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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020: An Interview with Reut Shemesh (ATARA – For you, who has not yet found the one)

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Female, Jewish and an Israeli living in Germany, Reut Shemesh’s background is certainly one that offers up a myriad of perspectives by which to see the world. At the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Reut will be bringing in her work ATARA – For you, who has not yet found the one, investigating femininity, religion and personhood with a mixed cast of Orthodox and secular dancers.

Drawn from interviews and photographic portraits, the dancers will perform and transform re-enactments, religious ceremonies, rituals and conversations into a striking contemporary work. Set to have audience members examine their own clichés, prejudices and lifestyles, we spoke to Reut to find out a little more about the work before it makes its Singapore premiere this January. Read the interview in full below:

Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about the title – what is the meaning behind the word ‘atara’, and why the subtitle ‘for you, who has not yet found the one’?

Reut: The meaning of atara in Hebrew is a crown. The word is used also as a woman’s first name. The symbol of the ‘crown’ is repeating in the aesthetic of the piece; the triangle light object hanged at the top of the stage resembling a crown. 

The subtitle applies for the thematic of the piece; The relation between norms and the construction of the family unit in both secular and religious social circles. The title is also softly criticizing the concept of heteronormative relationships and social expectations behind the concept of partnerships, and the social pressure that some bachelors come across with.

Bakchormeeboy: In conceptualising your work, what is your process like? What is the start point for an idea, and how does it develop from there?

Reut: The starting point of ATARA was an unresolved question: The expected role of a typical woman in the Orthodox Jewish community. This led me to discuss the topic in-depth with selected individuals, orthodox, ex-orthodox and secular women, about their lifestyle and its relation to my (secular) worldview. By doing so, I hoped to resolve some of my issues and questions. In addition, in the studio, I began to explore folk dance and movements that recur at weddings and ceremonies of Jewish religious women. 

Bakchormeeboy: Growing up in a mixed secular/Orthodox family, how were you made aware of the tensions present as a child, and how do you think it affected your view of the world?

Reut: My life story/experience allows me to closely experience the Hasidic way of living. I was born in Israel and about 15 years ago some of my closest family members converted to Orthodox Hasidic Judaism. Occasionally I take part in their Jewish ceremonies and rituals. When I do, I have to follow certain rules. According to Hasidic laws, it is prohibited for a man to touch a woman to whom he is not married. This rule applies to all family members, friends, and associates (apart from his mother). Therefore, I have not expressed any physical affection towards my brother for more than 15 years. 

Bakchormeeboy: ATARA is set to comprise of re-enactments, religious ceremonies, rituals and more. Is there a fear that with Jewish traditions being such a minority in Singapore, there will be a knowledge gap that weakens the work? Is there any preparation audience members should make before coming to see the show?

Reut: Not really, the work toured through Germany. Yet, It might come as a surprise, but most German people do not know how orthodox Jewish women dress. At the beginning of the piece, the audience gets a program sheet with basic information and background about orthodox Jewish life and my motivation to create this work. 

Bakchormeeboy: What message surrounding femininity, sexuality and gender does your work seek to convey, and why this form?

Reut: The work pointing out the crossroad in which many people meets; the relationship between social norms and one’s desire to fit in regard to family, intimate relationships, and gender norms. 

Bakchormeeboy: How did you select your performers, and what was it based on, besides skill? Were their personal stories also incorporated into the work?

Reut: First, I always aim to work with people I love and inspired by. The dancers are using their own resources. Yet, I do not ask them to reveal details from their private life. However, the piece is created with them. Therefore, they bring life experiences and movement qualities that belong to their unique and individual enterprise.  

I have already been working with Hella and Florian. I know both of them for quite some time. I met Tzipi in an audition for religious women I did on Jerusalem. This is my first project with her. 

Bakchormeeboy: You’re an Israeli artist living in Cologne. Do you ever feel like an outsider because of your origins? How then do you resolve the tension between having Germany as your ‘country’ and the Jews as ‘your people’? 

Reut: Sure I do. For example, my name, Reut, is very uncommon in Germany. My works are based on my personal experiences. Through my work, I allow myself to stay in contact with my origin and unfold it into performances.

Photo Credit: Öncü Gültekin

ATARA – For you, who has not yet found the one runs from 14th to 15th January 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets available from SISTIC

The 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 8th to 19th January 2020. Tickets and more information available from their website here

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