It was late in the spring of 2011 when I found myself on the banks of the Jordan River, discussing dance with an Israeli friend of mine, with whom I had shared a stage in Atlanta, GA. The new environment, the reconnection, and the gentle vigor of the words flowed as effortlessly as the river itself. Marked with a bit of sadness, that moment encapsulated my Tel Aviv dance experience, which was coming to a close. It was my intention to be submerged in a dance community that shouted boldly and succinctly from across an ocean, which I did. I did this for five weeks, met open arms, and have been changed forever.
My fascination with Israeli modern dance crept up on me. It was a performance of Deca Dance by the New York based company, Cedar Lake, which drew my attention to Israel, namely to Ohad Naharin. Prior, my wife had seen Naharin’s Mamootot, and though I had no first-hand experience of the work, her words were vivid, and I sat transfixed listening to the account she had given of Batsheva’s performance in Brooklyn. With the wonders of YouTube, I found that the images that presented themselves on my screen were varied, distinct, chilling, and captivating. I fell into an abyss of curiosity, admiration, and overwhelming addiction to what I was seeing. Modern dance, to me, had been reinvented. Rather it returned to what I believe its original intention was: communication.
The people I encountered on a daily basis, either through Iris Erez’s classes, Gaga classes, or contact workshops seemed to be fundamentally driven by the need/desire/want to communicate.; to share an experience in all its open-ended glory, in all its universality. The artists’ experience became my experience, and within each class I found myself being asked to show what I was feeling, reveal what I was sensing, and to not be shy. If ever a phrase resonated with profound impact, it would be that one. Don’t be shy. It was my mantra in Tel Aviv and was affirmed with each new acquaintance and friend asking me to do the same. There was a liberation of the dancer I had tucked away, and a re-introduction to the self. All through movement; all through communication.
Countless articles have been written on the power of Gaga and while I found my sentiments echoed those of other enthusiasts, what was not as easy to discover was what Israelis thought of their own adaptations of modern dance. Many friends I made in Tel Aviv seemed genuinely shocked that I would choose Israel to focus my attention on dance. Many were awestruck that Israel was creating a frenzy in the United States, and all smiled politely with a sense of humility that is rare. I witnessed that there was no shyness on stage, no apologetic movement, no need to move away from movement. Movement was the vehicle, and while many dance-makers in the U.S. seem to use movement as a decoration for text, Israelis use movement to take the place of words that could never be as powerful as an honest gesture, a sincere dance.
Within the countless performances I took in while in Tel Aviv, from Batsheva, to Yasmeen Godder, to Yossi Berg and Oded Graf, to KCDC, to Iris Erez, and many, many others, I saw no need to qualify, no need to have all the answers and certainly no shyness. I marveled at the thoughtfulness of the work, the remarkable skill of the dancers (be they released, Gaga-ed, or other;) and the undeniable connection to the audience. The communications, the exchanges, were worth more than gold. I felt like part of the experience and at the same time, was a spectator. I loved not having all the answers and being invited to make my own answers to the mysterious questions being asked on stage. The open-ended communication and dancer-to-audience dialogue continued long after the curtain closed.
The landscape of dance in Israel is broad and rich and lives in a culture that must continuously endure threats and instability. Thankfully, beauty hasn’t suffered. The warmth of those offering their homes, the generosity of the teachers, the inclination towards communication, and the pretention-free, forward-thinking artists I encountered, never allowed complacency to enter their studios, their dances, their lives. I recognized that what some might perceive as forward momentum is actually a by-product of the way life is led in Israel. There is continuous celebration; there is reverence for the past. Tel Aviv moves forward by stating its presence, by boldly commanding an art form through the form. Dances in Israel really dance. They speak louder than words and rely upon movement to tell a story. Actors act, painters paint, and in Israel, choreographers choreograph, and dancers dance. They move with the impetus of sublime images, they create with an awareness of those who will watch, and they unknowingly made me feel like a citizen of a community that communicates.
George Staib’s Name Day. Photograph by Dustin Chambers.
George Staib, through the generosity of Emory University, spent five weeks in Tel Aviv studying Gaga and being an enthusiastic audience member at Suzanne Dellal. He is the artistic director of Staibdance and is a dance teacher at Emory University, in Atlanta, GA. He looks forward to a return visit to Tel Aviv in June, 2012.
