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What is Israeli Dance? Two Festivals Hold Some Clues

Posted on 17 November 2009 by Deborah Friedes Galili

What is Israeli dance?

This is a question that I have contemplated ever since I arrived here, and as I sat in the audience at many performances during the Tel Aviv Dance 2009 festival, this query resurfaced. The vast majority of dance I have seen in the last two years has been Israeli dance – that is, by my loose definition, dance made in Israel by Israeli choreographers – but most of what I attended during this festival came from abroad.

As my eyes readjusted to fresh work from unfamiliar choreographers and, at times, unfamiliar cultures, I couldn’t help comparing the characteristics of these foreign productions to those of Israeli-made work.  By watching dance that was, by virtue of its far away origin, not Israeli, could I more definitively identify characteristics of Israeli dance and the Israeli dance scene?  As I sat in the darkened theater for show after show, I asked myself repeatedly, “Could an Israeli choreographer have made that work? Would an Israeli choreographer have made that work, and if so, would I have perceived it differently?”

Beijing Modern Dance Company

Beijing Modern Dance Company.  Photo by Wang Zhe.

This last question echoed in my mind, growing louder and louder, as I watched the Beijing Modern Dance Company’s program at the Suzanne Dellal Center.  More so than in the other performances I saw, I felt that this program’s two works were rife with cultural references specific to the country in which they were created.  In the fourth section of Hu Lei’s Unfettered Journey, dancers clothed in elegantly draped fabric flowed across the stage with fans in their hands.  Throughout Gao Yanjinzi’s Oath, a figure wearing what appeared to be traditional Chinese dress beckoned dancers representing parts of the natural world onstage to music that at times sounded distinctively Chinese.  Had an Israeli choreographer’s name been attached to either of these works, these elements would not have been allusions to his or her own culture but instead marks of appropriation (and here I do not intend to attach a negative value to that often loaded word; this simply denotes a different process and point of connection to the elements incorporated)

While these overt references to Chinese culture set my mind in motion, it was the physicality of the dancers in the Beijing Modern Dance Company which triggered even more complex thoughts about what characterizes much of Israeli contemporary dance.  Throughout my conversations with Israeli choreographers, many of them asserted that there was something distinctive about the physicality of Israeli dancers; there was a certain emphasis on weight, force, and power, along with a liveliness and rawness to their energy which several people connected to the pace and nature of Israeli life.

Sometimes, immersed in this scene, it’s possible to forget that another way of moving exists.  So there’s nothing like watching companies from abroad to sharpen my understanding of the physicality used in Israeli dance.  Whereas Israeli dancers are often unleashed and explosive, the Chinese dancers were refined and measured.  Whereas Israeli dancers often project a sense of solid strength and weighted groundedness in deep, low positions, the Chinese dancers assumed these postures with the poised agility of a martial artist.  Whereas Israeli dancers may display and even revel in effort, the Chinese dancers exuded ease.  “Yes,” I thought to myself as I sat in the darkened theater.  “Maybe a particular physicality does characterize much of Israeli dance and distinguish it from dance from other countries.”

While these musings re-entered my mind as I watched foreign companies in Tel Aviv Dance, they’ll likely remain ever-present as I attend a very different festival later this month: Curtain Up.  Every year, Curtain Up sheds light on Israeli dance by showcasing several programs worth of premieres by independent choreographers.  Throughout the twenty years of its existence, the festival has not only provided a platform for numerous artists to explore new choreographic ideas but also offered them a boost to prominence, thus shaping the landscape of the larger field.

Curtain Up Poster

Publicity for Curtain Up 2009.  Courtesy of Ora Lapidot PR.

In honor of the festival’s twentieth season, Curtain Up 2009 will offer an extraordinary opportunity to survey the scene through a special project spanning the generations of Israeli choreographers.  Six well-established artists who were previously supported by the festival – Nimrod Freed, Noa Wertheim of Vertigo Dance Company, Yasmeen Godder, Yaara Dolev of Tel Aviv Dance Company, Noa Dar, and Niv Sheinfeld & Oren Laor  – were chosen to create new works for this special Curtain Up.  They also became curators of the festival, in turn selecting one or two emerging choreographers to premiere work.

After refreshing my eyes and my mind with Tel Aviv Dance’s international medley, I’m looking forward to re-immersing myself in the world of Israeli dance during Curtain Up.  Who knows what insights will surface in the theater this time around . . .

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Americans in Israel: Cedar Lake in Tel Aviv Dance 2008

Posted on 23 October 2008 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in Ohad Naharin’s Decadance. Photo by Paul B. Goode

It used to be that Israeli companies like Batsheva Dance Company and the now defunct Bat-Dor toured to the U.S. with American repertory (( Batsheva Dance Company was founded in 1964 by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, a patroness of Martha Graham.  Graham was the company’s artistic adviser, and the group performed not only several of her works but also dances by numerous Americans and Europeans – some of who became artistic directors during the group’s early decades. )).  But Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s appearance at the Tel Aviv Dance 2008 festival marks a turning point in dance history: this American company is bringing Israeli repertory to Israel.  Cedar Lake’s programs will include excerpts from Decadance by Ohad Naharin, Batsheva’s artistic director.

Last year I peeked into Cedar Lake’s rehearsal process with Naharin by watching Tomer Heymann’s documentary, Out of Focus.  Whereas the Batsheva dancers take class daily in Gaga, a movement practice developed by Naharin, Cedar Lake’s dancers had to move away from their ballet background and immerse themselves in a dramatically different method of training and working.  This shift required the dancers to trade a traditional emphasis on external appearances for an intense process of personal and physical exploration – a major challenge for dancers reared and rooted in the ballet studio, with its ever-present mirror.

But Cedar Lake is explicitly billed as a contemporary ballet company.  Its repertory is not drawn from 19th century ballet classics but from a range of modern-day works, some of which blur the borders between genres of dance.  Thus the dancers that tackled this challenge did so with within the company’s framework of versatility and physical facility, which is beautifully captured in this video below:

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