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Nejla Y. Yatkin/NY2Dance

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Editorial Review

Conflict inspires 'Oasis' of dance
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, March 23, 2012

While watching from afar as the Arab Spring fanned out across the Middle East, dancer-choreographer Nejla Yatkin found the events at once inspiring and puzzling.

"We have this democracy spreading, but what does that mean?" wondered Yatkin, who was born and raised in Berlin to Turkish parents. "And where are the women's voices? Where are the voices of half the population?"

As a woman with the freedom to speak, Yatkin decided to do a little talking of her own - through dance. She and her six dancers will be telling assorted, sometimes surreal tales during the preview weekend of Yatkin's new work, "Oasis: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Middle East but Were Afraid to Dance."

When it comes to voices, Yatkin has a sedate one; her words come out methodically in low tones. But what she lacks in vocal volume, she makes up for with powerful, unremitting performances. Watching her work "Wallstories," which was inspired by the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, critics called Yatkin a fierce performer capable of haunting, gripping theatricality.

Like that piece, "Oasis" embraces layers, both with its myriad narrative threads and its presentation. Along with dance and theater, there are elements of shadow play, video installations and original music. Inspired by magical realism, the action onstage exists in multiple realities designed to elicit a spectrum of emotions. Themes include torture, spirituality, veiling, revolution and freedom.

"I didn't just want to show the pretty side of the Middle East," Yatkin says. "But I also didn't want to just show the ugly side of it that you constantly see on the news. I wanted to kind of give both and make it more human, because all of humanity goes through both the ugly and beautiful."

If there's one thread throughout the piece it's the star-crossed love story of Layla and Majnun, which Yatkin refers to as the Middle Eastern "Romeo and Juliet."

"Layla stands for the soul, and Majnun stands for humanity," she says. "So humanity loses its soul, and it's in constant search."

That tragic fable aside, much of "Oasis" was inspired by real events. Yatkin assigned her dancers homework; they were to bring stories - both personal experiences and those found in the news - to rehearsals for a bit of show and tell.

"Nejla always wants us to get very involved in the pieces we're doing," says dancer Karina Lesko, who has collaborated with Yatkin on many occasions. "She likes having the dancers bring a lot of their own emotions into a piece."

The goal is a deeply invested corps of participants, who more fully comprehend the subject matter they're tackling. One dancer, for example, arrived at rehearsal crying after reading about a woman who had been imprisoned because her uncle raped her.

If that story can be compared to the grim conditions of the desert, there's always an oasis to be found.

"It's kind of like going in and out of a dreamland," Lesko says. "That's what's beautiful about the piece; it's a lot of contrast."

The dream-reality juxtaposition also crops up in the video by Patrick Lovejoy. The installations, which are projected onto partially transparent swaths of fabric, incorporate photos Yatkin shot while visiting the Middle East.

"[It's] a tapestry that's not so literal, so it doesn't feel like you're looking at a photo," Lovejoy says. "It's kind of blurring the lines between the real and the abstract."