Posted on 06 January 2012 by Deborah Friedes Galili
Video: Batsheva Dance Company in Yasmeen Godder’s The Toxic Exotic Disappearance Act
On first thought, Batsheva Dance Company’s new mixed bill seems an unusual choice of programming. House (titled “Ha’avoda shel hofesh” in Hebrew) by Sharon Eyal and Gai Bachar is a natural pick, since Eyal has served as the troupe’s house choreographer since 2005. The first half of the evening, however, belongs to someone from decidedly outside of the Batsheva fold: Yasmeen Godder. Godder is not a complete stranger to Batsheva, having created Green Fields on the Ensemble in 2000, but her The Toxic Exotic Disappearance Act is the first work by anyone other than Ohad Naharin or Eyal to be performed by Batsheva in several years. Beyond the novelty of a guest choreographer working with the company, the combination of these particular artists initially seems to be an odd coupling. Were I to make a family tree of contemporary dance in Israel, Godder’s branch would be far away from that of Eyal and Bachar. Indeed, aesthetically, these creators occupy nearly opposite ends on the art form’s spectrum.
Yet watching the performance at Suzanne Dellal on January 4, this pairing started to make sense.
For all their stylistic differences, Godder and the team of Eyal and Bachar do have one key trait in common: they are artists who are audacious and provocative, in the best senses of those words. Rather than play it safe, these creators unabashedly delve into the realms of the twisted, the disturbing, and even the grotesque in their repertory. Rarely have I heard anyone deliver a lukewarm review of either Godder’s or Eyal’s work; indeed, it’s practically impossible to not react strongly to their choreography.
Yasmeen Godder’s The Toxic Exotic Disappearance Act. Photograph by Gadi Dagon.
Batsheva’s mixed bill of Godder’s The Toxic Exotic Disappearance Act and Eyal and Bachar’s House may not be an aesthetically cohesive evening. But it’s savvy programming, for each dance has the capacity to leave a significant impact on the audience – and together, these electrifying works outline the range of contemporary dance in Israel today.
Sharon Eyal and Gai Bachar’s House. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Batsheva’s new program continues at Suzanne Dellal in Tel Aviv through January 7 and returns from January 18-20. Additional performances are scheduled later in the season; for more details, please visit Batsheva’s website.
Posted on 23 November 2011 by Deborah Friedes Galili
Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s Sadeh21. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Last week, Batsheva Dance Company unveiled its 2011-2012 season at a press conference in Studio Varda. And what a season it will be!
On December 30, the troupe will premiere two new works, one by Sharon Eyal and Gai Bachar and the other by Yasmeen Godder. At the end of March, the junior Batsheva Ensemble will debut another new work by Sharon Eyal and Gai Bachar along with a restaging of Ohad Naharin’s classic Tabula Rasa (1986),which has not been shown in Israel since 2004. Tel Aviv audiences will also be treated to performances of Eyal’s Bill and Naharin’s Sadeh21, Hora, MAX, Shalosh, Kamuyot, Deca Dance, and Furo, created in collaboration with the Japanese video artist Tabaimo and last staged in Israel in 2008. Both the main company and the ensemble will travel around Israel, appearing in other cities and throughout the periphery; the troupes will also journey abroad, with several performances in Europe in November and December and a North American tour in February and March. By the time the season ends, the two companies will have given a combined total of well over two hundred performances.
The press conference kicked off with a peek at an installation that the main company will perform at the Fondation Beyeler, a museum in Basel, on November 23 and 24. In the museum, the audience will sit around the space and can come and go as they please; in the press conference, we too sat around the perimeter of the space and remained riveted during the brief showing. As company member Guy Shomroni DJ’ed, the rest of the dancers filtered in and out of the center, quoting snippets from across Naharin’s repertory. Here and there duets formed spontaneously and unison took shape organically. Phrases from different works created unusual juxtapositions, while occasionally more and more dancers gathered to build a section from a single work.
Although I was invited to this press conference as a dance writer, I attended it along with the other 29 dancers who are studying Ohad Naharin’s movement language in the inaugural year of the Gaga Teacher Training Program – and in the midst of my total immersion in Gaga, my viewing was undoubtedly colored by my recent experiences in the studio. I couldn’t help but notice the Batsheva dancers slip in and out of phrases we have been learning in our repertory classes, like the quiet unison from Kamuyot (based on Mamootot) and a short, speedy solo from Sadeh21.
