Gaga for Israeli Dance

First, there was nation-building folk dance. Then came influences from European expressionism and American modern dance. Now, Israeli dance has come into its own and is in great demand on stages around the world. 

Gaga for Israeli Dance

First, there was nation-building folk dance. Then came influences from European expressionism and American modern dance. Now, Israeli dance has come into its own and is in great demand on stages around the world. 
September 3, 2019 in 2019 September/October, Arts & Culture, Highlights
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One dancer, then another, carries a bucket of soil onto a dimly lit stage, then meticulously pours it to form farm-straight furrows. As the dance accelerates, the performers tread through the rows: Dirt flies, covering cheeks, forearms and feet. One by one they unfurl their bodies, fling their hands back and forth and slap their shoulders and thighs incessantly to the wailing beat of an Arab dabke. “One. One & One,” Noa Wertheim’s raw existentialist piece from the Vertigo Dance Company, draws its name and themes from the Talmudic tractate Yoma, while the soil-covered stage recalls Israel’s Elah Valley, where the choreographer lives and works.

Vertigo, one of dozens of Israeli dance troupes currently performing around the world, presented “One. One & One” across the United States over the past year to rapturous reception. “Israeli contemporary dance is huge,” says Nancy Wozny, a contributing editor for Dance magazine and editor-in-chief of Arts and Culture Texas. Over the past four or five years, she has noticed a rise in Israeli companies and artists touring the United States, as well as an increasing number of prominent American and European companies making Israeli choreography part of their repertory. Israeli contemporary dance is being performed in America by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Pilobolus and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and by companies all over the world, including London’s Rambert, Havana’s Malpaso and Stuttgart’s Gauthier Dance. “It’s now a staple,” Wozny says. “If you want to show what you’re made of, you do a work by an Israeli choreographer.” Judith Brin Ingber, a Minneapolis-based dancer and author of Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance, agrees: “Everybody’s paying attention” to the modern dance coming out of Israel. And for good reason, she says: “It’s compelling, visceral, thought-provoking and spectacular to watch.”

Early Zionist leaders needed ways to integrate the disparate Jews streaming into Palestine, and one strategy was to create a universal language of folk dance, rikudei am in Hebrew. “From the birth of this country, we were dancing,” says Israeli-born, London-based choreographer Hofesh Shechter. “The folk dance movement is a very direct means of communication, without a lot of the mannerisms of, say, classical ballet.” Folk dancing was also the perfect vehicle to inculcate newcomers with Zionist values. “It’s nationalistic,” says Shechter. The choreography depicts agrarian and biblical ideals such as making the desert bloom and defending the nascent Jewish state. “Mayim” (“Water”), the infectious popular dance created in 1937 to celebrate the discovery of water on Kibbutz Na’an, is danced with an assertive flat-footed grapevine step. When dancers rush into the circle, then out, it resembles a sprinkler.

Los Angeles-based Ate9 performs “a blind LAdy,” choreographed by Danielle Agami.

Mandate leaders thought dance was so important that the Histadrut, Israel’s labor organization, established a dance department in 1945 to forge a communally driven “made-in-Israel” dance culture. One early larger-than-life figure of this culture was the department’s founder, Leipzig-born Gurit Kadman, who, from her perch at Kibbutz Dalia, sought movements that were consciously Israeli. She drew on the notion of the “new Jew” as strong, vibrant and physical via stomps, space-engulfing leaps, energetic claps and cheeky shoulder thrusts. Kadman choreographed a slew of influential Israeli dance pageants and folk dances, eventually winning the Israel Prize for her work in 1981.

In the early years, the rise of Nazism also influenced the country’s dance culture as professional dancers fled Europe for Palestine. One of the most famous was the Viennese-born dancer Gertrud Kraus, whom Brin Ingber calls “the mother of Israeli modern dance.” Kraus settled in Tel Aviv in 1935. As with many other émigrés, her work drew on German expressionism, a protest against what was perceived as the artistic stagnation of ballet, and was focused on personal emotion. But by mid-century, this style had run its course, and Israel’s dancers and choreographers were looking to America for inspiration and training. Martha Graham in particular had a huge influence. In 1956, the United States’ preeminent modern choreographer led her company on its first tour to Israel under the patronage of her friend Bethsabee de Rothschild. In 1964, Graham helped form Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Under Graham’s tutelage, an angular aesthetic in which the pelvis is the center of all movement, as well as her technique of contraction and release, became the lingua franca of the country’s dancers.

In 1974, a tall, lithe and sandy-haired 22-year-old just out of the Israeli army named Ohad Naharin auditioned for Graham in Israel. She was so taken with him that she invited him to study and perform with her New York dance company. There, Naharin immersed himself in the burgeoning experimental modern dance scene, while studying at Juilliard and at the School of American Ballet. He began choreographing postmodern, experimental works and formed a modest company to perform them.

In 1990, Naharin returned to Tel Aviv as the choreographer and artistic director of the Batsheva troupe, which had fallen into an artistic rut as Graham’s mid-20th-century modernism lost currency. He immediately stirred things up, ruffling Israeli sensibilities and testing his dancers with sometimes-inscrutable dances that mixed sexy, unbridled physicality with moments of edgy comedy, dark political undertones, biting cynicism and primal expression.

Naharin sparked a national controversy in 1998 with his choreography for “Kyr” (“Wall”), originally commissioned in 1990 by the prestigious Israel Festival, and performed to the seder song “Echad Mi Yodea.” Garment by garment, the dancers strip from dark men’s suits to their underwear, then collapse to the floor in succession as if shot in a firing line. The repetition, the driving rock beat (the choreographer’s own composition) and the cumulative nature of the work made it especially compelling. Aghast, a coalition of Orthodox elected officials threatened the company’s government funding. When President Ezer Weizman called Naharin to his office and asked him to put the dancers in gatkes—Yiddish for long johns—the choreographer agreed to the demand for the sake of the company’s future but resigned in protest. In solidarity, the dancers refused to perform, drawing international press attention. Naharin’s resignation didn’t last long. On the heels of massive public demonstrations demanding his return, he went back to work. Since then, that choreographic sequence has been included in numerous Naharin retrospectives, among them his popular “Minus 16,” which is performed by Alvin Ailey and Hubbard Street, and in Europe by the Dutch contemporary troupe Nederlands Dans Theater.

But what Naharin is most known for is Gaga—an ever-evolving language of movement he developed that has spread through a contemporary dance world hungry for the new. “It’s taught everywhere,” says Renee Schreiber, director of performing arts and music at the Israeli Consulate in New York. Classes can be found from Tokyo to Amsterdam, Warsaw to Seattle. Facetiously named—Gaga is a nonsense word—it’s not a technique such as ballet or Martha Graham’s contraction-and-release. Rather than focusing on steps, external shapes, flashy tricks, positions or poses, the dancer concentrates on physical sensations. Practiced without mirrors, Gaga demands that dancers feel their muscles, bones and sinews beneath their skin in order to imbue their movements with rich texture and personal expression. “There is something about Gaga that makes you realize that joy and pain and sadness can live in the same spaces,” Naharin told The New York Times in 2015. “They don’t contradict each other.”

While Gaga is partially responsible for the wild popularity of Israeli dance, it’s not the only factor. In 1995, Yair Vardi, then director of Israel’s preeminent dance venue, the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, decided that Israeli contemporary dance was ready to compete on the international stage. The challenge was that outside of Israel and a few venues in New York or Europe, most company directors and dance presenters had never seen Israeli dance companies in action. So Vardi invited a small cadre of serious directors and presenters to Tel Aviv for the first International Exposure Festival, thinking that once they saw Israeli modern dancers in their element, they wouldn’t be able to resist them. His gambit worked, and bookings of Israeli companies and artists shot up. The festival itself became an annual five-day morning-to-midnight marketplace of Israel’s emerging choreographers and companies, attracting an invitation-only guest list of almost 200 international dance professionals, many invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At the same time, the Israeli Consulate in New York opened a back channel with prominent New York and national American dance presenters. Renee Schreiber, the performing arts point person at the consulate, organized a closed-door meeting for a cohort of the most important presenters in the country. A prominent Israeli dance critic spoke to the group and shared videos of Israeli dance works. There’s no question in Schreiber’s mind that the meeting “planted seeds” that led to the growth of Israeli dance artists’ visibility in the U.S.

Israeli artists and dancers are also supported by Jewish communities across the country, including funding from federations and groups such as the Israel Institute, which arranges educational and cultural exchanges for Israeli artists and academics, mailings to people active in Jewish and Israeli organizations who are potential ticket buyers and sponsors of post-show receptions, which can entice audiences who otherwise might not attend a contemporary dance performance.

But Israeli cultivation and Jewish community support are not the main reasons Israeli dance is flourishing abroad, says Schreiber. “Nobody’s taking Israeli choreographers or companies because of loyalty to Israel,” she says. “They’re taking them because they are of such a high quality that they want to put them on their stages.” Pamela Tatge agrees. As director of Jacob’s Pillow, Tatge brings world-class dance companies to the U.S.’s oldest international summer dance festival, in Becket, Massachusetts. When she attended International Exposure in 2016, she left with a list of Israeli dance artists she hoped to bring to the Pillow’s stages and studios. “There’s a quality of the now that I feel like I can see across all of Israeli dance,” she says. “Its essence is about being in the present moment.”

This summer the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that due to budget constraints, funding for the 2019 International Exposure Festival was being allocated to “other efforts, not necessarily in the cultural sphere.” Shortly after, Vardi, Israeli dance’s most important impresario and a 2010 Israeli Prize winner, resigned from both the Centre for Dance and the festival. It’s too soon to tell if alternate funding will be found and who, if anyone, might fill Vardi’s shoes, but this dramatic shift in the country’s dance landscape certainly marks the end of an era.

Today there are about 70 independent choreographers in the Israeli Choreographers Association, and another 25 to 30 large professional dance companies. Not surprisingly, some artists complain that the dance scene has become saturated and insular. In 2010, Danielle Agami boarded a plane to New York 48 hours after her final performance with Batsheva. “If I didn’t get out right away, I would never get out, and I really needed to leave the mothership so I could concentrate and prove to myself that I could give something to dancers,” says Agami, who has been choreographing since she was eight. Many Israeli dancers have followed a similar path. Choreographer Ronen Koresh left his small hometown, Yehud, more than three decades ago to study and dance in New York. “I was looking to grow,” he says. “I was curious about the styles, the ideas outside of Israel—and I wanted to see how I measured up and fit in.”

This exodus means today’s Israeli contemporary dance is not solely “made in Israel.” Koresh founded his Philadelphia-based Koresh Dance Company in 1991, and it is among the city’s most successful. His works, which parse love, loss, hope and despair with full-bodied and immersive choreography, also wrestle with the politics of his homeland. For him Israel’s constant state of indeterminacy and anxiety feeds artistic creativity and growth. “You have to grow up very fast in Israel since you’re going to be in the military and you might be in a war,” he says. Ate9, Danielle Agami’s Los Angeles group, is acclaimed for its densely detailed and physically dynamic works, which carry Batsheva DNA—she filters the Gaga language through her perspective. “Israelis,” she says, “are expressive…willing to take a chance, to laugh; to hit the chord where it’s painful or cynical or disappointing.” On the other hand, Americans “have a tendency to justify any performance with a historical reason, an argument or a narrative that has to be respected and respectfully analyzed. Israelis? We couldn’t care less about the past in dance.”

Expatriate Hofesh Shechter founded his eponymously named company in London in 2008. “I left Israel because the white noise of politics was wearing me down,” he says. But while he feels fully British, he has deep ties to Israel. “I was born there and lived there for the first 21 years of my life. This is in my DNA,” he says, “but it’s not something that is at the forefront of my creativity, even though a lot of my work can be interpreted as political.” While he says he is not consciously political, Shechter’s pieces read like newspaper headlines. “Political Mother,” from 2010, a gritty dance-cum-rock-concert, portrays frayed alliances and hits audiences across party lines. “Uprising,” from 2006, features seven men who emerge from the shadows to bombard the stage with virile intensity, bonding and sparring in a highly charged work set to a propulsive percussive score by the choreographer himself. To Shechter there is a distinctive flair that permeates Israeli choreography: “You could call it chutzpah. Israeli choreography carries a sense of directness, openness. Some see it as aggressive.” 

Choreographers of Israeli dance today are not always Israeli—or even Jewish: Iowa-born dancer Bobbi Jene Smith was in her third year at Juilliard when she was blown away by Batsheva at a Lincoln Center performance. “There was a power and vulnerability that I had never seen before,” she says. “I saw women with real bodies, strengths and weaknesses, contradictions…they were wild, yet so poetic. I wanted to be like them.” Ohad Naharin saw Smith dance at Juilliard and invited her to work with Batsheva in Tel Aviv, where she spent a decade dancing before returning to the U.S. in 2014 to choreograph and form her own group. Schreiber in the Israeli Consulate’s New York office happily claims Smith: “She’s one of ours—Israeli,” even with her middle-America roots.

But do all Israelis working in dance produce Israeli dance? Naharin, who stepped down as Batsheva’s artistic director in 2017, says no. He remains Israel’s most notable and notorious choreographer, continuing to make and teach his works to companies worldwide. About ten years ago, when asked about what makes his work particularly Israeli, Naharin, like many Israeli choreographers, insisted that his art does not relate to his homeland. “When you see a stage, you don’t recognize the country the stage is in,” he says. “It’s a black box. You see dancers on stage and you don’t recognize where they’re coming from, and my dancers come from all over the world.” Dancers, he says, cannot be pigeonholed by nationality. “In the studio, we shed off all our nationalistic agendas and prejudices,” he adds. “For me to be emphasized as an Israeli is missing the point.”

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