel that I'm being exposing, you know I know? It doesn't, I understand why it seems like this, but this is not - I hate to be vulnerable. So I would never dare to put myself in a vulnerable place, for me to it's a powerful place actually,
Andrew: What was the process for making We Love Arabs?
Hillel Kogan: There was a festival in Tel Aviv that asked for an application and the theme was how could dance change our daily life? What can the audience gain from seeing dance and how can they use it for their daily life? I came up with the ironical answer, very cynical answer that dance can contribute to the peace between Arabs and Jews coexisting, which was completely cynical and it's not something I believe that dance can do. I said, ‘okay, let's pretend that dance can and I pretended to be this kind of choreographer, so I conceived that the people were Jewish choreographers from the left, very concerned about human rights and about the rights of Arabs and about equality. It’s about sharing the space and how this choreographer wants to create a piece about coexistence that brings a message of coexist in peace here between Jews and Arabs. And that way people go out of the show, they will be inspired and they will understand and change the world. So this is how the piece came about, and this is what it is actually about now. It's about a pretentious choreographer trying to change the world and trapped in his own prejudice and racism. He just continues this vicious circle of being internalizing in a very orientalist point of view, not aware not of this racism that he has.
Andrew: It's a work, but in many respects, might be the audience think even if it is tongue in cheek and funny and humorous, often dance is kind of rarified to not be funny, then for people to come out or sit in a work and find it funny.
Hillel Kogan: Well, I think it's mostly the combination of dance and text in the space that makes it. I don't think that without text, I could reach the same effect. So for me, it's also a theatre piece about dance, you know, and it's an essay about dance, it's a demonstration of how this works behind the scenes. It's a meeting between a choreographer and dancer, and the audience are seeing us rehearse so it's like a documentary or mockumentary. I think the text has a lot of weight in it and the meeting between this movement and this ridiculous text and it's what makes it also accessible for people.
Andrew: It's a work you've done in so many different contexts. Has it been received differently, has the reception been very -
Hillel Kogan: Similar, it's very similar actually. It's quite sad how similar it is, because people not very often also recognise or admit that they also enjoy the way that I am being politically incorrect about the Arab dancer. Adi (Boutrous) Sharing a stage with me - he's playing the punching bag. I'm treating him like a punching bag in this piece, ad I think that people also enjoy this, you know. They might not admit it but at least some people take pleasure from seeing the strong one not laughing about the Arab, I'm laughing about the Jew. But I'm using the Arab in order to yeah and it's a bit of a humiliation that I'm doing and also this aspect that people enjoy this - not only the message, and not only how ridiculous I am, but I think it should scratch a bit, I would expect that from people. I love the laughing and that people are enjoying and they get the message.
But I wonder if they also feel that it's painful for them, and if they also can identify themselves as the oppressor. I don't hear it, not as much as I would have liked.
Andrew: So can dance change the world?
Hillel Kogan: As a slogan? No - I mean I think many choreographers change the world of dance, or change our way of seeing dance or arts. They can become a part of many forces. It can be a joint force, like the Dada movement towards a joint force of many things that happened in society at that time. So in this way, yes, that changed the world but it's not a particular choreographer that changes the world, or a piece that changes the world - it can change people's way to see stuff. Small changes, but not stop wars.
Andrew: Are there works that have changed your world to dance, the potential of dance
Hillel Kogan: Yeah, choreographers I’ve met and choreographers that I've seen some pieces, for sure my meeting with Merce Cunningham, for example, totally changed the way I think about dance. This is where I started to abandon the romantic image that I have of dance, or of myself, or what not. Learn who I've been working with, of course, yeah, I have many masters in dance. Many, many people who have contributed to the way I see the human body, human nature, people, dance composition. Different choreographers influenced me in in different ways, gave me different tools. I feel that has influenced me a lot. But I think that there is almost nothing between the way I create and the way he creates and what I'm interested in and what he's interested in. I was his assistant so I think I know quite a lot about his work.
Andrew: That might not change the world, but in many respects art and dance are kind of a space to have difficult conversations on stage that we don't necessarily have every day. Certainly when you look at politics, they're not necessarily having these conversations in a way that resonate with an audience and We Love Arabs, is part of that conversation. Are there other things that you want to say with dance?