While a thrill surged through my body as I recognized these movements, I was even more fascinated by the dancers’ mastery of Naharin’s movement language. Trained for years in Gaga, these dancers move fluently in Naharin’s idiom, and their knowledge of his recent repertory is encyclopedic. Like writers cleverly engaging in wordplay, these dancers rummaged freely through Naharin’s vocabulary and deployed witty plays on movement.
I continued to mull over the Batsheva dancers’ relationship to Gaga as the press conference continued on to previews of the new work by Sharon Eyal and Gai Bachar as well as that of Yasmeen Godder. Sharon Eyal, herself steeped in Gaga as a former member of Batsheva and as the company’s current house choreographer, has developed a unique voice that nevertheless is a cousin to Naharin’s language. Having worked with Eyal on previous productions, the dancers moved in her creation as if speaking one of their native tongues. And even though Yasmeen Godder’s language is further removed on the family tree of contemporary dance, the five Batsheva dancers in her new work adapted admirably to her vocabulary. This mixed bill is one to look forward to, for it showcases the range of this company’s extraordinary dancers in works by some of this country’s most exciting choreographers.
Posted on 22 January 2011 by Deborah Friedes Galili
Quiet by Arkadi Zaides. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Heads up, New Yorkers! In June, a wave of contemporary dance from Israel is coming your way as part of the annual La MaMa Moves Festival. The city is already home to an astonishing number of Israeli-born choreographers, and La MaMa’s celebration will include five of these New York-based artists and groups: Deganit Shemy, LeeSaar The Company, Netta Yerushalmy, YelleB Dance Ensemble, and Neta Pulvermacher. But the Contemporary Israeli Dance Week mini-festival is also scheduled to feature a stellar line-up straight from Israel. Yasmeen Godder, Arkadi Zaides, Idan Cohen, Maya Brinner, and the team of Tamar Borer and Tamara Erde will offer a glimpse of the latest in Israeli-made productions, and master classes will give New York dancers a taste of what’s happening in local studios.
On Monday, January 31, a gala evening featuring Deganit Shemy, LeeSaar The Company, Netta Yerushalmy, and YelleB Dance Ensemble will be held at La MaMa E.T.C. (Experimental Club). The gala is a fundraiser for the Contemporary Israeli Dance Week, and more information about tickets can be found at the festival’s website. For those of you who can’t make it to the gala, here’s a sneak peak at the festival with clips of works by Godder, Zaides, Cohen, Brinner,and Borer and Erde.
Posted on 30 December 2009 by Deborah Friedes Galili
Video: Maya Brinner’s Red Ladies was one of several works exploring the individual within the group at International Exposure
A few weeks after International Exposure 2009, not only am I continuing to mull over some intriguing works that I saw, but I am still thinking about the many attendees I met and contemplating the conversations I had with them.
It was truly remarkable to see how many presenters were scoping out Israeli dance with the hopes of bringing Israeli choreographers or companies to their venues. The audience at International Exposure was well-informed, sophisticated, and worldly; its members were knowledgeable about the contemporary dance scene in their own home countries and had seen some of the latest productions from around the globe.
This diverse array of cultured visitors – and their well-informed observations – reinforced my own perception that there is indeed something especially appealing about Israeli contemporary dance. It was illuminating to talk to repeat attendees and learn that they found this year’s festival stronger than in previous years; it was also encouraging to speak with first-time visitors and discover that they found several works of interest.
I had several stimulating conversations about the festival with Brian Schaefer, a dance writer and administrator based in San Diego, California. He has generously written a thorough, thoughtful reflection on the festival for Dance In Israel, offering an invaluable perspective from outside the scene. Enjoy!
* * *
Seeing Israel through the Lens of Dance
By Brian Schaefer
Oil and water may be the most contentious of the commodities in the Middle East. But who says art can’t be a country’s natural resource as well?
Such is the purpose of International Exposure – a type of cultural trade fair to encourage the export of one of Israel’s most valuable products: its creativity. Each year for the past fifteen years, a flock of foreign presenters, managers, choreographers, and journalists has descended upon the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv to get a crash course in contemporary dance in Israel in the hopes that we fall in love with an artist or company and take them home with us to introduce them to our families, or rather, audiences. It’s souvenir shopping on an entirely different scale.
