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Israel: A Nation Dances

Karmiel Dance Festival
August 6-8, 2012
Karmiel, Israel

By Lisa Traiger

While summer dance festivals abound and al fresco dancing is near irresistible for audiences and dancers from the United States to Europe and the Far East, I don’t know of any dance festival that not only boasts a customized theme song, but also attract upwards of 250,000 visitors over just three days and nights. Karmiel, a little city that could in northern Israel, has both an upbeat theme song — the Hebrew “Karmiel Rokedet” or “Karmiel Dances” — and hordes of visitors who fill the town, population just shy of 52,000, with dancers young and old, pro and amateur, for a non-stop parade of Israeli folk dance sessions and performances by amateur folk dance troupes and professional dance companies touring on the international circuit.

This year, the dance festival’s 25th, included three evenings of performances August 6, 7 and 8, in a vast outdoor amphitheater, which can seat about 19,000 on chairs and the lawn, plus all-night dance sessions for thousands of folk dancers orbiting in concentric circles on the city’s six tennis courts from midnight until dawn. Then there was a handful of international ballet and modern companies performing in the city’s municipal theater. The festival, founded in 1987 by the city’s first mayor Baruch Venger, was meant to pick up where an earlier Israeli dance festival, the famed Dalia Festival left off. Dalia first brought together Israeli folk dancers during the Jewish festival of Shavuot in 1944. A reported 10,000 people traveled to Kibbutz Dalia to celebrate the wheat harvest with traditional and new Israeli folk dances and displays of other ethnic dances from around the world. Israelis trekked to an outdoor hill on the kibbutz to watch groups perform dances paying tribute to the Biblical land and the region’s agricultural roots, which were being resuscitated into a new Jewish state.  

While Karmiel’s heady dance festival is an acknowledgment of Israel’s Zionistic and émigré roots, it has become an event in its own right — and its massive proportions speak to the widespread growth and abiding interest Israel holds in dance across a multiplicity of forms.

Each year the festival opens with a grand showcase featuring some of Israel’s top pop culture icons. This year the opener, overseen by festival artistic director Shlomo Maman, a well-known folk dance choreographer in his own right, honored recipients of Israel’s highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize. The evening of songs and dances reflected the breadth and depth of Israeli cultural, artistic and social contributions to the nation. Dance and song segments honored the nation’s poets including Leah Goldberg, singers like Naomi Shemer and Yoram Gaon, and organizations like the Tzofim, Israeli scouts, and Tel Aviv’s famed Habima Theater Company. Three of Israel’s renowned choreographers — Gurit Kadman (nee Gertrude Kraus), Yehudit Arnon and Sara Levi Tanai, who each left indelible marks on the growing dance culture of the country — were among the honored laureates.

The opening evening was emceed by a jowly singer/actor Yoram Gaon, who bills himself as Israel’s Frank Sinatra, but with his recent foray into Hebrew sitcoms, perhaps he’s more of a precursor to Justin Timberlake. He served up both a nostalgia-tinged glance at Israel’s cultural achievements and examples of the youthful vigor of its earnest younger generation of Israeli dance performers. Accompanied by the Ashdod Andalusian Orchestra, Gaon introduced dances and songs showcasing Israeli culture. For the most part this shifting company of dancers in the folk dance tradition bobbed and weaved in circles and lines, hopping, skipping and leaping to up-tempo horas. The ladies smiled broadly in their swingy A-lined dresses, the men clad in colorful tunics. Among the opener’s highlights was singer Achinoam Nini, better known as Noa, in “Keren Or.” The N.Y. High School of the Performing Arts-trained singer/songwriter draws on her Yemenite ancestry and, of the hundreds of Israeli dancers seen, she was one of a very few who exhibited the distinctive yet restrained shoulder shimmy characteristic of authentic Yemenite dances. The dancing throughout, this opening program, and somewhat less so in the third day’s closer, was mostly performed by well-trained amateurs, teenage and young adult dancers who attacked the choreography with more verve than accuracy, but when close to 100 dancers filled the stage, a faux pas or two really was beside the point. Folk dance in Israel was and for the most part remains, a communal activity that promote group unity even amid the diversity of dances that choreographers churn out year after year — horas, partnered waltzes, debkas, line dances, salsa-tinged Israeli dances and more.

