I’m left with a lot of thoughts to process after seeing choreographer Hillel Kogan’s We Love Arabs. I’m not really conflicted, because I absolutely enjoyed it, but I keep thinking of the different ways the audience can read the ballet. On its surface, it’s a piece about Israeli-Arab relations and the miscommunications that transpire. On another level, it’s a performance about the hypocrisy behind those who mean the best, and in yet another way, it’s a satire of the idea that artists can make a grand world changing statement on politics. It’s a lot to unpack in just an hour and can easily leave a viewer frazzled.
At the show’s beginning, Kogan stood alone on stage with only a spotlight to accompany him. He leaped around the stage showing his technical prowess as a dancer, while giving a calculated ramble about the space surrounding his body, and the occasional unwelcoming feeling he gets from the space around him. It tied in as a well placed metaphor for his status as a second generation Israeli immigrant, but also poked a lot of fun at self-indulgent artists speaking vaguely to an audience that’s expected to understand the broad symbolism of every movement. So much makes sense to only the artist and Kogan seems to know that.
Adi Boutrous walked on stage calmly and quietly in the middle of Kogan’s rant and introduced himself. Kogan’s character was clearly nervous about meeting an Arab, despite saying that he lived among plenty of Muslims. He tried to ask Boutrous how to pronounce “Mohammad,” while Boutrous blankly stared at him. It was well done cringe-comedy, and rightfully satirized everyone who doesn’t know how to interact with other cultures, but still brags about their progressive political beliefs.
We Love Arabs never really lets up on its plot. The whole show takes every opportunity to slowly expand on Kogan and Boutrous’ relationship, mostly through body language and movement. The two are looking for a kinship, mostly through Kogan’s odd symbolism. They held a fork and knife during their extensive interpretive dance, slathered their faces in hummus to create a new Israeli identity, and carried each other across an imaginary river. It all lead to one of the best lines of the night. “Being Israeli is hummus,” Kogan exclaimed.
The climax of the show was a “dream.” Kogan and Boutrous spun, jumped, embraced, and interpretive danced on a fog filled stage. They met in the middle, and fed each other pita and hummus. The two dancers then stepped off stage and extended the offer to the front row patrons, who gladly accepted the traditional Middle-Eastern dip.
One of the ironies behind the ballet is Kogan’s character. He’s likable, until you give his character a little bit of thought. The truth is that Kogan wrote and played his part perfectly, and his part was that of a guy whose heart is in the right place, but who simply doesn’t understand his own hypocrisy. Kogan’s character treats Boutrous like an accessory.
The two play up their dynamic for a lot of laughs and a little bit of melancholy. There’s a running joke where Kogan asks Boutrous “do you get it?” The punchline is that he never actually lets Boutrous answer. He’s so busy speaking for him that Boutrous doesn’t even get a microphone. It’s used as a clever visual symbol of the out of whack power scale between the two. The way he victimized Boutrous was definitely funny, but brought plenty of food for thought. One of the symbols the two used were a Star of David on Kogan’s chest and an Islamic crescent on Boutrous’ forehead. While Kogan drew the moon on his head, Boutrous looked at him with a calm demeanor and says that he’s a Christian.
Much of Boutrous’ attitude during the show (passive mocking, indifference) helped set the mood. Plenty of humor was derived from laughing at Kogan’s outrageous symbolic dance moves, and just as much came from laughing with Kogan at the pretentious outlook many artists have. This may sound like a stretch to some, but an abundance of the jokes in We Love Arabs came from a similar place as 2017 horror film Get Out. Both use metonymy and metaphor to point out the lack of awareness plenty of self-righteous people have. Both Kogan and the villains of Get Out claim to respect people of different cultures, but prove they don’t in very different ways. The difference is that Kogan’s character is more lovable than he deserves to be.
Taking too many worlds to task is a bit of a detriment to the show because it leads Kogan to spreading the main thesis of We Love Arabs a little thin. Instead of hitting one target as hard as possible, the dance settles for hitting a few targets pretty hard. It’s also easy to get lost in the multiple interpretations possible, as opposed to just enjoying the show for what it is. But, I’ll take controlled ambition over slacktivism any day of the week.