CityDance in Jerusalem: Exploring the Gaps Between American and Israeli Dance

Events, My Reflections

Video: CityDance Ensemble

You would have thought that to meet Paul Gordon Emerson, the director of the Washington D.C. based CityDance Ensemble, I would have taken a train from New Jersey (my home state) to the capital of the U.S. while I was still living there.  But instead I grabbed a bus to Jerusalem a few nights ago.

Let’s backtrack: Paul’s interest in reviving older modern dance masterpieces and my research on these works first brought us together online nearly six years ago. We’ve kept up our correspondence over the years, reconnecting this fall when CityDance staged Sophie Maslow’s Folksay from Labanotation score (this was doubly exciting for me: my undergraduate thesis on Jewish-American choreographers highlighted Maslow’s career, and I studied Labanotation intensively in graduate school). Yet we never met face to face – until now.

CityDance is currently touring the Middle East, and as part of the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival – which features companies from around the world performing both in the West Bank and in Israel – the company had concerts in Jerusalem and Nazareth this week. Since the Tel Aviv is only an hour away from Jerusalem, I jumped at the chance to see the company and hopped on a bus.

After years of corresponding with Paul, it was fantastic to talk with him in person (and we could have continued for much more time). I also saw firsthand that CityDance lives up to the promise delivered in its slogan, “Power. Passion. Purpose.” The talented dancers threw themselves body and soul into their performance, and the choreography had something to say; indeed, the program’s closing work – Christopher K. Morgan’s Thirst – tackled environmental issues effectively and movingly.

But my trip came with an added benefit: the chance to reflect on some structural differences between concert dance in America and Israel. Some of my thoughts below came up in a post-show conversation with Paul and Christopher, while others struck me later.

CityDance was, in a sense, the perfect troupe to shed light on a few of these contrasts. For one, it is a repertory company. Rather than showcasing work by only one choreographer, CityDance’s program in Jerusalem featured work by Christopher and Paul himself along with Ludovic Jolivet and Kate Weare. While some other American troupes are based on this repertory model, few Israeli companies operate in this fashion. Here, nearly every group is devoted to the work of one or two choreographers.

This wasn’t always the case. The Batsheva Dance Company, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, and the now defunct Bat-Dor Dance Company were all repertory companies at the start. Indeed, from the 1960s until the 1990s, the repertory structure was the model of a dance company in Israel. But as more Israeli choreographers found their artistic voices in the 1990s and 2000s, they started their own groups to present their work. At the same time, both Batsheva and KCDC found artistic directors whose own choreographic visions could guide those companies to international success. Thus the repertory model not only lost its dominance but nearly disappeared from the landscape of Israeli contemporary dance.

Connected to this contrast in company structure is a difference between dance concerts in the U.S. and in Israel. Like most modern dance concerts I attended or performed in stateside, CityDance’s program was a mixed bill. I have seen plenty of mixed bills here in Israel, but usually they are evenings shared by several independent choreographers and often they are within the context of a festival. Typically, established Israeli dance companies present concerts composed of one full-length work. Sometimes the same set-up is true for concerts by independent choreographers. I’m not sure why full-length work seems so much more predominant in Israel than in America; perhaps a combination of artistic and economic factors contribute to this tendency.

Finally, while the particular concert I saw included more recently made works, CityDance’s inclusion of older pieces in its repertory also sets it apart from Israel’s dance companies. Though it is a particularly strong proponent of reconstructions, CityDance is by no means the only American company which presents older choreography. Some modern dance companies in the U.S., like the Martha Graham Dance Company, are completely dedicated to performing existing repertory; others such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Limón Dance Company keep the older works of their founders alive while commissioning new dances.

In contrast, Israel’s contemporary dance companies rarely include restagings of decades-old choreography in their seasons. Earlier this year I wrote about a few revivals which took place at a special opening performance of the Shades of Dance Festival, but other than that unique concert, it’s hard to see even the most significant works in Israeli dance history onstage here. The emphasis is on the new to the extent that the old is barely visible.

Certainly this situation is related to the relative youth of homegrown Israeli contemporary dance. None of Israel’s existing dance companies were in operation fifty years ago, and few of the country’s choreographers were creating work twenty years ago. The new-ness of the field is partly what makes it so exciting and vibrant, but I wonder if the scene will preserve its treasures as it ages. Dances made prior to the formation of Batsheva have already been lost, and I worry that the same fate awaits comparatively more recent choreography.

This is just the start of a comparison, but I’ll save more thoughts for another post! Many thanks to Paul and CityDance for both a wonderful concert and a point of departure for this reflection.

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