The Israeli Ministry of Culture brings us here to demonstrate the wealth of dance in Israel, show us Tel Aviv as an exciting, cosmopolitan city, and let us discover just how far Israel has come from the pioneering, agricultural days of the kibbutzim and sabras when Israeli dance meant communal folk gatherings, which is still how most Americans consider it. So the point of International Exposure is to destroy that myth and show us an Israel that is innovative and cutting-edge, both in its technology and in its art.
The process of actually bringing a company to the States is a complicated pas de deux that relies on a lot of other factors that come later on. But for now, for this week, it’s about seeing work. A lot of work. An exhausting amount of work.
Still, the experience is extraordinary. And the impact is powerful. Five days later, we leave with a semblance of an idea of what makes contemporary dance in Israel so vibrant. Without trying to lump everything together – after all, one of the strengths of the program is its diversity – there are a few noticeable characteristics, trends, and themes that emerge.
Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor’s Big Mouth. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
It’s difficult as an outsider not to read too much about the regional conflicts into the work we see. Few artists, save perhaps for Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor who explicitly reference Israel’s military history in the engaging trio Big Mouth, admit to addressing politics in any way.
Yet as foreign critics and presenters who for the most part view Israel from the lens of international media, we inevitably look for ways that artists respond to their social surroundings. Maybe we look too much. But perhaps also the fact that such intentional reactions to the political environment are conspicuously lacking in so much of the work we saw is equally telling.
What we actually got in many instances was a complete departure from the realities of this world, and surprisingly often, we were thrust in to the realm of the absurd where the unexpected can occur at any moment, where things are never quite as they seem or can in an instant morph into something unrecognizable. The absurdity is also in the behavior, where over-the-top characters cavort about with exaggerated gestures, inhabiting fantasy worlds in extravagant costumes and bright make-up.
Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak’s Trout. Photo by Asaf Ashkenazi.
Perhaps no Israeli choreographers better encapsulate this aesthetic and sensibility than Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. At International Exposure, the duo showed excerpts from the company’s repertory, the charming Rushes, made a few years ago for the American company Pilobolus, and the new evening-length work Trout, created in 2008 in Norway. In each, the zany characters and extravagant sets and props transport audiences into an imaginary place that may resemble reality at times but clearly isn’t.
Barak Marshall’s Rooster. Photo by Kfir Bolotin.
In Barak Marshall’s Rooster, we took a colorful visit to the shtetls of the 19th century to witness a love triangle mixing stories from the Bible and Yemenite folklore with a period aesthetic and surreal scenes of, for example, a man “laying” eggs in his mouth. It’s a work that, while perhaps a bit unfocused and difficult to follow for non-Hebrew speakers, exudes energy and charm and provides a strong showcase for the performers.
Across the board (for the most part), International Exposure guests walked away with a deep appreciation for Israeli dancers, whose focus and commitment is a noticeable strength of the performances.
Other works that dove into the absurd included Yasmeen Godder’s LOVE FIRE, complete with the gutting of a stuffed creature resembling some combination of goat and lion, an unexpected shower of blue glitter, and a dramatic illuminated heart made of diagonal fluorescent tubes. Yossi Berg and Oded Graf’s study in masculinity, 4 Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer, also made use of a life-sized dead animal, raising peculiar questions about the role of taxidermy in Israeli society. Okay, not really, but seeing both works in one night gave something to think about.
Michal Herman Dance Group’s Fellowship, based on a short Kafka story, embodied absurdity in the extreme mannerisms of its characters and their exaggerated interactions, as did Irad Mazliah’s Unter den Linden.
While not necessarily “absurd,” Artour Astman & Ilana Bellahsen’s ArtLana presented the two artists as babies in a wide-eyed, charming duet. The grotesque masks in Noa Dar Dance Group’s Anu suggested something of the absurd but dealt more explicitly with another theme that was largely prevalent throughout the festival – the struggle between the urge for individual expression and the pressure to conform.
The aforementioned Big Mouth tackled the topic effectively as did Maya Brinner’s Red Ladies, which followed a trio of women from synchronized harmony to individual awareness and then group conflict.
But perhaps no dance company in the world embodies this tension between group cohesion and individual identity than the Batsheva Dance Company, whose new work Hora closed the festival.
Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s Hora. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Batsheva’s artistic director Ohad Naharin shifts quickly and effortlessly between complicated group sections, done in perfect unison (in a way that no other company can approach), to solos that marry abandon and control in surprising harmony. It’s a tactic utilized in several of his recent works, and just because it’s a recognizable pattern doesn’t mean its predictable. Yet here, the tool loses its impact. While past works like Shalosh (Three) or Mamootot, though still abstract, feel like they follow some sort of arc, Hora in comparison feels circular. At the end, we’re back at the beginning and as a result, it’s a bit harder to appreciate the journey, but then again, maybe that’s the point.
Naharin has always had eclectic music taste, easily moving from a traditional Passover song to the Beach Boys to soundscapes that he himself creates. In Hora, the score consists of some of the most recognizable and clichéd pieces of music by Strauss, Wagner, and John Williams borrowed from the archives or classic science-fiction films. Like the title of the work, Naharin challenges the audience to rearrange its reference points for the associations we have created throughout our lives.
As a result, he creates extremes of possibilities and the space in between where anything can happen and meaning is left ambiguous. Throwing viewers from one end of the spectrum to the other (from familiar to unfamiliar) with unrelated and nonsensical movements forces us to fill in the gaps of how they relate and what it all amounts to. And while you may not walk away with an answer, Batsheva ultimately leaves an impression that, indeed, there is something human within this controlled chaos after all.
I always get a sense, watching Batsheva, that there is something dark and explosive just under the surface, and that’s another thread that seemed to weave its way through the festival of Israeli choreographers and companies. Noa Dar’s Anu plunged suddenly into simulated rape, and Berg and Graf’s 4 Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer similarly incorporated sexual violence into the narrative.
Rami Be’er’s poem Infrared, which is also the name of the work for his Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, follows multi-colored soldiers into a garden, which the over-produced performance suggested rather explicitly. The company appears to have a wealth of resources at its disposal and produced a glossy show that, ultimately, was lacking in the substance and urgency that many of the smaller companies displayed.
Vertigo Dance Company in Noa Wertheim’s Mana. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Noa Wertheim’s Vertigo Dance Company similarly approached the theme of complicated group dynamics. Yet their work Mana offered a depth and sense of intrigue that made it one of the most compelling pieces of the entire week, one that brings together many of the themes discussed here in a tight, luscious, and appealing package that foreign audiences are likely to respond well to.
If another theme might be added, it’s the embrace of classical music mashed with contemporary, fragmented movement. It’s not a new idea in contemporary dance, but the idea was particularly noticeable at this festival. In addition to the well-known scores in Batsheva’s work, Godder also used the waltz for inspiration, and Idan Cohen’s take on Swan Lake paired the Tchaikovsky score with sharp, defined, lightning-quick movement that actually made the idea feel current and relevant – no small feat for such an overused score and well-known ballet. But the sense that Israelis are resisting tradition, or at least looking to re-contextualize it to their new realities, came through loud and clear.
Maria Kong in fling. Photo by Gadi Dagon.
Of course, one can’t possibly force all of the performances into only a few basic themes. Defying all categorizations was the work by Maria Kong, a new company comprised of former Batsheva dancers. fling opens with an aching violin solo, performed facing away from the audience, while projections on two columns conjure a world of dark hallways, mysterious rooms, and the constant shift of shadows, which gives the sense that time is passing us by. Without a dancer on stage for the first nearly twenty minutes, a captivating world is created. When they do appear, the dancers move with robotic precision. The slight turn of a head sends waves that reverberate throughout another dancer’s body. Similarly, fling is a subtle work that makes a big impression.
And while International Exposure aims to present contemporary dance, we were also brought to the Israel Ballet studios to view excerpts from the company’s repertoire. The dancers were proficient, the partnering well-executed. But the formality of the ballet language doesn’t seem to fit this country.
Interacting with and observing Israelis on a daily basis during the week of the Exposure, the intimacy, suspicion, joy, tension, spirit, and vitality that seems to hover over society here is reflected in the works of contemporary artists that display the same such characteristics.
In comparison, the ballet, with its sterilized look, organized structure, clear gender roles, and polished edges seems to be just what everyone else is fighting against. And that conflict is what makes the dance in Israel so fascinating.