Backstage with Dana Yahalomi (Public Movement)

Eine Performance im öffentlichen Raum. Zwei Performer*innen tragen eine weitere Person. Hinter ihnen befindet sich Publikum.

Our artist interview series is called “Backstage with”, and it thus utilises a common term from within the theatre context. Your works with Public Movement are actions or performances in public space. Does a backstage or an equivalent space actually exist in your work context?

It has been a long time since I worked as a dancer, but I remember some divergent ideas about the backstage space. Some believed that everything that happens backstage would invariably transmit to the stage. I have a keen interest in the backstage areas of politics and of our social lives. Many things happen behind or off public stages, and we as citizens cannot access them. As an artist working with performance, I am interested in exploring the backstage areas of identity formation, of ideological construction. In our work with Public Movement, we bring to the stage something that we do not usually notice, while our performances, as you mentioned, simultaneously take place in public space. Not only is there no backstage, but what happens on ‘the stage’ here is unpredictable. We work with concepts of risk in our performances. I would even say that the reason we never work for theatre stages is because we in some way are addicted to risk, the risk of operating with artistic tools within the social realm. Throughout the years we have developed a set of skills that enable us as a group of performers to react, manoeuvre and incorporate with the unpredictability that can occur. We have been training this for 17 years – the non-verbal communication happening within the group as we need to change or adapt our actions during a performance. We cannot strictly keep to a script and the surrounding feeds back into the performance itself; there is a beauty when it happens. Even in theatre spaces, it is unpredictable how audiences may react, but the spectators usually sit in the dark. In urban public space, there is neither darkness nor spotlight: in terms of attention and publicity, they are equal situations. All these things, who is seen and who remains in the dark, are connected to the concept of backstage. We are interested in permeability, the flowing in and out, and we utilise this as material for the performances themselves.

Philosopher and sociologist Oliver Marchart described Public Movement’s work as an artistic vivisection of bodies in their relationship to the state. You describe your practice as a performative research body. What do you mean by that? 

Let us go back to the founding of Public Movement on December 29th, 2006. Our first action was an accident that occurred at an intersection in Tel Aviv’s city centre. At the time, we were not yet a fixed group. We were composed of a loose association of friends and colleagues. We wanted to investigate the national ritual of one minute silence in Israel, mainly practised on memorial days. We staged an accident, a rehearsed but yet real one, between a vehicle and a passer-by. There is a physical collision between the machine, meaning the car’s engine and its metal, with the flesh of the body. In art, this immediately evokes associations with futurism and its founder, Marinetti – the machine typifies governmental power in various ways. While we were staging the accident – we wanted to repeat it three times – an argument broke out in our group following the second run-through. It was about whether it was legitimate and ethically justifiable to stage something in public space that looks real, so when people see it, they cannot immediately identify it as art. Nothing about the accident suggests that it is indeed a performance. People’s reactions and their emotions towards it are real, raw, unfiltered. There is no sublimation. If you see a weapon in the theatre, on a stage, you know that it will not hurt anyone. There was a heated debate whether we should still complete the next accident, the third. It grew into a fascinating discussion about the boundaries of art, the ethics of participation, the relationship between realpolitik and its representation within culture, and about how possible experimentations and interventions benefit from artistic methodologies. We aim to blur the boundaries between an artistic and a political or social action. Strictly speaking, these boundaries are difficult to draw. The state, politics, they emerge in performances, in the act of staging. At the same time, artistic life or artistic actions are part of reality, capable of manipulating and altering reality. Based on this argument, we wanted to create a group that is an experiment, and, at the same time, both subject and object to be explored. So, I would like to say that Public Movement was created coincidentally. It is an accident in itself; there was no underlying intention or masterplan. Public Movement came about because of this friction. And because we were drawn to spaces of ambivalence. For 17 years, we have been operating at those same fringes, in those grey areas between life and art. We are a collective that has developed its own terminology and research methodology. Thus, when we talk about a performative research body, it refers to a body (i.e. a group of people) that exists within the world. We have this particular focus on the relationship between the state and citizens in a physical context. Our research is practice oriented. It is not research that is carried out before the action; we are instead interested in the knowledge that is gained from corporal and public interventions.

During the current season at tanzhaus nrw, we are focusing on “Dancing in Public”, investigating dance in urban space and how dance could be employed to create public spaces and public spheres. I had to think about your legendary action “How long is now?” (2007/2011), in which you blocked a road intersection with circle dances. Dance plays an important role in protests and demonstrations today, too. What potential do you ascribe to dance?

We define dance very broadly and think about choreography in analytical terms. Our choreographies are results of deconstruction and imitation rather than imagination; we rarely invent movements, instead we are analyse existing movements, which we recompose. These movements belong to the public. Therefore the notion of The Choreographer does not exist at Public Movement, there is no authorship regarding these movements. I think that when audiences participate in our performances, they often feel like they are the owners of the movements, and they are right. This creates a different relationship between the spectators and the choreography.

