Why do people have to take controversial issues so seriously? In a world where every political debate turns into a new reason to abuse barbiturates, it feels like it's time for everyone to just calm down and laugh. A sense of levity may not have been choreographer and performer Hillel Kogan's primary reason for creating We Love Arabs, but it's certainly ingrained in it.
We Love Arabs is centered on two dancers trying to choreograph a performance art piece about Israeli-Arab race relations and the conflicts between the two groups. Don't walk away if this concept makes you uncomfortable. If you do, you'll prove Kogan's point. "Because the reality between the ethnicities in Israel is so violent and painful," says Kogan, "the political and ethnic discourse is loaded with a lot of heavy emotions that make us a little blind to the reality." A lot of people know that comedy's been a railgun against racism for decades, but it's important to note the way that We Love Arabs gets laughs.
The comedy in We Love Arabs isn't spitting Real Time with Bill Maher-esque political bile in one direction. It's much more playful and is, as Kogan views it, better for it. "The comic approach enables us to examine the questions with less hard emotions, with less heaviness, and it offers the opportunity to laugh at ourselves."
Kogan originally created We Love Arabs to answer the question: What is an Arab movement and what is a Jewish movement? "I decided that the piece will be about the way that the Jew looks on the Arab ... particularly the white, Jewish Israeli, from the left." If it isn't obvious by now, Kogan is an Israeli Jew, so he knows a thing or two about this subject. And, thanks to Arab Israeli co-star Adi Boutrous, the way a white Jew looks on an Arab is represented in their rapport.
Around the time of the piece's conception in 2013, Boutrous was (and, according to Kogan, still is) the only Israeli-Arab dancer who works in the Israeli professional dance scene. Having Kogan and Boutrous as the only performers in the piece drives home much of the racial discourse inside Israel. One of the best visual symbols of the power imbalance is Kogan being the only one of the two with a microphone. A lot of the humor is knee-deep in irony, occasionally leaning toward the absurd. How absurd? Try two men covering themselves in hummus to find a national kinship. So, sort of a kooky.
Wrapped up in the performance's sporadically bizarre jokes is an original slant on an old subject. "I wanted to make a parody about political art, about the cliches of political art," says Kogan. It's novel to hear someone go against the classic battle cry of acoustic-guitar wielding white college students everywhere — you know, those proclaiming that "art can change the world."
Kogan's not being cynical when he parodies political art, though. He's just asking a question that more people should ask: Can the arts really fix the problem's humans face? "I don't believe that art has much political influence on people," says Kogan. "I don't know many people that have changed their political view after seeing a dance piece." It's a reasonable thing to wonder and We Love Arabs weaponizes it so that the audience is laughing with art, not at it. The show derives plenty of humor from the way that the two performers decide to artistically represent details of a pervasive national issue.
That's not to say that Kogan is opposed to the arts being political, just that it's not as much of a social powerplay as other means. "Artists can reflect reality, can protest, can criticize, yet the responsibility of repairing the Jewish-Arab conflict, any political conflict, is of the people themselves, not of artists."
The performance piece has become a hit with critics and audiences alike. It's netted Kogan plenty of praise from reviewers and the Israeli Dance Critics Circle's "Outstanding Creator" award. In addition, it's gotten great reactions from Israelis. "Many Israeli-Arab viewers thanked me for taking this subject onto stage," says Kogan. If that's true, then the piece appears to be working as some sort of bonding experience between the two groups.
The program has also done well in the international sphere. While it was never Kogan's intent, We Love Arabs was translated to English and French. Whatever language it speaks or nation it's performed in, Kogan says it gets the same reaction everywhere. And it's not too difficult to figure out why. At its core, We Love Arabs is about bigotry, a crime that we've all committed at some point in our lives.
Kogan may not have realized it at the time, but his odd little performance piece satirizing politics in art has a universal appeal. After enough time, he understood that people can easily replace the Israeli and the Arab for any two groups — gay and straight, black and white, Federation and Klingon ... take your pick.
But, Kogan stands firm in his belief that, despite the malleable themes of We Love Arabs, it's not art's place to solve an issue, even if it may grease the wheels. "I have never dreamt that dance would change the world, but I have dreamt that human beings would change."
Hillel Kogan offers a Gaga People master class on June 10 at 1 p.m. Learn more at spoletousa.org.