D.C. DanceWatcher

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/.