Fun fact: we have never named this action “How long is now?”. It is a great example of the inherent loss of control over the historicization of a performance when working in public space. One person filmed the performance and posted it on YouTube, titling the video “How long is now?”. Oliver Marchart watched this video and subsequently adopted the title in one of his articles about us. At the end of the day, it is a seductive title and a very good question. We have to think of those processes in the context of unpredictability, and the death of authors. This kind of afterlife of an action sheds new light back on the action itself and generates new information.

The action was created in 2007, during the first year of Public Movement. It was realised for the Centre for Digital Art curated by Galit Eilat, as part of a series of actions in public space in Holon, a city south of Tel Aviv. We were interested in the dynamics that arise when a road is blocked in protest. In these cases, one can often observe a tango-like relationship between activists and police officers. On the one side are the police, on the other side are the demonstrators. And in between, there is a pressing tension that reminds us of the relationship between two tango dancers. We wanted to experiment with changing the energy from frontal to circular – and whether you could block a road with an outburst of joy as opposed to an outburst of anger or frustration. Many carry the physical knowledge of how to protest together, and in Israel, many are familiar with folk dances. So, we harnessed the dormant knowledge in the bodies concerning protest and dance and combined it. When we blocked the road in Holon in 2007, it produced a very interesting impact. Some people stopped and joined us because they were familiar with the steps; there is something very attractive about dancing. The action conveys the experience that we can stop movement with our bodies. It is understood that a mass of bodies can interrupt movement. This is also a metaphor for the inertia of life. Things happen, yet we still carry on as usual. To stop this movement, to establish silence, that is what I would call a civil act. When we did that in 2007, it was very experimental; there was something innocent about it from today’s point of view. 2011 saw the rise of the international Occupy movement, which grew from the Arab Spring and took place in Israel, too. It was the time when Omer Krieger and I parted ways regarding the leadership of Public Movement. I remained with Public Movement while Omer continued work on his own artistic and curatorial projects. At that time, neither of us was in Israel. Meanwhile, members of Public Movement decided that they wanted to use the action with the circle dances in an Occupy context to block roads, sharing the practice with many people. This is an example – I am returning to accidents here – of how real life and artistic initiatives are mutually reflective. I think it is very important for Public Movement to make tools or methods accessible that empower the body to be activated.

You have been working in public spaces for a very long period now. How has public space changed over the years? Have different strategies and approaches become important or effective today, different from the ones in the past? Are there any new challenges? 

We keep coming back to that question in the work of Public Movement. Every year, we again discuss what needs to be done. Yes, I do think that public space has changed dramatically since the beginning of our work in 2006. Claire Bishop reflected about that in an edition of the Florian Malzacher-curated series “The Art of Assembly”. She received an invitation in 2022 to reread and reflect on her book “Artificial Hells. Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship”, ten years after its original publication. Bishop emphasised she phrased her reflections before the Occupy movement. After all a book is written years prior to publication. She wanted to advance performances of antagonism, performances of disunity, empowerment through being together in public spaces, how a group moves, how it clashes. When the book was finally published, the Arab Spring as well as the Occupy movement were both well underway. Politics then became very polemical, everything revolved around working against these movements, violently, too. Public spaces at many sites were set ablaze. Bishop maintained that if public spaces were changed in the first place, it was the function of art to take the next step. I think that is the reason for this wide-ranging reorientation of art towards care, solicitude, towards healing and shamanistic work – as a contradiction to the events in public spaces.

Public Movement entered the museum in 2013. The use of public space transformed and changed, and we had this intuition to loosen the way we, in a manner of speaking, gripped it. We wanted to bring our questions to the museum and into cultural institutions, activating these spaces as political actors. In 2017/18, we became interested in routine practices in emergencies. The piece we are going to present in Düsseldorf is part of a series dealing with how we as citizens rehearse dealing with catastrophe. And then in 2020: Covid. Public space emptied out completely. If public movements are not performed in a space designated as a public space, it ceases to exist.

Today, we are confronted with lots of toxicity in public spaces, and much violence. I feel as if we live through the post-shame era. We take to the streets and yell “shame, shame, shame”, and it is not a concept any longer, it holds no value. Now the boundaries and value systems have been broken apart, what is permitted and what is not has been pierced. More than anything else, I perceive the lack of shame in what can be done to people in public spaces today.

On April 6th and 7th, 2024, the site-specific performances of “Emergency Routine” will take place at Johannes-Rau-Platz in Düsseldorf. “Emergency Routine” premiered in front of Stockholm parliament in 2019. For this work, you have dealt with what was probably the largest peacetime evacuation exercise in the world – Operation Stockholm in 1961. How was this major event documented and how did you make it artistically productive?

