Emanuel Gat tackles a choreographer’s Mount Everest

Members of the Polish National Ballet. Photo by Ewa Krasuca.

Members of the Polish National Ballet. Photo by Ewa Krasuca.

Dancer and choreographer Emanuel Gat grew up in Netanya, Israel, where he studied music, until he discovered dance following his military service. Within two years he was performing and touring professionally with the Liat Dror Nir Ben Gal Company.

A decade later, in 2004, he founded his own troupe, Emanuel Gat Dance at Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Centre. In 2007, Gat settled in Istres, France, on the Mediterranean Sea, where he continues to choreograph for his own company and others around the world, including The Paris Opera Ballet, Sydney Dance Company, Tanztheater Bremen, The Royal Swedish Ballet, Ballet de Marseilles and Cedar Lake Dance Company in New York.

Gat’s acclaimed 2004 work, The Rite of Spring, will be danced on June 23 by the Polish National Ballet at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Last week Gat spoke from Paris about his life and work.

You studied music as a kid, not dance?

I was playing clarinet as a kid and when I finished military service I went to the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. I wanted to become a conductor. Then I discovered the dance and so I stopped the music.

What brought you to dance?

Almost accidentally, I went to an amateur workshop with two choreographers, Nir Ben Gal and Lior Dror, who were working at the time in Tel Aviv, now they’re in the Negev. It was very interesting so I just stayed with them and started working with their company and a year later I stopped [working] with them and started creating my own stuff. It was quite a fast process.

Conductor to choreographer, at first sounds like a big switch, but on second thought, maybe not.

There are a lot of similarities, in fact. There’s a lot of organization, with dance: It’s about space and organization of movement, and with music it’s the same — about sound and instruments and organization.

Martha Graham famously said that it takes 10 years to make a dancer. For you it was barely two. You started dancing at 23 and two years later you were already choreographing your own dances. That takes chutzpah.

Well, maybe, but it felt natural. I did whatever felt right. I just felt it was right for me to do different things so I did it.

Tell us about your choreographic process when you start a new piece.

The next new piece will be 2016. I have no idea what I’ll make next. I never prepare. I just go into the studio and start working. I never have a fixed idea about what I want to do. The working process is very task oriented. I give the dancers different situations and we ask different questions and the choreography is basically the process of trying to answer those questions. We totally use improvisation, but it’s more like a process of studying something and structuring it than simply just improvising.

Rite of Spring spurred a riot at its 1913 premiere in Paris. It is the Mount Everest of scores for most choreographers. For you it was among your earliest works for your company. Is that not chutzpah?

My first piece was in ’94. So, yes, it was quite early on. But as I said before, it just felt right. Maybe it was the naiveté of being young.

If you approach it like a Mount Everest, you become so boring and holy that you cannot have fun with it. It’s making art, it’s not about climbing Mount Everest. It’s about doing something that makes sense to you. If it’s too big and too holy and too important, you basically block yourself from doing something that will be fluid and will be fun and enjoyable. I’m actually happy that I was not so aware of what I was tackling. It allowed me to approach the work more freely, than a preconceived way. Sometimes being ignorant, there’s something more freeing about it.

You did something unexpected with the score and the movement. Tell us about that?

Well, the story is that I was sitting outside listening, many years before I started working on it. I had earphones in and I was listening to The Rite of Spring. There was a group of musicians on the street playing salsa music and there were a few couples dancing salsa. I was hearing Rite of Spring. It was the perfect synchronization and it was quite stunning. I stayed with that idea, a very sensual, rhythmic and fluid kind of dancing to make it work with that score. That was my starting point and then it evolved in different ways. There are just five dancers in the whole piece. The last time we did this piece was in New York at the Lincoln Center and we won a Bessie Award for choreography so I’m really curious to learn about how it works on another company performing in a different city.

Polish National Ballet in Emanuel Gat’s Rite of Spring and other repertory, June 23, 8:00 p.m., Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington, D.C. Tickets: $25 – $95. Call (202) 467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/RPXBR

Lisa Traiger is WJW arts correspondent.

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