Choreographer Saar Magal in an interview “Sex and Violence”

“Jephta’s Daughter” by Saal Magal, Bayerisches Staatsballett;
“Jephta’s Daughter” by Saal Magal, Bayerisches Staatsballett; | Photo: Marc Wittkowski

The Israeli choreographer Saar Magal lives and works mainly in Germany. At the Opera Festival in Munich 2015 her production “Jephta’s Daughter” premiered, a choreographic reflection of a biblical story from the “Book of Judges”. She tells the tale of the warrior Jephta who sacrifices his daughter. Using the example of “Jephta’s Daughter”, Saar Magal explains how she thinks and works.

Saar Magal, did you want to be a choreographer from the beginning?

Originally I wanted to be a ballerina. I started doing ballet at the age of eight. I loved achieving the top standards required. And then, when I was 15, I went to the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Tel Aviv, the only school of its kind at that time in Israel. There were also classes in choreography, and from the very beginning it was my thing. They let me do pieces for the classes. After I left the High School in 1994, I felt that dance was the medium with which I could combine music, film and text to tell my own stories. Then I choreographed my first piece for the Batsheva Dance Company. I was always more interested in the creative process than in performing myself. And I’m also interested in groups and their human mechanisms.

You then studied at the Laban Centre in London. Did you benefit from that?

I’m more interested in contents than in the exploration of physical possibilities. I love movement, but the older I get the more fascinated I am by the idea of the “Gesamtkunstwerk”.

2012 in „Hacking Wagner“ you dealt with the controversial view of this composer in Israel. Your latest piece „Jephta‘s Daughter“ revolves around a story from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. How do they go together?

In Hacking Wagner I was dealing with the Holocaust and what being a Jewish artist means to me. In Jeptha’s Daughter the focus is on the gender issue. What interests me in this old, rather mysterious biblical story is our present-day access to it, especially with regard to the question as to how far we women sacrifice ourselves for men nowadays. For a woman today has to be perfect in all respects: a perfect mother, a perfect career woman, you must have the ambition to earn the same as a man. And you always have to look great. The word sacrifice means that you give something that you never get back. You sacrifice your life for your father, for affluence, for a top job. If women want to have children, they often still have to sacrifice their career.

But that’s a very superficial concept of sacrifice.

A real sacrifice only occurs in extreme situations or in religious contexts, there the ideology always plays a role. Then there’s the level beneath that, when for example a female dancer says: this is a sacrifice for me, being here at rehearsal and not with my family. I can accept that although I personally don’t regard it as a sacrifice.

Men have their own concepts according to which they live, like Jephta. Women, like his daughter, defer to them. The strangest thing with Jephta’s daughter is that before being sacrificed by her own father, she asks for a delay of two months so that she retire to a mountain with her female companions to bewail her virginity.

Yes, and that is the only time that she raises her voice. In this story I was interested to ask what you would do if you only had two months to live. And that is what I also asked my dancers.

What role do the dancers play? Do they act, as it were, as co-choreographers due to their improvisations?

I do of course have certain concepts and there’s a certain movement framework that structures the piece and that I teach them. For their part they incorporate their personal stories, for example their feelings when they have to make a personal sacrifice. Once this has been intellectually processed, it should be given expression either in motion or language. And then of course it comes together with the music and is adapted into the whole scene.

In recent years the relationship between dance and music has changed completely. For some time now dance is no longer simply the transformation of a certain piece of music into movement. Music meanwhile is often no more than an atmospheric or rhythmic soundscape. What function does the music have in your pieces?

Together with my colleague, the musician and composer Haggai Cohen-Milo, who I know from the High School, I developed my own system during the rehearsals. We transferred certain conditions and different forms of reflexiveness such as jazz musicians use in improvisation to the dance and the dancers.

In the form of cues?

Yes, that too. And then of course we had a catalogue of themes in this piece – virginity, sacrifice, violence, sex, religion, patriarchal rights in specific scenes. The music was developed together with the respective scenes.

Do women have special movements in your choreography?

That depends in each case on the content, on the scene and its meaning.

Heiner Müller named fear and geometry as the motivation for dance. What do you say?

Sex and violence.