Dance: Interview With Choreographer Omer Backley-Astrachan

Rebecca Varidel
25th Jan 2018

This February, Form Dance Projects and Riverside Theatres will present two exciting works, Wildebeest and Valley, by Israeli choreographer Omer Backley-Astrachan.

We originally met in late 2016 at Carriageworks when Omer and dancer wife Sharon were also at the Ballet du Nord opening night of Tragédie. Then, we enjoyed an exciting chat after that performance, about that work and their own upcoming performances at 2016 Sydney Fringe. with Valley then a solo work. Soon after, Omer and I had this chat over coffee. 

So. How did you get started in dancing?

Oh wow. Well actually I started dancing quite late in comparison to others.

What does quite late mean?

Well actually I started dancing during my army service, 'cause I'm from Israel. And I was a musician previously, and I was sure that music is you know my career, and my dream was to go to Berkley in New York and become a huge musician, jazz, but then yeah I joined the Israeli army where they kind of reset you, you loose your personality in a way, you shave your head, you put on your uniform, you are just like everybody else, from that point of nothing, I couldn't practice my music. I had been dancing a little bit previously, just like Israeli folk dance, more like an amateur sort of dance group, but I think only in the army when I stopped doing everything I became just like...

An empty shell?

An empty shell. Yes exactly. Then I kind of realised that is actually my richer passion. You know. 'Cause I think at the age of 18 you don't really know anything about what you want to do in your life. I was very confused. I was like I didn't even want to join the army. I was like...

Were you conscripted? Did you have to join?

You have to join. It is mandatory. But I didn't want to be a fighter. And I went to the army psychologist. I was like if you put me as a fighter I will loose my mind. Please do not do that. Eventually I got (what do you call it) I joined the airforce, so they let me be a technician, so I worked with aircrafts.

And yeah. So from that point I kind of thought where am I going with this, where am I going with my music.

And then, I don't remember at what point it actually happened that I imagined a career as a dancer.

(Omer danced first with Kamea Dance Company, and then Kibbutz. Then he moved to Tel Aviv to work with independent choreographers.)

And I worked with Idan Cohen Dance Company. With Idan Cohen I did a number of works, two of them were solo works; I travelled all over the world performing, teaching workshops, that was really an amazing experienced working with Idan and rehearsal director Melanie Berson they really shaped my world of (I'm looking for a word) I guess you could say my artistic choices are very influenced by the way that they could see dance, art. And then I worked with a lot of other choreographers in Tel Aviv freelance based- Jerusalem Dance Theatre, Jerusalem Ballet, I could say different names but yeah..

So in the risk taking, when the did the risk taking start? It sounds like it started early.

I think I was always the kind of person that doesn't like to conform. If you look at me (his hands gesture down his t-shirt) I look like a very normal...

You mean off the stage while we're just having coffee?

Also, in school I didn't like the way school ran and I used to write letters to the principal saying I don't agree with the way that this teacher teachers, I think it is wrong. You know, I teach today as well, and I do things my way. So in terms of dance I also don't think that we need to conform to what the audience is demanding or expecting, and usually when the audience has been surprised they like it better anyway.

And I think that the themes I am working with are themes that question social conditioning, what everyone thinks, why do they think it, why do some people think differently. You know coming from Israel the fuel that burns my fire is often political, which is interesting because I thought I would come to Australia and it would calm down this kind of political urge, this political fire, but I find that a lot of the things that happen in Israel are actually global, they're happening here in Australia as well. I was just yesterday listening to JJJ about the kid that rode the motor cycle, the Aboriginal kid...

It's very similar to what Israelis are saying about Palestinians. And I often ask myself. You know.

What's the human nature? You know.

Do we naturally love, or naturally hate, or naturally both.

So as well as political would you say your work is philosophical?

Yeup. It is.

That questioning sounds philosophical to me.

I guess if I put it in different words. Like I guess scientists looks for answers. And artists think well (I can only speak for myself), and artists don't look for answers, they look for questions. So I don't necessarily try to resolve anything. I don't try to leave the audience a certain message or conclusion about how things should be. I just want to present certain questions.

And maybe then they can figure it out on their own.

Your pieces for Sydney Fringe Festival, have you performed that before and how does that fit into the political and philosophical questioning?

How does the show fit in?

How does your choreography fit in...

