New dance-concert explores Palestinian-Israeli conflict
Inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, local choreographer Karl Schaffer’s “Mosaic” is a dance-concert featuring Jewish Diaspora and Arab music from the women’s choral group Zambra, singer Fattah Abbou and a troupe of local dancers. In between rehearsals for the show, which runs June 21-22 at Motion Pacific, Schaffer shared the story behind its creation.
Good Times: Why do you think it’s important to examine people’s feelings on the Middle East?
Karl Schaffer: Well, It’s been central to the wars the U.S. has been involved in for the last 10 years. I also feel I have a kind of special connection and a responsibility as somebody brought up and raised Jewish to speak about injustices that I see in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. … I think the U.S. spends more money on the military (and) war than any other country. That’s our tax money—we’re paying for it and I don’t agree, and I feel I should say something about it—and the way I say something tends to be through dance.
How does “Mosaic” unfold onstage?
It’s composed of a variety of pieces, with different modes of performance—different emotional modes. Some are fairly stark, some are really about reconciliation and joining together, some maybe even a little depressing, some the opposite. But there’s a variety.
How do your childhood experiences of growing up Jewish in Birmingham, Ala. during the Civil Rights Movement relate to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and this production?
Even though I lived in a white suburb, anyone that lived there is close to the events of that time including the extreme violence of the Ku Klux Klan—murders, bombings and so on. For example, someone who cleaned house for my parents had daughters who were friends with the four girls killed in the church bombing. So you were never far removed from these events. Drive through town and you’d see where the explosions had been, or see demonstrations …
It always appeared to me that the anti-Semitism was so much milder than the racism—white versus black—and so that affected me a great deal. And I make connections between the discrimination faced by African American people in the South when I was growing up and the situation of Palestinians in the occupied territories. I see connections there. For example … African Americans couldn’t sit except in the back of the bus, and in the occupied territories there are separate bus systems for Palestinians and Israelis. Some of the parallels are quite striking.
One segment of “Mosaic” is about two dancers in a bar …
(Laughs) It’s the start of a joke: A Palestinian and Israeli go into a bar … and what we did for that piece is we scoured the Internet for jokes that Israelis and Palestinians tell about themselves. I feel there’s a commonality, a way of making fun of themselves that you find in jokes that both sides tell. And I think that’s very revealing and it also can be funny and make you think about it at the same time. And I like using humor in that way … so the scenario is kind of about two characters, who are maybe comedians, who are arguing about the jokes they tell.
I think people in the U.S. are somewhat familiar with what might be called Jewish humor, but Palestinian humor I think is very similar. With both groups you … find a kind of making-fun, in the kind of helpless, Woody Allen, schlemiel sense of making fun of themselves. To me, it shows a kind of commonality and it’s helpful to analyze the jokes, but it’s sort of fun to listen to them. … You can think about what it is you’re really laughing at and why it is you’re laughing—and that can be very revealing.
How do Islamic mathematics fit into the show?
In Islamic or Arab culture, tilings—which are a popular part of the art in that culture—the tiling takes a visual and repeats it … in many directions, and puts together patterns. And the Islamic artists and mathematicians developed the ideas behind tilings quite extensively. … M.C. Escher used tessellations, or tilings, and he began his work with tiling by going to the Alhambra in Spain, which is a huge extensive palace where the walls are covered with these Islamic tilings. … So there are different aspects of various cultures that we bring up. There’s more Israeli folk singing in a sense because many of Zambra’s songs are what they call songs from the Jewish Diaspora … but many of the visuals represent the Islamic tilings.
You’ve integrated a lot of diverse elements into “mosaic.” Is that a metaphor?
Yes. They can all work together—not only work together, but in some sense belong together. So there’s that larger point of view that you can take, that all of us from whatever culture or background are part of the same world and can make beautiful things together.
“Mosaic” is aimed at a Santa Cruz audience, but is it something that would appeal to Israelis and palestinians alike?
I think so. I think the one piece where there is a very clear political point of view is my solo … I don’t like to put the words into the mouths of other dancers or performers. If I have something personal to say, I’ll say it. I think it will be interesting and informative. I think people would get something out of it no matter where they’re from.
What can we learn from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Islam, Judaism and Christianity all stem from the same philosophical historical roots—they’re close. The peoples of that area used to live together much more easily than right now and can again—and to me, it seems natural that they would.
What is the message at the heart of “Mosaic”?
War and conflict [are] horrible, but people can come to terms with it and bring about peace. … I think that peace and justice with Palestine and Israel is possible.
‘Mosaic’ runs June 21-22 at Motion Pacific, 131 Front St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15/adv, $18/door with discounts for students and seniors. Seating is limited. Visit motionpacific.com for tickets or movespeakspin.org for more information.
Photos: Steve Dibartolomeo