In 2008, at six o’clock one morning, artist Tamar Ettun snuck up to the roof of the tallest building in Jerusalem, stood on a swivel chair, bent into Warrior Three pose, and turned herself into a human weathervane. On the next rooftop over, a friend slowly pulled a rope tied to the chair’s seat to make it rotate. In a video of the performance, the 26-year-old Ettun balances precariously for six minutes, inches away from the roof’s edge, silhouetted against a pink sunrise. The daring stunt was the beginning of Ettun’s experimentation with what she calls “human sculptures.”
Now, Ettun runs The Moving Company, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit dance group, known for their “human sculpture” performances in places like Bryant Park and Sweden’s Uppsala Botanical Gardens. The “movers,” as Ettun calls her nine dancers and choreographers, don’t take themselves too seriously: Their aesthetic is equal parts Cyndi Lauper, Cirque du Soleil, Yvonne Rainer, and Dr. Seuss. In a recent performance at Bryant Park, the movers undulated among giant inflated parachute blobs, wearing gold shower caps, neon yellow bodysuits, and magenta bras.
The performance was part of The Moving Company’s ambitious four-year-long performance series, called Mauve Bird with Yellow Teeth Red Feathers Green Feet and a Rose Belly. “It combines movement, vast colors, inflatable sculptures, everyday object assemblages, storytelling, sound, and dance to create immersive performances about empathy,” Ettun says. It has its own zodiac of sorts: Ettun assigned each year a color and an emotion, around which that year’s performances revolve. 2015 was “blue and empathy”; 2016 is “yellow and desire.”
On November 6, the Moving Company will stage a new performance, in which mover Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze will dance in cement shoes and yellow-feathered knee pads, while Tina Wang and Mor Mendel joust with fly swatters. With 2017 on the horizon, the performance will initiate The Moving Company’s transition into the year of “pink and aggression.” It will also be the centerpiece of their first benefit party, at a building under construction in Times Square. There, pioneering feminist artist Martha Wilson, one of Ettun’s biggest influences, will perform as Donald Trump. Dirty Mirrors and Emily Coates will open.
Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem, Ettun was “always making things,” but she was never trained as a dancer. “I did gymnastics when I was six, but I couldn’t perform, because I wasn’t allowed to wear tights on stage,” she says. “Now, all my dancers wear really tight clothes.” As a student at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, Ettun was formally trained as a sculptor, but inanimate materials didn’t satisfy her desire to explore “the search for harmony and resolution between the still, dead, traumatic, and the moving, sweating, desiring,” she says. “I was always deeply interested in the relationships between movement and stillness: Searching for stillness in the moving, breathing body, and possibilities of change in still objects.”
In 2006, Ettun studied for a semester at Cooper Union, in New York City, where she started making videos. “I realized I could just make sculptures in public spaces using a camera and my body,” she says. In one early experiment, she videotaped herself scaling a street light pole on East Seventh Street and attempting to retrieve a pair of sneakers dangling from a nearby tree branch. She framed the dangling sneakers, and her outstretched arms, as a kinetic found sculpture. She went on to get an MFA at Yale, where she met the dance professor Emily Coates; together, they collaborated on projects that “inverted the conceived notions of dance and sculpture.”
While doing a residency at Abron’s Art Center in Manhattan in 2013, Ettun wrote a mass email with a proposition: “Who’s interested in researching movement and stillness with me on a weekly basis?” She didn’t intend to start a performance group; just a “study group.”
“I brought materials, props, and a formal question for each week,” she says. “We created momentary human sculptures that later developed into a public performance.” The Moving Company evolved from there. Their performances are paired with Ettun’s inanimate, but still very lively, sculptures, many of which feature plaster casts of the faces and limbs of her movers.
Ettun isn’t religious in the way she was as as teenager — “I don’t even know what religious means anymore,” she says — but the The Moving Company serves a similar purpose, for her, that a spiritual community serves. “People join, leave, travel, and bring with them new flavors, shapes, textures; I provide the structure, the eggshell.” She describes their work as “spiritual”; the word “moving,” in the group’s name, works as both an action and an adjective, as in “emotionally moving.”
Meditations on empathy are at the heart of the company’s practice. “I started from thinking about trauma, and how trauma damages our ability to experience empathy,” Ettun says. “I learned that even in the most immediate bodily level, mirror neurons are damaged when you have PTSD, meaning when someone is post-traumatic, they need all their resources to deal with their own pain and can’t see the other, which makes them isolated from the community and prevents them from getting the help they need. Practicing empathy, even just on a physical level, mirroring someone’s body can be a healing experience. The act of seeing another person is, in a way, a luxury: Only a person who is not struggling for her life has the ability to communicate. Empathy has the ability to break this loop of trauma and isolation.”
The upcoming performance is filled with surreal visual metaphors for empathy and efforts to connect in the face of violence and trauma. The movers take turns wearing Siamese twin nightgowns connected by ten-foot-long yellow sleeves, with which they play tug-of-war. They mirror each other’s movements and “catch each other, like Pokemon,” as Tina put it at a rehearsal on Monday. It ends with a human sculpture that Ettun has been contemplating for 12 years, a reflection on overcoming “self-inflicted limitations and being trapped inside yourself”: the movers form a human chain by threading strands of their hair, like shoelaces, through each other’s sneakers, then crawl awkwardly off stage in their pink spandex shorts, foot tied to head tied to foot.
The Moving Company’s first benefit party is November 6th, 6pm, at 10 Times Square. Ticket information is available here.