Well there are two works that evening. Both of them are premiere. So the second work that will be performed that evening has been performed in different showings as part of a work in progress. So some people get to see it in different stages but now we finally brought it into a place where it is (you know) we think that the work is ready to be called finished and to be presented without any apologies, you know this is what is and this is what we made, and it is a political. Well we started the process of the work very conceptual so we asked questions about human nature and in this specific work we were asking how human nature is connected to universal behaviours, so actual things that happen in the large universe, like gravity, like the big bang, like the tendency to synchronise, the tendency of things to revolve around each other, how does this reflect in us, not just in our physical behaviour but also in our emotional behaviour and the way that we see the world?

Would you say there's a spiritual aspect?

Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. So actually. We started very scientific. I read as much as I can about physics, about cosmology, but also I read about how Eastern philosophies ah... tried to get as much as I can about nature you know about dichotomies, about how things work in opposition to each other. We started making the work very literal, so we made sections that are quite simply presenting moments that happen in the universe between people. So people could represent stars, or people could represent forces, or people could represent different patterns that happen in the universe. And then slowly within the process, we started making it more abstract, we started making it more spiritual, we started making it more about the complexity and then simplicity of human emotions. So then it's not you know, I don't like to think about dance as like similar to a good book. Dance is not like a good book, you know. It's not something that you should watch and be informed in a way that you can afterwards speak about it and inform other people. That's something that you have to experience first hand.

Which makes it strange having an interview when I'm not watching you dancing, right? Because we are just talking about it.

Yeah. That's my philosophy about dance. That's the lines that I try to follow when I create or when I dance. It's more about allowing the viewer to enter our world and find how our world is opening up their world inside themselves so that they can start making abstract realisations about themselves even if its not something that they can put it words.

But you can FEEL If you see something work, you can feel it afterwards. You can feel that you have experienced some sort of process and it changed you a little bit. You know what I mean. And that's all that I would like to do.

I'm in the beginning of my process, my career, I'm only young, but that's definitely one of my goals.

So you are performing two pieces that night at Fringe. What's the second piece?

So we were talking about the second piece first.

Valley is a new work that I created on a young dancer called Ellie Graham. In my eyes it's the beginning of a separate evening. This is like a section of something that I'm working on for the future. This work came from a certain decision that I made because I find a lot of dance here in Sydney, because of the way that the system runs, because of the way that the funding works, the works are very conceptual. Very conceptual. And what I miss a little bit is the ability to create movement that comes from an intuition, to create movement that comes from the knowledge that I can just trust, because if I found, sometimes if I research things it creates something different, not to say it's bad or good but I found I really want to allow myself, I found I have a deep world of thoughts and emotions that I don't have to put it in words, you know put it on a piece of paper and call it research.

For this specific work, I found that I just really wanted to allow it to come up straight into movement instead of having that kind of filter.

So you go. Thoughts. Words. Movement.

I just want it to go. Thoughts feelings movement immediately.

And where does sound fit in to the collaboration with movement?

In terms as the creation process?

Yes, and what you end up with in performance?

Well I can say about Valley that I worked with different music. Music to me. I try not to make it whimsical. You know I don't want to work on a whim with music. I want to respect the music.

I knew that the length of the solo that I am making has to be similar to the length of the music. I don't want to stop music in the middle. So I did a huge research on that. Like I was for days up until 3am researching music, to find the right atmosphere, to find the right length, to find the right style that I wanted to work with.

Music is like yeah food for inspiration.

What comes first? The music is already there when you ah, or how does that creative process work?

You know when you go into like the depth of YouTube, when you start researching stuff, it is for me I find weird stuff, weird weird music, different electronic music, that just becomes more ambient and just like sounds and noises, and then sometimes depending on where you work you can almost sometimes substitute those noises for just street noises or nature. So I found some things come out of you when I use music, but I also sometimes also like to work sometimes with environment sounds, or silence, but it's not actually silence ever you know.

But I guess the general concept that I did want to work with in this is Love. Love and loneliness.

I just had this image in my head of a girl, a woman, in a certain personal environment, like a home, where she feels that it is her space. (Looking for better English for this.)

Private space?

It's like she entered a certain space that something is not right. And I think that is a certain metaphor for certain eternal feelings. I guess it's also to do with this conflict we sometimes have. The need or the desire to feel Love which is maybe the ultimate pleasure, happiness, passion, but there is something that is just not right.

I read a lot of Rilke poetry.

And he is the kind of like a poet of in between eras. So he is not exactly a classical poet; he is not exactly a contemporary poet. He is still influenced by Christianity; but he is also questioning Christianity. He sees love that is something that is almost dependent on solitude and loneliness. He says that if you want you want your relationship, if you want your love to be healthy, you got to stand guard of your own solitude. If you start relying on your partner too much you loose the ground under you.