Hillel Kogan: I think that the body is a very strong thing and dance is a frame, it’s a medium where the convention is that you allow the body to speak. To allow the body to do many things that you are not aware of. In the political world for example, or as a sociologist, if you go out and look at the world as a choreography, you will not only find that it's boring, you will also find that it's very interesting. You will find that the information you can extract from people's dancing, people's behavior - body wise is amazing. Actually we are erasing this part in our street life. On stage it becomes allowed, evident- people touch each other. And we deny some things and we transcend, we transform our way of looking. And like in my in my newest piece, The Swan and the Pimp, there is a lot of dancing with a younger female dancer of 23 years old. So we have 20 years of difference. And it is about male female mates. You know, and Black Swan, White Swan, and woman is prostitute to men and pimps. But it questions gender, of hierarchy of power, a lot of the oppression and a lot of pornography are inside the aesthetics. And ideology. Patriarchy ideology - shopping is ideology. Which is hidden under or covered in beautiful aesthetics. The touch is very much the text. But it's a piece without text actually. But all the contact, the leaning on each other - all the information that you gain from the body’s relationship, the way we touch each other, the way she lets me touch her, the way she touches me, the way I'm lifting her or she's lifting me. In dance, this is the story. The convention is that dance is the frame for this, dance is the event to see how bad is related, how bad is taught and this is just a mirror of the street in our society. So for me, this is the discovery now of dance, and this is what interests me more, to see the layers, to see how ideologies are covered in conventions. When I'm interested in mostly in all forms of art, or the conventions. The cliché this - that's been forever my interest, the clichés of dance and the clichés of choreographers. This is why parody is such an accessible tool for me. I can really go to the exaggeration, and I can also use my comical and dramatic skills there. I have the opportunity to exaggerate, to criticize and laugh about myself also. And to be a bit nasty, to go over the top, I guess. It's very important not the only the physical exaggeration, which is virtual, but the exaggeration that you have in pushing the limits when you do satire, or when you do parody. It's like, it's not just a nice job, it's also mean. So yeah, something you shouldn't say. I like those materials; I feel that conventions have to do this. I don't know why. But I feel there is a strong connection between exaggeration and conventions.
Andrew: In terms of how you talk about the social states and how we move, and often we limit the way we move into a space, or take up less space in relation to others. And one thing that's so lovely about interviewing dancers is watching you talk - no one's going to see this, but your hands everywhere. And actually, the communication with the body is so physical, and ignore those kind of physical conventions of ways of communicating with each other
Hillel Kogan: It’s also a question of convention, codes and habits. And as a choreographer, I'm used to, express in the body more than my parents - more than my parents would. Because they are inhibited in their body, not only they don't know how to use their body, they're also ashamed of the body. And they're not comfortable in their body. I guess it's also the difference between real life and porn. Maybe if I would be a camera or fly on the wall in just a random couple, you know? Anything in a bedroom of a random couple, I don’t know… The choreography, their coordination - it would be so fluent, so rich and so beautiful as it is important.
It's perfect, and people know how to move and how to look fantastic - and it's like dance. People know how to move and people know how to touch each other. It's a question: do they really know how to, or is it just a convention of how you will hold the hands, how you would touch someone? It looks refined? Delicate? It's all convention, delicacies a convention. A dancer cannot be natural. I mean, I'm saying it like this, I’m sure it's not. It's not a scientific thing. But it's very hard. If you ask a dancer to just walk, he looks like a dancer. There is too much knowledge. There is so many codes already integrated in the body, and there is no way to be natural anymore. I cannot go to a club and dance naturally. You cannot ask me to fall naturally, I will not. I cannot behave naturally with my body. I lost natural contact with my body and in a different way, people in the street are locked into their body. And they're in conscious, unconscious control of their movement and abilities. Also, unconscious and conscious of their innovation, and how they restrict themselves with movement; they're also not free. So we are never free with the button. Yeah, the dancer can fake freedom, which I love. I love seeing this and talking about those fake things. It makes me laugh because it's fake.
Andrew: The number of times I've been to clubs or places where those dancing are dancers, and you’re like - your dance looks so stiff, it looks so uncomfortable within sort of dancing here. I guess it is that thing of conditioning the body in space and…..
Hillel Kogan: Awareness. And thinking everything as has to be arrived, has to be beautiful and a concept of beauty. We are so used to criticizing our own bodies in front of the mirror, ‘I’m too short or too long, I have no neck, I’m crooked, I have no turn out, or my feet are not nice. It's the relationship with the body is like an object, very objectifying.
Andrew: Is that ongoing for you, do you still look in the mirror?
Hillel Kogan: I don't look at the mirror, but I'm very objectifying towards myself. I have already accepted the reality now. It doesn't stop. It's part of me; I don't fight it anymore. I just may try to make sure that it doesn't make me crazy and that I don't harm myself psychologically and physically. You can go without enough consciousness very easily to this place. And I think this is why I find so many body issues, sicknesses and problems in that sense. Yeah, I'm a wreck and many other things.
Andrew: It's real! It's real.
Hillel Kogan: It's real. It's almost inevitable the way the dance world functions. And in the world that we're living in, it's very hard unless you give up this concept. It also depends which kind of dancer you are, and what kind of person you are and what you identify with, and which ideology you hold on to.
Andrew: So when you get on stage, leaving all that aside, what's it feel like when you connect with what you're doing? Do you connect with the audience in that moment of dancing, or of performing? What's that moment like? What does it feel like?
Hillel Kogan: It's hard to explain because it has become a profession and almost an automatic thing. It's like when you ask me this question; I feel that it's like asking an industrial worker, ‘what does it feel like sitting in your chair and wrapping the box?’ It feels like this is my work, and there is a lot of automatic things in it, because it's already familiar, because I've done it hundreds of times and I know it. So if you asked about the excitement, if you asked about the adrenaline, the fear on this exists there, but it's very much denied - It's very much already absorbed, I guess. I feel I have a task and this is the concentration of the task very much like the person in front of his tools in the industrial world, or a sports man. I need to jump over this barrier, to do this, and that. So this is what I'm going through. When I go on stage, I think about the text I have to say, about the movement, and of course, how I enjoy my body doing this. Because it's repetitive, and because it's a show that I've been rehearsing and doing for many years already; it's familiar and I’m looking all the time for ways to make it fresh, to make it now and here. So I'm also concerned about this, about the moment listening to the public feeling what is here now, and now to say, what exactly it feels - I cannot say but this is where my mind is.
Andrew: But it's active, you’re working it out.
Hillel Kogan: Yeah, it's active, but also automatic, you know. It's a mode; it's like a button that I press on in this mode of performance. And there is a set of things that are working now. Listening to the body, saying the text, doing the movement, but I'm saying it in a simple way. But it's more complex than that. So it's not just about repeating a text or repeating movement. You mentioned the audience…
Andrew: Is that something while performing you’re incredibly aware of how they're responding? Or how they're engaging with something?
Hillel Kogan: No, it's something I'm very aware of and listening to attentively. I feel I use manipulation; it’s the relationship between what I'm doing and the audience. I want to erase the negative or positive meaning of manipulation. Yes, I want to manipulate the audience, I want to transmit something and it's not just a message. I enter into the scene and I try to manipulate the space and to manipulate the communication so that I get something or they feel something. I cannot tell you what I'm doing, but the action is manipulation and all of the time conscious of this. I am conscious also of how I walk and what kind of atmosphere I create all the time. I'm conscious, not only of what's happening in my body, but of how they see. Yeah, I don't have a better word to use than manipulation. I don't know if in English it really works.
Andrew: Yes, it's that deep engagement with their response to provoke and provide -
Hillel Kogan: If I do a certain movement, I want them to read something; I want them to understand something. I feel that I'm very conscious about the way I'm doing it in order to create this thing that will enable them to see the way I want them to. So in this in this way, manipulating them and forcing them to see something while I'm acting as if I'm natural, or just doing something not being conscious of them there - I don't show them, I don't show the public my interesting in them. It's something that I hide actually.
Andrew: And I guess that's also because you're the creator in this world because you are both inside and outside. Which must be because the initial position, just choreographing with people and sitting there in the audience, you can kind of get a sense of what it's like outside of their response, I guess.
Hillel Kogan: Yes, I agree.
Andrew: What's the plan for 2018?
Hillel Kogan: A lot of tours with We Love Arabs! mainly in France and Belgium, a creation and commission by the Ballet du Capitole, it's a classical ballet company in Toulouse, France. So I will create a work for six dancers, a short work - half an hour, and this will be in May-June. I haven't been creating for other companies so it will be a challenge. I still don't know what I'm going to do. They're very different from me, and my approach also to them. So to prepare myself for that - I don't know if I will start another creation for myself, because I've just premiered in September a new piece, The Swan and the Pimp. So I'm going to work on that piece as well. I'm going to perform it - there is some translation to do, some text to adapt to English, to French because I'm planning to present it internationally. So working on promoting it, but it's unknown how the response will be.