The closing program again featured these spirited amateur dancers, this time displaying a greater variety of dance styles. There were groups that borrowed from Spanish or Russian/Georgian traditions, and fresh-faced teens who looked ready for the U.S. studio competition circuit dancing to Hebrew pop tunes in a style I can only call “Isra-lyrical” for its resemblance to that muddy mix of jazz, modern and contemporary that comprises “lyrical” on our own shores.

The headliner for night two at Karmiel was a stunner for many reasons. The last time Jews exclaimed “The Cossacks are coming!” things didn’t turn out so well. But the Cossack National Dance Troupe from Russia indeed came to Israel and, by measure of the audience reaction, was a terrific hit. The flashy production, actually titled “The Cossacks Are Coming!” featured a chorus, a traditional orchestra with balalaika, and a company of exquisite dancers all told numbering nearly 60. Though unable to understand what the close harmony choir sang about, in a nation that has absorbed more than a million Russian immigrants in a generation, these Russian songs were beloved, and many of them sound suspiciously Israeli (for Israelis are also great copycats, particularly in borrowing shamelessly from foreign genres and even specific songs).

The dancing, including spectacular sword battles where actual sparks flew, soaring leaps and sequences of barrel turns, aerial cartwheels, and that knee pumping katzastky step, draws from Russian folkloric traditions. But its fervid Cossack machismo, along with costumes taken straight from the Red Army, has all the trappings of a martial dance company celebrating war spoils or prepping for a battle campaign. Joined by a lovely complement of women in delicate low-heel character boots, they circled and coupled up, promenading in unison and tandem, the women dainty in their grapevines and polkas, the men ever bold in runs, stomps and leaps. Interestingly, even given the ignominious history of Cossack-Jewish relations, Israelis felt a deep affinity for the songs and dances — many in the audience were singing along, or at least humming some of the anthemic-sounding chorales. Of course, Russian and Eastern European culture — music and dance in particular — was highly influential to those forging new cultural traditions 65 years ago in the young Jewish state. Many of the horas and rambunctious circle dances still carry a distinctive Russian flavor in their choreographic bones. Israel’s popular choral group the Gevatron, with its songs of bucolic Zionism and patriotism and its accordion accompaniment,  clearly has its roots in the patriotic and nature-based Russian songs of the Cossack chorus. This odd frisson came over me: the Cossacks made life miserable for Jews in Russia a century ago and yet so many Jews and Israelis continue to hold a warm affinity for the music and dance culture of this period.

But the dance performances at Karmiel weren’t only in the Israeli folk genre or its nostalgic precursor. The Karmiel Festival’s artistic adviser Yair Vardi, who oversees the nation’s premiere dance venue, the Suzanne Dellal Dance Centre in Tel Aviv, programmed a small but interesting selection of foreign ballet and modern companies, which performed not only at the Karmiel Cultural Center, where some shows began at 11:00 a.m. and ran straight through until midnight, but a few companies also performed in Tel Aviv or other cities during their visit.

In a nation with strong European roots, it’s surprising that homegrown ballet hasn’t made inroads to Israel. The mediocre Israel Ballet lacks adequate choreographic vision, and its dancers have fewer opportunities to develop their craft in a nation besotted with modern and contemporary dancers. Thus the visit from the young and vivacious CIA Brasileira De Ballet, where artistic director Jorge Texeira seeks out his youthful dance protégés from the streets and barrios of some of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro. The program showcased the dancers in excerpts from two warhorse classics, “Don Quixote” and “Raymonda.” The muddy recorded scores and off-the-rack backdrops luckily were overshadowed by the generous and fresh performances. Energetic and well-trained, the dancers, all between the ages of 18 and 24, showed off their vivacity and dynamic attack. As Kitri, Melissa Oliveira was lovely, playful and flirtatious with her high-kicking grand jetes, while Gustavo Cavalho was a frisky but not unruly Basilio. The technical training of the company from the corps upwards, with strong fifths and landings out of jumps and turns, showed care and precision. I was reminded of the unparalleled strengths of another Latin ballet troupe, National Ballet of Cuba, but these dancers young and still developing display a youthful vigor and consummate joy. The “Raymonda Suite,” while slightly less assured, again showcased that technical care. “Brazilian Suite” was meant to display the dancers in a contemporary work, this one drew references from the hip swaying samba, but with a raft of complex lifts and supports far removed from the classical realm, the overly complicated choreography didn’t allow the dancers to sparkle.

The U.S. was represented by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, directed by former American Ballet Theatre dancer and ballet master Terrence Orr. The company, on its first international tour in two decades, was invited because of a sister-city relationship the city’s Jewish Federation has with the city of Karmiel. A boon for the dancers, the tour garnered the company extensive visibility in the press and via social media outlets. The program included Mark Morris’s “Maelstrom,” stunningly danced by the company. The seven couples infused this darker, more somber Morris piece with care and precision. The deceptively simple choreography, set to the Beethoven “Trio No. 5 in D Major, Opus 70,” requires steely attack coupled with an ethereal floating quality. Pure balletic passages, punctuated by a flexion of an ankle or wrist, or a daring toss of a female partner to another male, build to passages of tornado-like runs, the dancers bodies converging into a spinning vortex before the stage empties for a solo or pair of dancers. The evening’s crowd pleaser proved to be Dwight Rhoden’s homage to summer at the beach, “Step Touch,” which featured a recorded score sung by Charlie Thomas and the Drifters and Pure Gold. Think sandy bathing suits, “Under the Boardwalk,” the smell of French fries and salt water taffy. The snazzy, bathing suit-like costumes by Christine Darch set the stage for fun-filled groups of sexy women and buff men to intermingle to some of these summertime standards. The program also featured Balanchine’s “Sylvia Pas de Deux,” well danced by Julia Erickson and Alexandre Silva.

A third ballet company representing the contemporary European tradition, Ballet de Opera Metz under the direction of Patrick Salliot, brought three new takes on works familiar to followers of ballet’s 20th-century canon. Salliot’s re-envisioning of “Daphnis et Chloe” as a love triangle with a homosexual twist was at first inscrutable without knowing the plot change. The choreography has that contemporary Bejart-ian feel in its movement language though at times there’s a Balanchinian sparseness that tempers some of the more overwrought passages. Salliot’s “La Fauness,” featuring the famed Debussy score, updates Nijinsky’s erotic chance forest meeting between a nymph and a faun. The sensuality remains vital in this modern dress meeting of a man and a woman. The female, languidly stretches out in a chair, highly attuned to her body’s sensitivities. A suited man enters as does a second woman. Swooping hugs, sweeping caresses and sensuous lifts and holds heighten the sexual tension among the three. Salliot also refers back to the Grecian two dimensional poses of the Nijinsky but there’s a definite erotic element to the trio.

They closed the program with a reconsideration of “Scheherazade,” featuring the lush Rimsky-Korsakov score and a few episodes from the Arabian Nights tales, told with theatrical finesse using a handful of astute props, particularly a toy sailboat and an oversized swath of silk that became a tent, a sea, and a backdrop for a harem boudoir. The Metz dancers underscored their movement with a lushness and pliancy that kept one’s attention, while the choreography danced with an unmistakable French accent — sensual, expressive, sometimes even overwrought — demonstrated a distinctive take on ballet.

From China’s Guangzhou province, Guandong Modern Dance Company has assimilated primarily American modern dance techniques, but reconfigured them in various interesting ways to speak via movement language with a contemporary Chinese approach. Their program of three works, slated for an 11:00 a.m. time slot, was one of the festival’s stunners. The choreography, often saturated with lighting effects and hazy fog, made the works feel as if they were out of time or unraveling a distant world. The program, titled “Between Body and Soul,” showcased a trio of works, two by the company’s chief choreographer Liu Qi, who has been with Guangdong since 1996, and one by Xing Lang, another former dancer with the troupe. “Touched,” by Xing Lang, featured quicksilver movement by the company of 11, dancers falling and rising, clad in socks and an assemblage of practice clothes. Nearly boneless, their torsos undulating, their arms and feet pliant, the choreography shows the dancers as charged beings that catapult into movement then capitulate in changing mixings and groupings. “Another Voice” seemed to be an excerpt from a larger piece. A trio of dancers were wrapped head to toe in flesh-toned strips of cloth, and moved to the sounds of dripping water as if some sort of forest creatures, wispy, ebbing and flowing, slippery through their ribs and hips. Finally, the closing piece was billed as “Haromim,” which translates to “The Romans.” I believe in actuality this piece was an excerpt from Liu Qi’s “Upon Calligraphy,” with its shape-oriented figurative structures, at once silky and staccato with dancers’ legs develope-ing while elbows and shoulders punctuate a phrase with a slash or a dot of movement. Each of the works was performed with an exquisite sense of silky ease yet total accuracy. Interestingly, for a company drawing on American ideals of modern dance, weightedness and gravitational pull into the floor was eschewed for a sense of weightlessness even as the dancers moved into and away from the floor, an ideal that is anathema to modern dance’s early roots.

Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, which was founded in 1970 and remains based on Kibbutz Ga’aton in the western Galilee, presented a trio of very new works on a program titled “Double 3.” Israel’s modern dance roots are more diverse, with early fundamental contributions coming from Martha Graham and Anna Sokolow among other Americans. But the European influence is broad and remains a driving force for many companies, some of whom look toward ideals of tanztheater for inspiration. It has been said that when Pina Bausch came to Israel in 1981, she inspired generations of choreographers. There’s an unusual hybrid in some of the current Israeli contemporary dance that stems from this duel set of influences: American modern and post-modernism (much likely picked up in European cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin) and European tanztheater. The triple bill from the Kibbutz Company, directed by Rami Be’er, only the troupe’s second leader after Yehudit Arnon, is indicative of this trend.

Idan Sharabi, a Juilliard graduate who danced with Netherlands Dance Theatre before returning to Tel Aviv in 2010, premiered the riveting “I Dropped the Ceiling on the Floor Again,” featuring a complex audio collage with voice, music and sound effects including clips from Ravel and Chopin and captured sounds of falling objects. The work begins in darkness with a low, foreboding rumble. A black partial wall at the back of the stage becomes both a backdrop and a hiding place during the piece. The sounds of crashes, breaking glass and dropping objects instigate the dancers to tremor then freeze, crash to the floor and quake. Each boom or drop instigates another rush of movement, then the dancers, each clad in a colorful assortment of street wear, settle into quirky undulations, twists, curves and swipes of movement. One dancer brings on a glass of water, drinks and then the sound of smashing glass intrudes. The work builds and crescendos in a wall of found sound and movement. Some dancers remain frozen while others dash, squat and scoot in a mad rush for the unknown. Though abstract, the suggestion of “…Ceiling” is of the matsav, what Israelis call “the situation,” meaning the current political and attendant turmoil of terrorism that includes, of course, threat of rockets launched regularly at city enclaves like Sderot in Southern Israel. The work feels terrifyingly real — capturing everyday life disrupted, distorted by the precariousness of the unknown, yet seemingly normal on the surface. The sound score with its broken dishes, a wailing child, and other escalating noise adds an overwhelming sense of unease to what remains often unspoken in a nation where its people live so closely to shattering effects.

Company member Oz Mulay’s “Poor-ya” for six dancers features both galumphing full bodied movements and stretchy, sinewy reaches. A collage of piano, music and voice, here provided less direction for the dancers as they roamed and at points found repose. Another company member, Nir Even Shoham, debuted “Day Too Soon,” which relied on similar movement language but felt more suggestive of a journey or a lifecycle, with its six dancers carrying sacks — clothing perhaps? — and performing a series of semaphoric-like gestures that accumulated. The journey, performed before a series of white panels seemed at times arduous and dancers bounced, rocked and sought out momentarily various support from members of the group. At one point the work reverted to a unison section, looking everything like a competition dance, and breaking the mood that had been more artfully and thematically built. The Kibbutz company dancers attack choreography with an unrivaled sense of commitment, an earthiness and a fearless feeling that whatever might come next will be an adventure. A wonderful way to wrap up a dance-centric trip to Israel.

This review was published originally in the Fall 2012 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit http://www.balletreview.com/.

 

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Serious Play

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Jewish theater and dance by lisatraiger on March 14, 2012

Batsheva Dance Company
“Hora”
Brooklyn Academy of Music
New York, NY
Friday, March 9, 2012  

By Lisa Traiger

Batsheva Dance Company in "Hora," photo by Gadi Dagon

Ohad Naharin takes playfulness seriously. The white-hot Israeli choreographer and artistic director of Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company creates dances that are like complex games with no winners or losers. Instead Naharin unleashes his dancers onto his playground, where they bound around like playing pieces in a board game, following his ingrained and rigorous instruction manual. Indeed, through the intelligent beauty of his self-invented movement language, Gaga, his artist’s eye tricks us into seeing his dancers as individuals. For adept movers, Gaga synthesizes the purely physical world into a realm of metaphorical poetry, heightened by movement, which allows dancers tremendous freedom to project to audiences their sensory experiences.

“Hora,” the 2009 work Batsheva brought on its current North American tour captures these idiosyncratic elements in its brash hour for its U.S. debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The audience was captivated by its studied sense of gamesmanship and dancing fully imbued with preternatural alertness.

Structured like a series of vignettes or episodes, “Hora” unspools in a spare environment: a vivid chartreuse half wall boxes the 11 dancers in on both sides and the back of the stage – or playing area – like a Joseph Cornell box assemblage in which the dancers become the found objects in a collected collage. Across the back wall a bare wooden bench invites the dancers to rest and observe when they are not part of the action on stage. This structure recalls – for me at least — Merce Cunningham’s “Squaregame” in the way dancers – players? – remain on stage for the entire piece, sometimes dancing, sometimes seated at the edges of the stage observing, but never removed from the work entirely. Also like Cunningham, Naharin eschews a narrative arc, instead offering up sequences that build to a series of climaxes and then subside into denouements, as the dancers smolder and peter out over and over during the course of 60 minutes.

To accompany the dancers in their advances and recapitulations, Naharin selected pioneering Japanese electronic composer Isao Tomita, known for his synthesized arrangements of best-known Western classics. From the bombastic Wagner overture to “Die Walkure,” to John Williams’s equally over-the-top “Star Wars” theme, to Debussy’s sensual “Afternoon of a Faun,” Tomita’s music sounds oddly spacey and unexpected. By the way, was that whistling tune the theme from the old “Colombo” detective show?

Music isn’t a supportive floor in Naharin’s hands, it’s a tool to propel the dancers into anomalous, quirky riffs and physical phrases that seem drawn from an imaginative and uninhibited world where any and all movement is equally valued. No steps or positions are glorified, or vilified. A monkey-like squat projects as much beauty as a finely stretched leg. A swayed back and jutting chin is no more offensive than a prettily parsed out pas de bourree. So dancers turn in, turn out, twist, wriggle, tremble, squat, scoot, flex, point and teeter on the very tips of their toes. Moments of silence and stillness feel heavily freighted in this world where a languid dancer stretching into arabesque vies with a silly slap battle between a pair of men. After a sequence on the floor where dancers spin and balance seesaw-like on their bottoms, the group in succession rises to an exaggerated runner’s lunge, one knee cocked, the other straight – like an ancient heroic bronze of a bowed discus thrower. These eye catching moments with their unruly vocabulary tickle the edges of memory to place a sound, a phrase of music, a pose or a moving sequence before it disappears again back into the ether.

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in "Hora," photo by Gadi Dagon

“Hora” challenges as it is satisfies with its ever-evolving choreographic palette. The dancers begin sitting, their backs against that glowing green wall, before walking forward en masse to confront the audience at the edge of the stage – a favored moment in Naharin’s body of choreography – staring us down with piercing eyes and hardened faces. They turn and dole out a sequence in silhouette, chic in their trim black dancewear – some in dresses, others, shorts. We study their bodies outlilned in high relief, each distinct against the glowing green scrim. One dancer’s chin juts forward, another’s back sways, while a third drops back in the shoulders. This is no corps de ballet unit dancing as one.

These dancers imbue the idiosyncratic choreography with myriad meanings that we outsiders can only guess at. Watching their hyper-intuitive control becomes easily mesmerizes. At times they’re hard-edged, tough, even prickly, like the native Israeli fruit of an indigenous cactus, the sabra. But sabras, like Israelis, the old saying goes, are prickly on the outside, sweet under the skin. That’s the gift Naharin gives the dance world, how to dance below the skin’s surface and still project an aura, a life force, in the process. These dancers have acquired, it seems, some secret wordless access to textures and senses that feels superhuman. Taking it in, you can smell what they smell, taste what they taste, breathe in the same breaths they take. It’s a kinesthesia for all five senses, not just the body.

And yet, “Hora,” for those uninitiated into the sometimes arcane and quixotic worlds Naharin creates, contains nothing expectantly like a hora, the communal circular folk dance with its weaving grapevine steps and held hands. In fact, Batsheva dancers have gone on record as saying that the work’s title is not meant to suggest the popular European Jewish folk dance and that the word has other meanings in other languages, including “hour” in Spanish. Instead, the choreographer eschews circles, a structure he’s favored in some of his other works, including the popular “Minus 16,” and returns to another form he likes: the full line of dancers across the stage moving in unison to confront the audience. It’s an in-your-face way to get the audience on your side, and these dancers have no qualms about possessing a straightforward staredown for as long as it takes. The reality, though, is that when a major Israeli dance company with Batsheva;s renown tours a work called “Hora,” it unquestionably carries a freighted meaning. Denying in the name that root connection simply feels disingenuous.

© 2012 by Lisa Traiger
Published March 14, 2012

Separating the Dancer From the Dance Exchange

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Jewish theater and dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on June 23, 2011

More reporting on Liz Lerman’s departure from Dance Exchange, the company she founded in 1976, this time in The Forward:

“Rebecca Rossen, a dancer, choreographer and historian at University of Texas at Austin, places Lerman alongside other important 20th-century American Jewish dance makers, including Edith Segal, Dvora Lapson, Sophie Maslow and Anna Halprin. ‘She works in a long-established tradition of Jewish female choreographers who have worked from a liberal, leftist, feminist perspective and who, through their choreography — as well as, for many, through the diversity in their companies — envisioned in their dancing a multicultural, pluralistic, just, democratic society,’ Rossen said.”

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/138987/#ixzz1Q3rqlYFD

From Zero to 4,678: 60 Years of Israeli Dance at the 92nd St. Y

Posted in Dance, Jewish theater and dance, World dance by lisatraiger on March 24, 2011

My story on 60 years of Israeli folk dance at the 92nd Street Y appeared in The Forward:

“In 1924 there was just one Israeli folk dance, ‘Hora Agadati,’ created in Tel Aviv. Within a year of gaining statehood, Israel could boast 75 folk dances. And by 2005 there were 4,678, according to Dina Roginsky, an anthropologist and lecturer at Yale University who has studied the growth of Israeli folk dance. This brings into sharp relief the importance of New York’s Israeli Dance Institute, which is celebrating 60 years of folk dancing from April 1 to 3. Festival 60, presented as a joint venture between IDI and the 92nd Street Y, features workshops and parties at the Y and a festival performance. The program features 300 dancers from 16 groups spanning kindergarteners to senior citizens, who have traveled from Caracas, Venezuela; Toronto; Miami; Washington, D.C., and Albany, N.Y., to perform in the longest-running Israeli dance festival in the world.”

People of the Book Can Dance: Conference on Jewish Experience Through the Lens of Dance

Posted in Dance, Dance theater, Jewish theater and dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on February 20, 2011

“Modern Jewish Experience Through the Lens of Dance”
The Melton Center for Jewish Studies and Department of Dance
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
February 13-14, 2011
By Lisa Traiger

© 2011 Lisa Traiger
Published February 20, 2011

Two weekends ago, in a non-descript auditorium on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus, Jewish Studies opened the door to a new field of research – Dance Studies. The groundbreaking academic conference, cosponsored by the Jewish studies and the dance departments at OSU, demonstrated that our Jewish scholars have much to learn and ruminate on from those who frequently divide their time between historic and bookish research and dancing, creating, rehearsing and performing. “Modern Jewish Experience Through the Lens of Dance” is not the first conference to explore dance from a Jewish perspective, but it’s the first with an academic imprimatur – the Melton Center for Jewish Studies.

OSU Jewish dance berk[1] 

“It turns out that here at Ohio State in the dance department various people worked on Jewish choreographers,” said Matt Goldish, director of the Melton Center, and an expert on Sephardic Jewish culture and Jewish messianism. “This was a revelation to us. I didn’t think that was a field. Most of what we do is research by philosophers, historians, the usual types of things found in Jewish studies. It’s amazing to find this whole field that we didn’t really know anything about.”

By dint of the work of doctoral student Hannah Kosstrin, who was a 2009-10 Melton fellow studying mid-20th century choreographer Anna Sokolow, Goldish and the Melton Center have been invited to the dance, so to speak. Goldish, who not only was the only kippah– and tzitzit-wearing [head-covering and ritual fringes of Orthodox Jewish men] participant in the room, at times he was the only man present during the paper sessions, which included presentations on “Ideas, Work and Events that Anchor Us,” “Changing Jewish Identity in the U.S.,” and the most-talked-about panel, “Jewish? Israeli? Identity in Contemporary Dance.” Today Goldish, who hasn’t given up his day job researching Shabbatai Zvi, teaching and directing the Melton Center, has enough knowledge of Jewish and Israeli dance to ruminate on whether gaga, the movement language created by Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company director Ohad Naharin, is Jewish, Israeli, both or neither. “I’m struck by the fundamental question here: What makes some art Jewish and other art, by Jewish artists, secular,” Goldish shared during a break between sessions. “In hearing these questions asked about dance, I’m reminded that these are same questions we’ve asked about music, literature, painting and sculpture.” It seems that the tent of Jewish studies is, indeed, expansive enough to welcome dance.

This modest conference, which aside from the opening performance/lecture demonstration that attracted more than 100 viewers from the Columbus area, plus the conference participants, never drew more than 30 scholars and researchers in the room at one time. Earlier conferences addressed Jewish dance, including the groundbreaking1986 gathering at New York’s 92nd Street Y, which brought together over four days dozens of major choreographers, performers, critics, and dance historians and scholars, from the then-nascent field of dance studies to examine a body of choreography that draws from root Jewish sources, including biblical themes, historic events, diverse communities of Jews from the diaspora and contemporary issues that distill Jewish ideals and creative expression. That conference begat another, in Boston in 1991, as well as a symposium on Yiddish dance in 2007 and various other smaller gatherings around the country examining the Bible in dance and Jewish wedding dances. But none of those programs introduced dance fully into oft-guarded academic circles of Jewish Studies, where departments at North American universities pride themselves on their eclectic collections of experts in ancient Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, modern Jewish history, Holocaust studies, sociology, Yiddish literature, Sephardic cultural studies, and more. In recent years, the Association for Jewish Studies, which was founded in 1969, has featured a handful of scholars presenting on aspects of dance at its annual conferences. But at Ohio State Feb. 13-14, 2011, many of the top scholars working on research in Jewish and Israeli dance – among them Judith Brin Ingber (Minneapolis, independent), Kosstrin (Reed College, Ore.), Rebecca Rossen (University of Texas, Austin) – gathered to take definitive steps into the Jewish studies academy.

Ingber, a long-time independent scholar who laid the groundwork for the younger scholars working today in the areas of Jewish dance and the Jewish body, set the stage by naming the biblical Miriam as our first Jewish choreographer. Ingber, who since the 1970s interviewed and observed many of Israel’s founding generation of folk dancers, theorizes on images of the Jewish body and its evolution from a bedraggled, small-framed, hooked-nose caricature of an Ashkenazi Jew, to the re-born image of Jewish strength, confidence and pride that came with the creation of the modern state Israel. Dance, Ingber pointed out, in the new Jewish state for some was an expression of their spirit, their neshama; for others it was a means to repair the world, tikkun olam; and for still others it was a manifestation of community building, particularly on the kibbutz, the Israeli collective farm projects.

Karen Goodman, an independent dancer, choreographer and scholar from Los Angeles, performed her paper, “Inscribing On Air,” where she spoke and moved about how she first danced her Jewishness in 1992, and has been mining Jewish identity in choreography – her own and others via research and documentation – ever since. In examining why we dance specifically Jewish dances, Goodman noted, “we are at the intersection of dance and religion, for life makes us all ask the meaning of who we are and what we do. The existential questions must be addressed, if not answered. The bottom line is survival. What is needed to continue? What actions should we take to influence or celebrate a positive outcome? The most fundamental and profound way is through our bodies and the lives those bodies lead …. To make movement that expresses the life of a people is a powerful act of sanctification.”
 
Other scholars examined the works of Anna Sokolow, the American choreographer and contemporary of Martha Graham, who frequently worked in Israel where she founded the Lyric Theater, but also made some seminal American works including the Holocaust-saturated “Kaddish” and “Dreams,” among other works. Kosstrin, a visiting professor at Reed College in Portland, discussed Jewishness, whiteness and assimilation in Sokolow’s 1950s works. Unusual was the presence of two dancer/scholars, Ze’eva Cohen and Lorry May, both of whom danced in Sokolow’s company at different points. May described the act of recreating Sokolow’s 1968 “Steps of Silence,” and the challenges differently trained contemporary dancers face in accessing the weighted, power Sokolow’s choreography demands. Cohen, recently retired from the Princeton University dance department, earlier in her career created her own choreography, which drew on her modern and post-modernist dance encounters in New York during the 1960s and ‘70s as well as her family’s Yemenite roots and movement language. Cohen presented and discussed her 1996 “Negotiations,” (shown on video) dealing with cross-cultural encounters between two women – one white, one black – who were based on the biblical characters of Sarah and Hagar. But she said, “I usually don’t think of myself as a Jewish choreographer; I’m a choreographer.”

Deborah Freides Galili, a recent immigrant to Israel who formerly studied at OSU, continued that line of questioning identity when she dissected the “Israeli” in Israeli contemporary dance. As small and isolated as Israel has been in its modern history, modern dance has become one of the nation’s most notable cultural creations and exports. Israeli dance companies, particularly the world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company and its artistic director Naharin, are touted as the best in the world. But many Israeli dance artists, particularly those who work abroad, but also many who remain in Israel, choose to eschew both the Jewishness and Israeliness of their work. Galili, who founded the website Dance in Israel to aggregate English articles and report on the Israeli contemporary dance scene, discussed a number recent choreographic works and whether their claim of a generic identity in a country so politically, religiously and socially charged as Israel is disingenuous or not. While an artist can make a claim for his work, its public transmission ultimately puts the decision in the hands of the audience. “We watch Israeli dance with a lens colored by our own familiarity with that culture,” Galili said, meaning that Judaism, the Holocaust, kibbutz life, the military, the matzav or current Israeli-Palestinian situation, shades the experience with a variety of meanings.

The fundamental question raised throughout the two-day program, which also included a look at Israeli folk dance pioneer Fred Berk, and American modern choreographers ranging from David Dorfman to Yehuda Hyman to Liz Lerman, was what makes a dance Jewish or Israeli? The answers were diverse and, like any good Jewish gathering, raised further questions. “The beauty,” choreographer Cohen stated, “within Judaism is that it always requires you to ask yourself a question. You are encouraged to keep a free-thinking mind and for that freedom I embrace that.” Ingber said, “The mystery for me is where dance enters Judaism. Dance for me can embody what Judaism is. I respect the whole idea of clal yisael – we are one – and whatever this Jewish magic is … it’s my job not to finish it, but to create and contribute to this ongoing creativity as a Jewish person.”

For dance historian and teacher Harriet Berg, 87, who drove in from Detroit for the conference, in the end there was no question that dance and Judaism belong together: “People always want to say we’re the people of the book. I want to say, no, we’re the people of the dance.”

Photo: Ohio State Univerisity dance students and conference participants in Ruth Goodman’s workshop on reconstructing choreographer Fred Berk’s “Song of the Ghetto,” photo Paige Bailey, courtesy OSU’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies