Ancient texts inspire dance's digital world in Birds Sing a Pretty Song

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      Ancient texts have an unexpected rendezvous with cutting-edge technology in the bold multimedia work birds sing a pretty song.

      Choreographed by former Vancouverite Rebecca Margolick and cocreated and directed with Maxx Berkowitz, the piece had its genesis during a yearlong fellowship at New York City’s LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture—a program that uses classic Jewish texts to inspire artworks.

      “It’s an incubator with a lot of artists from other mediums,” says Berkowitz, who’s also an interactive art director and guitarist in the band Twin Wave. He’s sharing the phone with Margolick, speaking from New York City, where the partners in life and art are based.

      “It’s reading these ancient Jewish texts in a nonreligious setting and seeing how they fit into today,” adds Margolick, who’s also a former company member with Chutzpah Festival regulars Sidra Bell Dance New York. “For us, it became ‘How do we make a piece about now?’ ”

      The pair found that old ideas about beauty, surveillance, and identity played naturally into our relationship with technology today.

      Margolick points out that her generation was the last to grow up without social media and the Internet as children. Then the world became wired. “How has that affected us as human beings? We have these split personalities: our online personality and the private personality.”

      Margolick and Berkowitz decided to use interactive media and motion graphics, an area Berkowitz has worked in extensively, to explore the themes of life in the digital age.

      “Both of us were seeing a lot of dance and video being used together, and dance shows with a lot of technology, but I was questioning how these things really go together,” Margolick says. “There were shows with a lot of projections and I felt like it was just really flashy. For this piece, we said, ‘How do we use technology to help further the piece as a whole instead of just being an element of the show?’ ”

      “I thought about really connecting the dancers with the digital world,” Berkowitz adds.

      The resulting piece plays a lot with distortion—in sound and in video—to represent the way technology sometimes warps our identity. At one point, Margolick speaks and we see her face being distorted via live digital projections, but we also hear her voice being delayed, looped, and altered in real time.

      “The idea is there’s this disconnect between your online self and yourself,” Margolick says. “How do you put yourself out there on social media?”

      The duo amps up the production with live music played by Berkowitz, guitarist Jake Klar, and percussionist Bruno Esrubilsky.

      “It’s really epic,” Margolick says of dancing with the musicians performing on-stage. “At times it feels like you’re in a rock concert. It feels alive.”

      “It really lets you craft and build energy and movement together. It’s fun to have dancers actually moving with you and interpreting with you,” Berkowitz says.

      Live rock music, interactive technology, audio looping, and video projections: birds sing a pretty song has evolved a long way from the numerous ancient texts that launched the work at LABA. But Margolick and Berkowitz are bringing a special guest with them to tie the piece right back to its inspiration: Israeli-born, New York City–based author and scholar Ruby Namdar, whose Hebrew novel The Ruined House won Israel’s highest literary award, the Sapir Prize, in 2015.

      “Ruby was our teacher during the whole fellowship,” Margolick says. “He has a preshow talk where he chooses a piece of text he thinks is relevant to the piece and he teaches it.”

      As the saying goes, everything old is new again.

      Chutzpah Plus presents birds sing a pretty song at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Saturday and Sunday (May 13 and 14).