The first version of “Emergency Routine” was developed for the “Choreographies of the Social” festival, curated by Edi Muka for Public Art Agency Sweden. We usually start with extensive research to explore the history and political geography of a city. In Stockholm, we came across the story of the largest evacuation exercise ever conducted during peacetime, which took place in April of 1961. In the 1960s, because of the Cold War, the state as well as the Swedish military started publishing a pamphlet that was distributed to all households, titled “If Crisis or War Comes”. A large section of the pamphlet dealt with the question of what to do when evacuation is required. It was provided with beautiful graphic illustrations of people leaving their houses and apartments, and explanations as to where to go, what different routes there were. In the 1960s, the consensus was that the state, the military, the police would take care of the citizens, of their physical integrity: We will transport you, we will mobilise you, we will feed and care for you when you are out in the forest.

Approximately 50 years later, the pamphlet was reprinted for the first time. This time it read: “When Crisis or War Comes” – it is apparently only a matter of time. The occasion was Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Ukraine. The government had feared that Russia would invade Sweden in one way or another. So, they decided to republish this brochure again, but this time to communicate that the state will not take care of its citizens. If in 1961, the state would have carried out the evacuation, in 2019 the responsibility is transferred to the citizens. The way we see it, artists should also take responsibility. We met with several members of the military and police, the so-called crowd management, and explored their strategies. Many of them told us that they were afraid that citizens would not believe that the state would not be able to take care of them. Public Movement has learned from these experts how to evacuate, how to lift, how to tow, how to control, how to take care of someone who is injured, what to do when someone is unwilling to comply. The performance took place in front of the Swedish parliament. In a sense, it was both an official and non-official drill at the same time. I think that public gatherings are exercises in and of themselves, whether they are artistic initiations or not. The performance feels different every time we activate it. When we performed the piece in Białystok, Poland, near the border with Belarus, three months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, fear was prevalent in Poland. It was heart-breaking because there were Ukrainian refugees in the audience. Did they re-enact something that had only happened recently? Or perhaps it was a pre-enactment of an event yet to come? It feels very different in different places, and I cannot predict exactly how it will feel in Düsseldorf, what will be brought in from current life.

I wonder what it means, considering the global political situation and the wars, to practice evacuation routines for emergencies in Düsseldorf – in a comparatively safe context in many respects, while at the same time life-threatening, devastating emergencies are occurring “elsewhere”, including in Israel, where you live and work?

That is a very good question. For example, in North Rhine-Westphalia, whole neighbourhoods and districts face regular evacuation because unexploded World War II ordnance has been found. History quite literally bursts forth from the bowels of the Earth, reminding us that this place has not always functioned the way it does today. Very lively political protest movements being evacuated by police also come to mind, or the physical memory of refugees who managed to evacuate and escape to Europe. On a local level, it could also be a kind of pre-enactment of a potential future. Many people are concerned about the climate crisis and imminent natural disasters, for a very good reason. The question arises as to what would happen if its inhabitants needed to leave this place. Then there is the current situation in Gaza. This is an utterly horrific war. Millions of people are emigrating, dying, and starving, being bombed, or falling ill. We see it every day and it happens every day. I think spectators in Düsseldorf will have certain associations with the performance, since we are from Tel Aviv. I do not know what will be read into these networks of relationships and what will emerge from them.  

I am certain that many people will think compassionately of current emergencies with numerous civilian casualties in various wars when watching “Emergency Routine” – myself included. I think that the piece is comprehensively informed, able to unfold many layers, not least because of its performance history in different contexts and places such as Stockholm, Rome, and Tel Aviv, but also in Białystok. It certainly has a very strong sense of urgency at the current moment. I would like to talk in principle about what it is that you are inviting the public to. What kind of experience do you want to create? What is your idea of spectatorship? “Emergency Routine” is, after all, a piece with a certain dramaturgy; the idea being that you receive it from beginning to end.

Whenever the piece is activated – even if it is led by members of Public Movement –, it creates an arena rather than a stage. The audience becomes part of the piece pretty quickly. There is a certain type of touch. The way we approach audiences as well as the ability to say yes or no are important parts of the performance. Yet after all our experiences in the different cities and with the different audiences, we were always worried that no one would participate. But in the end, the spectators go along with it. The choreography is familiar and well-known. It is not a matter of knowing steps but rather of examining the relationship between one’s own body and the body of a counterpart, a stranger. In the performance, there are moments when we carry each other. For us, this is an exercise that is important in terms of physicality, but also in terms of poetics. So as a society: how do we carry the weight of others? Even in a metaphoric understanding of weight – can I carry the weight of a person who is much heavier than I am, and how? And when do I have the right to touch someone? When we staged the performance in Stockholm, the guests had no problem touching each other for guidance or care, but as soon as the touch bore any hint of police tension, of a power imbalance, they did not feel authorised to perform actions, or they felt bad about it.

This has raised so many questions, when the main dilemma is this: Do I leave the policing to the police, or do I prefer my neighbours to carry me forcibly down the stairs? Somehow, I prefer my neighbours; I trust them more than I trust the police. But would I be authorised, for example, to take you, Lucie, by the hand and pull you out? “Emergency Routine” is, ultimately, an exercise. There is no emergency, no disaster. There is no blood. No screams. It is clean and analytical, an almost formalistic choreography.

You used the term pre-enactment earlier, which was introduced in context of your work. Pre-enactment denotes something like the pre-performance of a future event – in the sense of a role-playing game in science fiction scenarios. You held that, in a way, an evacuation exercise is precisely such a pre-enactment, as it means rehearsing and practicing certain physical processes and actions. In your opinion, should such exercises be regularly scheduled in order to create routines, security, and a sense of community – with regard to future scenarios?

Yes, by all means. I think we should exercise this regularly; it would strengthen trust in each other, community, and solidarity. I would be happy if an institution approached us and wanted to activate “Emergency Routine” repeatedly, say, twice a year. Like a ritual or routine.

You already talked about bomb disposal as a regionally important aspect in “Emergency Routine”. Almost 50 percent of all bombs in the Second World War were dropped on North Rhine-Westphalia; and thousands reappear every year. Regarding the performance’s site-specific edition: What else is of interest to you in the Düsseldorf context?

As implied, “Emergency Routine” unlocks a very complex relation between the past and the future. You can never know whether you are dealing with a review of a past event or with the anticipation of a future occurrence. In Germany, both these aspects are very noticeable to me, and ubiquitous. We made a very conscious decision concerning the venue, which is Johannes-Rau-Platz. The square lies in the immediate vicinity to parliament and the North Rhine-Westphalian state chancellery. The square has been named after a popular SPD politician who also went on to become Federal President, and a museum on parliamentary history is also on site. Demonstrations begin and end at the city square; rallies take place there. At the same time, the square is located directly along the Rhine and within reach of a local recreation area, so it is a space between leisure and politics; it connects both.

Before we started our joint search for the location for the Düsseldorf edition of “Emergency Routine” together, you had already been to Düsseldorf with Public Movement in 2016, following the invitation issued by the Impulse Theater Festival and the FFT. As part of the project “Make Art Policy!”, you held discussions with politicians from all parties at the town hall. What were the most notable results? And how do you remember Düsseldorf?

The action was commissioned by Impulse Festival curated by Florian Malzacher. It was quite intriguing because the event took place shortly before the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. Very few parties pursue a clear cultural agenda. We asked the participating politicians: If we elected you, what would the culture in NRW be like? Would it be about repertory theatre or about more commercially leaning projects, or are you of the opinion that art belongs in public space, in the public sphere? Do you think art should be accessible free of charge? “Make Art Policy!” was therefore a pretext to approach each single party and hear what they want to do for culture. Each politician was given seven minutes to present that. There was also an additional collaboration with the regional cultural scene; musicians, artists, artistic directors, and professors were involved. However, it was an action that was less about the performance itself and more about creating pressure on the political parties to produce and compose their own cultural policies and make them public. In a certain sense, the action takes place backstage, referring back to the beginning of our conversation. What can be seen on stage does not fully represent the processes behind it. In a way, I already do feel familiar with Düsseldorf and NRW through this work.

Thank you very much for this interview! We are very much looking forward to the performances of “Emergency Routine”.


Dana Yahalomi has been the artistic director of Public Movement, a performative research body she co-founded in 2006, since 2011. Public Movement researches and stages actions in public space. The group investigates and creates public choreographies, forms of social order, overt and covert rituals, and works with various artistic media such as performance, dance, and visual arts. Public Movement works at art institutions worldwide, including at MAXXI Rome; Public Art Agency Sweden, Stockholm; Museo Novecento, Florence; CCA Tel Aviv; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Gothenburg Biennale, Sweden; HAU, Berlin; Asian Art Biennial, Taipei; Australian Centre for Contemporary Art Melbourne, and steirischer herbst, Graz.

Public Movement has won several awards, most recently the Essential Art Prize (2021) and the Rosenblum Prize for Performance Art (2017).


Lucie Ortmann, dramaturge at tanzhaus nrw, conducted the interview.


Eine Performance im öffentlichen Raum. Zwei Performer*innen tragen eine weitere Person. Hinter ihnen befindet sich Publikum.

Emergency Routine

Public Movement
German premiere
Sat 06.04. + Sun 07.04.