Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

“OCD Love” by L-E-V Dance Company: Mental Illness Plus Dance Equals Ballet and Horror

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By Chan Sze-Wei

(849 words, 5 minute read)

L-E-V Dance company’s OCD Love is tightly choreographed and intense in its physicality, as might be expected from a choreographer issuing from years dancing, choreographing and directing for the iconic Batsheva Company whose Gaga style of dancing and theatrical physicality has become iconic of Israeli contemporary dance. The same can be said of the performance of the magnificent cast, nearly all of whom like choreographer Sharon Eyal, have emerged from the stable of Batsheva dancers. Their bodies are sculpturally precise, blending between positions with the fluid whole-body coordination and feral elasticity of Gaga-tuned bodies, and gyrating rhythmically to the house beats of DJ Ori Lichtik. As the only contemporary dance program for the proscenium in the SIFA 2018 programme (alongside neoclassical ballet, tap dance, and a set of site-specific contemporary duets), L-E-V served well as a crowd-pleasing staple that filled the SOTA Drama Theatre.

Photo by Ron Kedmi

However, OCD Love suffers from the “movie-after-the-book” conundrum. In taking her title from and explicitly acknowledging the inspiration of Neil Hilborn’s viral “OCD” slam poetry video, Eyal sets herself up for a tough comparison. How does one authentically portray the oppression and isolation of mental illness? How does one say or show something unexpected, particularly after referencing so raw and gripping a performance (whose link is helpfully provided on the SIFA online festival catalogue)?

My sense is that Eyal does not venture much into the searing desire and interpersonal wounds that Hilborn lays bare. Instead, she remains in the internal universe of the individual’s discomfort. She admits as much in the programme note, where she describes her vision of the piece as “my shadow and I are dancing”.

Photo by Regina Brocke

The six dancers never fully become characters. They are metaphors, not people. They’re not even particularly attracted to each other, maybe in the way that most of us don’t love ourselves. Rather, they appear to be figments of a single restless mind, haunted by a specifically bodily set of obsessions. In a substantial opening solo, Rebecca Hytting moves determinedly as if submerged in molasses, stretching her long arms impossibly far behind her head and shoulders. There is no emotional struggle, just a dogged sense of pulling herself apart. She is soon framed by Darren Devaney, who holds himself like a Roman marble as he paces the perimeter of the stage, except for one hand grasping restlessly at his abdomen as if the skin beneath his high-waisted matador pants might crawl away and allow him to pluck out his own entrails. As the hum of string instruments is subsumed in a pounding house beat, Shamel Pitts is electrifying in a male duet that enacts the self-conscious, sexualised preening of go-go dancers.

Photo by Ron Kedmi

The solos, duets and trios are impeccably framed by ensemble moments as a composite machine.  The dancers march and twitch mechanically in a knot or a line, with variations and solos peeling off and returning. Emotion takes a back seat, with the eyes and facial expressions often hidden because of the choice of top lighting only, with no face and frontal lighting. There are moments when the dancers’ neutral masks break into theatricality, grimaces and laughter, but the emotion is fleeting, a psychotic twitch unrelated to anything else. Only one dancer, Gon Biran, convincingly performs some kind of derangement in a solo where he shifts abruptly from seduction to anguish to nausea. The dancers manipulate each other physically at times, but their gazes are distant and neutral. They rarely address each other with their eyes or actions even when the machines attack each other, such as when two dancers hoist a rigid body and use its pointed toes to drill into Hytting’s shoulder at the end of her solo. Even the male dancers gyrating in kinky pleather briefs are cold.

What was surprising was the volume of classical ballet references in the choreography. As this is my first encounter with Eyal’s work, I went to check out if this degree of neoclassicism is standard for her repertory, but it appears that it isn’t. So I read that the series of Swan Lake postures (tightly crossed legs, arms in swan-flapping portebras), the feet in strict fifth position, the tightly executed waltz and petit allegro footwork, to be Eyal’s nod to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. It is an easy choice to pick on a stereotype established by a popular film (but also held by “the rest” of the dance world who don’t work in ballet) that enjoys mocking ballet dancers and the culture of ballet training as the most uptight and tortured breed of us all. Which isn’t quite true – pervasive unhealthy behaviour can be rampant in all dance forms, not least of all in many big-name contemporary dance companies.

Towards the end of the piece, Mariko Kakizaki undulates long swan-arms desperately as she is lifted overhead by the group. Just before the group fades into silhouette, Hytting sends a haunted gaze over her shoulder to the audience, before another dancer wrenches her head back. Mental illness plus dance equals ballet and horror, again.


OCD Love ran from 5-6 May 2018 at the SOTA Drama Theatre. This review is based on the performance of 5 May 2018.

Guest contributor Chan Sze-Wei is a dance maker, performance maker and sometime trouble maker. Blending conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, performance installation and film, her work is often intimate and sometimes invasively personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender.

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