A show called “We Love Arabs” might seem out of place in suburban Wake County, thousands of miles from the show’s setting in Israel.
But that’s no obstacle for award-winning Israeli choreographer Hillel Kogan, whose theatrical duet uses the story of Israeli-Arab tensions to examine identity and division everywhere.
“We’ve performed it in many places around the world where there are almost no Arabs at all,” Kogan said. “This piece is very easy to translate to the local situation, because it talks about any kind of racism or discrimination. It could be between white and black, between men and women, between straight and gay people. I think it’s very easy for any audience to make the parallel.”
That may be especially true in Cary, which has long celebrated the multiculturalism derived from its large immigrant population, hosting large-scale events such as the Chinese Lantern Festival and an annual Diwali celebration.
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It’s part of why the town seemed like a worthy venue for this show and the American Dance Festival’s efforts to expand its reach beyond its Durham home, where it’s celebrating its 40th year.
The Cary Theater is hosting two performances of “We Love Arabs” this week – Tuesday and Wednesday – as part of this year’s American Dance Festival.
ADF includes a variety of performances and workshops through July 29. Durham’s Reynolds Industries Theater will also host “We Love Arabs” Friday and Saturday night.
The show, in which Kogan plays an “exaggerated” version of himself, takes place entirely in a dance rehearsal between an Israeli instructor and an Arab dancer. The tensions between their identities are made visible through their working relationship.
Kogan said the show is more theatrical and humorous in its messaging than most dance pieces, making ample use of dialogue to tell its story. Kogan uses his rejection of that norm to his message’s advantage – he said he hopes the racism and power dynamics on display between the characters show how thoroughly political identity pervades even conventionally apolitical settings, like dance.
“My purpose is to use humor to cool down emotions and look at serious questions like political conflict or the creative process, which is a very serious deal, but from a different perspective,” Kogan said. “It’s not meant as pure entertainment, although I know it’s an outcome, because it’s fun to laugh.”
Lyman Collins, Cary’s director of cultural arts, worked with ADF Executive Director Jodee Nimerichter to bring Kogan and his work to the local theater. He said although the piece’s title is a head-turner, humor – not overtly political rhetoric – dominates the stage.
“Part of the design is to get your attention,” Collins said. “I don’t want to give too much away, but it is delivered in a very subtle and effective way that makes you question the way you make assumptions about people. I think we are at a time when people want to learn more about each other and feel that we can come together.”
Nimerichter said she wants to expose the festival’s programming to newcomers in Wake County who might have worried they left cosmopolitan arts programming behind when they, like the ADF, moved to the South.
The festival moved to Durham 40 years ago from New England, where it was founded in 1933.
Even in the Triangle, Nimerichter said, Durham’s downtown can feel a world away from Cary’s. She said she welcomed the opportunity to bring world-class dance to a suburban setting.
“The magic of ADF and the magic of modern dance is that the possibilities are sort of limitless,” Nimerichter said. The obstacle for marketing is that it’s hard to explain a piece like this, which is a real combination of dance and theater. But it might end up being an entry point for people who think modern dance is not for them.”
The Cary performances start at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Tickets cost $28.50 each and can be purchased online at thecarytheater.com, at The Cary Theater box office at 122 E. Chatham St., or by calling 919-462-2055.
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan