Researching Dance in Israel: The Jumping-Off Point

Announcements, Dance Histories, My Reflections

Deborah Friedes stretching on a beach in Tel Aviv

Deborah Friedes stretching on the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel.

My very first post on my very first blog was titled, “Some context, or why I am traveling halfway around the world for a year.”  I was about to leave the U.S. for Israel, where I would be researching Israeli contemporary dance on a Fulbright grant.  Little did I know that I would travel halfway around the world and stay there.  After seeing the vibrancy of dance in Israel, I realized I could research the subject for years to come, and so in the fall of 2008, I undertook a major move to pursue my passion: I made aliyah and moved to Israel.

Every week, on, I will publish written posts, photo journals, and audio podcasts. My content will reflect the range and vitality of the concert dance scene in Israel.  Beside publishing fresh content, I will also re-publish material from my Fulbright year; some of this was initially posted on The Winger, Israel Seen, and my own blog.  For those of you who have followed my writing on other websites during the past year, you’ll be happy to know that I will preface my older posts with brief musings and my current perspective on the subject.

I invite you to subscribe for free e-mail updates from when new content goes online by clicking here and typing your e-mail address (please make sure to follow the link in the first e-mail you will receive to complete the subscription process!).

And now, on to the blog! Before we plunge into the heart of the subject, let us start together at a jumping-off point: the seeds of my research.  Below is my first post from my original blog, published on my professional website on September 18, 2007.

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Upon hearing of my upcoming journey, a new acquaintance wondered, “How did you decide to research dance in Israel?”  Here’s an answer, albeit a somewhat simplified, pared down version (despite the length!).

I first saw the Batsheva Dance Company during my sophomore year in college on a Birthright Israel trip in January 2001.   Thousands of young Jews packed an auditorium for an evening of speeches from high-profile politicians and performances from a variety of groups representing Israel’s cultural riches.  The mood in the hall was electric even before the event began, so we were primed when a lone woman, her already long limbs extended by stilts, languidly strutted onstage to begin Batsheva’s portion of the program.  A mélange of excerpts from Ohad Naharin’s repertory followed.  Lined up downstage in white tube-like costumes, each dancer slid fluidly through a brief solo and then joined the group in a series of explosive bursts, their fists pounding the air in front of them; seated in a semi-circle, the company rebelliously stripped down from suits to skivvies in a movement accumulation matching the form of the Passover song “Echad Mi Yodea?” (“Who Knows One?”).  When the performers prowled through the audience and pulled unsuspecting viewers to the proscenium as dance partners, the energy in the hall crackled.  We cheered on the amateurs who gamely bopped alongside their professional counterparts onstage.  As Dean Martin crooned the lyrics to “Sway” and the Batsheva dancers saucily shimmied and cha-cha-ed in unison, the seduction was complete.  I was smitten.  This was the start of my interest in the company and the larger Israeli modern dance scene.

I started studying dance history that summer, and my first research topic was the influence of Jewish culture in American modern dance.  References to Israeli modern dance and folk dance cropped up throughout the literature I devoured at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  As I focused more closely on four American choreographers born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants for my undergraduate thesis – Helen Tamiris, Daniel Nagrin, Anna Sokolow, and Sophie Maslow – I found that the latter two had set dances on the Batsheva Dance Company; Sokolow also made yearly trips to Israel since the 1950s, working first with the Yemenite Inbal company and then with her own Lyric Theatre.  Both Sokolow and Maslow were affiliated with the New Dance Group, and when I began studying their colleagues from that organization, I discovered that Jane Dudley, Donald McKayle, and Talley Beatty also had artistic relationships with Israel’s premiere modern dance company.

The crossover of American artists to the Batsheva troupe fascinated me.  Funded by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, a patron of Martha Graham, the Batsheva company was a repertory troupe which showcased not only Graham’s work but that of her disciples and fellow Americans.  Besides the aforementioned choreographers, Norman Walker, William Louther, Paul Sanasardo, Robert Cohan, Ethel Winter, Pearl Lang, Linda Hodes, Jerome Robbins, José Limón,  John Butler, and Glen Tetley contributed to Batsheva’s repertory in its first few decades (some of them also served as artistic director).  In the 1980s and 1990s, David Parsons, Daniel Ezralow, Elisa Monte, Mark Morris, and Peter Pucci staged or created works for the Israeli company.  Batsheva did perform dances by European and Israeli choreographers, but a listing of the company’s repertory from its inception in 1964 until 1994 published in Israel Dance magazine (Oct. 1994) reveals that the company primarily featured works by American artists.

In 2004, Batsheva’s 40th anniversary year, I had the good fortune to see the company in both Columbus and New York City.  Now aware of the troupe’s artistic lineage, I was struck by the company’s aesthetic.  Reviews of dances by Israeli choreographers during Batsheva’s early decades commented on the structural and stylistic similarities to Graham’s work, but despite Naharin’s own history with the American pioneer – which included a season performing in her company in New York – he clearly had broken away from the path taken by his predecessors.  To me, his work seemed more closely related to some contemporary European choreography than to either Graham’s repertory or that of more recent Americans, but I would not simply categorize his style as “European” (an overly general, problematic distinction anyway).  My curiosity was piqued.  How did the Batsheva company and Israeli modern dance as a whole shake off such a strong American influence and evolve into a more innovative, Israeli-driven form?

I was also intrigued by Naharin’s usage of “Echad Mi Yodea?” and started to wonder how he and other Israeli choreographers incorporated references to Jewish culture in their dances.  The contexts in which Jewish-American and Jewish Israeli choreographers live – and the manifestations of Jewish identity and culture in each of these contexts – are quite different.  When and how do Israeli choreographers draw on specifically Jewish material?  And how does a primarily Jewish audience react to these dances?  I could probably write another paragraph on my experience watching the “Echad Mi Yodea?” excerpt first in a Jewish crowd in Israel and then in a primarily gentile, Midwestern audience; the conversations I had after each performance were, shall I say, worlds apart.  But now I must pack up my computer.  I’m off to the airport!

*This post was made possible thanks to a Fulbright student grant funded by the U.S.-Israel Educational Foundation and hosted by the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

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