Israeli Dance after Gaga

Israeli dance is known mainly for the Batsheva Dance Company and Gaga, the movement language developed by its most famous offspring, Ohad Naharin. But many other performers and styles, no less intriguing, have grown in their shadow.

As the well-known joke goes: two Jews = three opinions. The same may be true of dance in the Jewish State. For a country of its size, there is a surprising diversity of styles, choreographic visions and ideas articulated in movement. The history of dance in Israel precedes the founding of the Jewish State; even so, its evolution deserves an overview that explores its intimate ties to the different dynamics of Israeli dance in the twenty-first century.

In the 1960s, Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild was the power and visionary behind the first, and largest, dance company in Israel, the eponymously named Batsheva. Inspired by the vision and grace of the great American choreographer Martha Graham, the Batsheva dance company boasted distinctly individual characters with strong personalities and high standards; it was the first company, other than her own, to perform Graham’s works. Even in its earliest years, Batsheva and the now-defunct Batdor—another company founded by Rothschild—created a plurality in the Israeli scene, as the Jerusalem Post observed in 1974: “[S]urprisingly and dangerously there are two Modern dance companies in Israel. Dance is deeply embedded in Jewish tradition and the number of Jews living outside of Israel is enough to found several ballet companies….the strange thing is that both these companies are modern dance companies and both founded by Batsheva de Rothschild.”

Embedded in the story of the Batsheva company, the story of Israeli dance was indeed a story of plurality from its genesis—both institutionally and artistically. Batsheva’s origin story itself is recounted in the biography of one of its grand divas, Rena Gluck. For Gluck, a Juilliard graduate who cut her teeth with the New Dance Group, the radical cultural hub on New York City’s Lower East Side, politics and dance were intrinsically linked. Gluck was one of the many artists who, splitting their careers between Tel Aviv and New York, made Israeli dance what it is.

Another was a young male dancer, who joined Batsheva in 1974 and then went on to dance in New York; at first a protégé of Graham, by then already in her 80s, before the two went their separate ways. Molded on the stages of Tel Aviv and New York, Ohad Naharin’s radical reinterpretations would change the vision of Israeli dance forever. Gaga, the feted movement system, was Naharin’s brainchild.

Gaga is a movement research system which asks the dancer—whether a professional or a lay participant in the “gaga people” classes—to connect with the scope of physical sensation and the full potential of movement in the body. More an evocative strategy than a discipline, Gaga uses a range of imagery to elicit movement already latent in the mover and groover’s body. Never taught in front of a mirror, and without an expectation to imitate the teacher (both departures from customary dance practice), Gaga has carved its own place in the world and is now taught internationally, exclusively by teams trained at Batsheva.

Despite Batsheva’s dominance, however, Israeli dance is anything but monolithic, and this piece will explore some of the other influential voices in the form. This is not intended as an exhaustive list; rather, it is an attempt at describing how a range of different styles respond to, and correspond with each other.

What’s on at Suzanne Dellal?

Oftentimes, a single dance venue in a city emerges as the center of choreographic life; for the budding dancer or choreographer, a performance at this venue becomes something of a rite of passage. New York has the Joyce; London has Sadler’s Wells; and Tel Aviv has the Suzanne Dellal Centre.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Suzanne Dellal sits in the quaint and historic neighborhood of Neve Tzedek, on the border between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The main theater is located opposite the home of the Batsheva Company and two other studios are used for performances; on the other side of the plaza sits the Inbal Dance Theater.

A hallmark of Tel Aviv’s dance compound is Rina Schenfeld, grande dame of Israeli dance, a veteran of Batsheva who performed Graham’s roles with Gluck. Hugely prolific across her career, she is still active in her 80s—this autumn, she premiered a new work based on the story of Opehlia. International collaborations with legends like Jerome Robbins and Pina Bausch have not stifled her distinctive style and stage presence. A dramatic flair, combined with a subtlety in setting and dramatic arc, give Schenfeld’s work an inimitable expressiveness and elegance. Her teaching has inspired several generations of dancers and choreographers, making her a singular and irreplaceable presence on the stages of Israeli dance.

Israel has a rich tradition of theatrical dance, exemplified by the contemporary cutting-edge work of Yasmeen Godder. Educated in Tel Aviv and New York, Godder burst onto the Israeli scene in 1999 with her solo performance, Aleena’s Wall. She has since choreographed fourteen full-length works; she has also collaborated with museums and scientists, exploring connections between dance and a possible cure for Parkinson’s disease. Godder’s style is idiosyncratic: raw, rich in theatricality, but stripped of unnecessary ornamentation. There is nothing redundant in a Godder work and it always punches you right in the gut. The emotive overload that characterizes her work does not afford her audiences the luxury of indifference; likewise, it is impossible to ignore the honesty and total submission that Godder and her dancers bring to the stage.

Israeli dance has, too, a lighthearted and extravagant side. Bewitching sets and spiraling movement are the hallmarks of Avshalom Polak and Inbal Pinto, qualities evident from Oyster, their 1999 debut, steeped in theatricality and with overt classical references. Oyster, like many of their other works, leads with unforgettable visuals and well-honed movement set against carefully composed and flamboyant sets. In contrast with the increasingly popular style of wearing practice clothes on stage, Oyster features track suit bottoms and torn socks. A self-aware spectacle, it proudly flaunts a truly unique and recognizable choreographic voice. Pinto’s Fugue (2018), perhaps her smallest in magnitude and performed to a cello score, nevertheless incorporates deeply moving stage interactions with the audience, something of a signature style for her. Pinto is a director, a choreographer and costume designer, and has won numerous prizes, including a prestigious Bessie, for 2000’s Wrapped. Pinto’s style can perhaps best be described as emotionally intense minimalism, accompanied by a grand theatricality. Whilst the movement language is concise and precise, the mise en scène is rich with color and depth. The power of dance strongly shines through the elaborate setting; moving objects are always the center of Inbal Pinto’s work.

Working independently since 1990, Ronit Ziv has left a mark of her own on the Israeli dance scene. Ziv is influenced by the release technique, which focuses on breathing, muscle relaxation, anatomical considerations, and the use of gravity and momentum to facilitate efficient movement. Exploring the sources of movement whilst driving towards an authenticity of gesture, Ziv has created a range of works, which have been performed in Israel and around the world. Explicitly feminist but never single-minded, her works use movement to give audiences a glimpse into the psyche of another; empathy is allowed to unravel in organic fashion. Her latest work, (2018), is an explicit reference to a world moving more and more into the virtual sphere. Nevertheless, the immediacy of her movement, always materially present for the spectator, is a powerful conduit for reflection on the power of the human moving body, evoking an intensity that no smartphone can compromise.

Noa Dar is another Israeli choreographer who followed the well-trodden route to New York, via a scholarship from Merce Cunningham—Graham’s famous, rebellious student, a pioneer of postmodern dance in the US and beyond from the1950s on. Dar also danced for Zvi Gotheiner, another Israeli in the diaspora, before returning to Israel in the late 1980s to form her own company. Her attention to space—subliminally striking in a country with so little of it—is notable in the local choreographic scene. Questions on the boundaries between dancers and audience, and between dancers themselves, are elucidated in a movement language that draws from both abstraction and familiarity through a focus on form.

From the start, the story of dance in Israel has tilted toward Modern dance. However other movement styles, rooted in the Mediterranean traditions of the place it calls home, have developed apace. The Inbal Dance Theater, founded in 1949 by Sarah Levi-Tanai, gave a platform to Yemenite dancing. Drawing on biblical themes and Yemen’s rich traditions, she created a competing canon to the largely Western influences that later featured so prominently in Batsheva’s.

Other styles reflect, obliquely and overtly, the country’s diversity. Middle Eastern dance (or Belly Dancing) boasts a vibrant scene of its own; of its many contemporary practitioners, Alina Pichersky, who has campaigned against what she perceives as an institutional discrimination against belly dancing in the programming at Suzanne Dellal, is a prominent figure. Another is Orly Portal. Hailing from Morocco, her work is strongly underpinned by a combination of research and practice. With a special interest in folklore and authentic music, she traveled to Morocco to study the origins of the dance exported to our shores. At a time when discussions about “whiteness” are taking central stage on international dance scene, it is crucial to understand that the work of these creators, underscored by the legacy of the Inbal, is as significant for the narrative of dance in Israel as the cultural exchanges between New York and Tel Aviv have been from Martha Graham to Ohad Naharin.

Another challenge to the white European canon came from Silvia Duran, the grand lady of flamenco, who has been working in Israel since 1977, and has championed a large and vibrant flamenco community. Her innovative approach to flamenco, bracketed by her loyalty to tradition and extensive connections with the international world of flamenco, has created a sizable group for the local flamenco enthusiasts. If American scholars and theater goers are convinced that Graham is responsible for the image of the grande dame, then they should look into the history of flamenco; indeed Duran exemplifies the authority of women in the genre.

Way before the climate crisis became all the rage, the Vertigo dance company, in its unique eco art village located on a kibbutz near Jerusalem was bringing dance back to the earth and the earth back to dance. Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al started working together in 1992; their partnership began with a short duet called Vertigo. Inspiration came from a first-hand experience of Sha’al’ as an Israel Air Force cadet, which led him to explore the feeling of vertigo, spinning out of control, not only in air but in relationships as well. He describes their philosophy thus: “Noa and I created a piece which looks at the loss of direction – the dizziness – in the human duet.” They have since created many other works, including the very distinctive Birth of the Phoenix (2004). Like the mythological bird rising from the ashes, the set of Birth of the Phoenix is dismantled and re-assembled in a different place and time. The piece thus becomes truly site-specific, even when performed in different locations, as with each performance the set is put together once again ad hoc. No two audiences will experience it in the same way. The dance perceives itself as an eco-dance, adapting itself to every setting in which it is performed.

Whatever side one takes on the boycott debate and how one should engage with Israeli art, the campaign has pushed Israeli artists into recognizing their surroundings and politics, and the efficacy of their position as a tool for social and political change. Arkadi Zaides, a hugely successful Batsheva veteran with an individual style, reflects directly on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians in many of his works. Perhaps his most forceful intervention to date is called Archive (2014). In it, he moves in front of videos edited from footage shot by activists documenting human rights violations on behalf of B’Tselem, the human rights NGO. In this work, Zaides does not construct the identity of missing Palestinians. Rather, their invisibility in itself constitutes a powerful statement about the victims of the Occupation and—at the same time—their absence from the discussion. Zaides focuses on settler action, his violent gesture both authentic and harrowing.

More humorous, but no less critical, is Hilel Kogen’s We Love Arabs, an intelligent takedown of the liberal concept of “reconciliation” embedded within unequal power relations. Projected images turn the audience into active participants, who face up to the complicity that is silence. Being a spectator, as far as Zaides is concerned, is tantamount to being a witness and accomplice of evil.

Seeking, literally, “Arab dancers,” We Love Arabs becomes a reflection on the absence of the Other in Israeli society, how well-meaning yet uncritical art can exacerbate rather than heal divisions. The work wants to discomfit audiences, but in a wildly different ways to Zaides’. In the place of violent countrymen in the hills between Palestinian villages, the audience is confronted with own their well-meaning but totally unaware selves, wishing to represent the absence that they themselves were instrumental in creating.

Pastiche and drama are not the only tools used to unpick loaded topics. Yoram Karmi’s work Bunker (2004) explores the tension that defines Israeli life by way of descending deeper and deeper into a detached, alienated existence in a bunker. The work explores the sacrifices of individuals and communities to preserve divisions in a dialectic of peace and fear. Yet Karmi’s movement language itself is anything but alienated. Carving a space for Neoclassical dance of the highest standard, he has created a clear and dissenting voice in a unique tradition of his own making. From a new treatment of classics such as Pulcinella (2007) to overtly political works such as Bunker (2004) and more recently Genderosity (2019), Karmi is not afraid to deal with any topic with his own unique voice. His style is acknowledged by many Israeli choreographers, especially those of the Batsheva lineage. Karmi’s always subtle, intelligent, funny works, which explore deep layers of meaning within movement, urge the Israeli dance scene to rethink its relationship with form. His choreographic signature brings to the audience movement in a crystallized state, form explored down to its most profound layers: The lines—as demarcation of form is known in dance— are clean and precise, each movement cuts after the other, a clear intervention in space. Fresco, Karmi’s company, now inhabits a permanent space in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station building; a new radical home for dance and collaborations across genres that is eating into Dellal’s centrality.

Foreign Affairs

Israel is a small country, very much aware of its size. Thus its relationship with the rest of the world is as essential to the local scene as creative activity from within. The first connection between Tel Aviv and New York which gave rise to Batsheva still allows for rich cultural exchanges. Most recently Naharin’s former dancer, Bobbi Jene Smith, has been developing her own style, inspired by Gaga but at once evolving within its own specific language. The protagonist of a 2017 documentary which chronicled her independent style as well as her break with Batsheva, the company for which she left Juilliard School and in which she developed her career, Smith is now a major player in the international dance world. Recently she brought the genealogy of Israeli dance to a true full circle, when she was commissioned to create a work for the Martha Graham Dance Company for their “Eve Project” in 2019—a whole season comprised of female choreographers. The company from which Batsheva and Naharin himself emerged now have a bit of its gaga back.

In discussing Israeli dance beyond Gaga, it is also useful to reflect on alternatives and counter-narratives constantly emerging alongside the arc of Batsheva’s history. Inbal Dance Theater, mentioned above, has always had an international outlook, from its establishment under the mentorship of Jerome Robbins. One of its most famous dancers was Margalit Oved, about whom Martha Graham wrote, “She never comes on the stage for me to see her that tears do not come to my eyes. She has a quality which is very, very, very special in the world…It is special wherever a great being dominated by a passion comes to the stage.” Anna Sokolow, the celebrated American choreographer, had a lengthy relationship with Inbal, starting in 1953. A constant refrain running through her work is an attempt to elucidate, through dance, what it is that makes us human.

Oved’s son, Barak Marshall, is keeping her flame alive. He was invited by Naharin to join Batsheva as House Choreographer in 1999, and has created works for both Batsheva and for the ensemble. Marshall has been commissioned by Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, Ballet Rambert, Cisne Negro, Bodytraffic and Ballet Junior de Genève. In 2012 he was commissioned by Gustavo Dudamel, the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to create the opening piece for their Gala Celebration of John Adams’ music. His works include Monger (2010), a physical theater work looking at servants trapped in their mistress’ house; and Rooster (2019), loosely based on a story by the Jewish writer Y.L. Peretz. His unique choreographic motifs, celebrated internationally, bring together dance theater, reflections on home, diaspora and cultural mix, as well as elucidation of the never-ending inventiveness that a moving body can bring to different narratives.

Another Batsheva veteran with a solid reputation in New York is Zvi Gotheiner. His company Zvidance is renowned and established in the city, and he is admired as a teacher as well as a choreographer. His class at the New York City Center is a staple of dance life there, and his unique style corresponds both to his teaching and his choreographic work. His next work, entitled Maim (“water” in Hebrew), seeks to evoke environmental policy as well as fear of disaster.

Hofesh Schecter is an equally ubiquitous presence in British dance. After starting out under Naharin, he developed a very different style that is now sought after by different collaborators. With his choreography, which thrives on union and forceful sequences that aim to overwhelm the spectator, Schechter takes the viscerally of the quintessential Israeli openness to new heights. He created movement for the Royal Ballet, and has collaborated with the celebrated sculptor Anthony Gormley, whose works are famously created from a mold of his own human body. They collaborated on Survivor (2012), to which Schechter brought his sense of theater and especially his musical ear and training as a drummer. In other works such as Political Mother (2010) and Grand Finale (2017), he positions the spectator between opposing extremes in sound and vision, pushing them to the extreme of sensation, transcending the object and techniques of many of his contemporaries in term of sensuous experience in the theater. His movement is thoughtful yet robust, and his musicality unique.

Gaga beyond Gaga?

So, where now, beyond Gaga? Every company and its movement language undergoes change when they leave their habitat and go global—more so when international responses return to the core. Bastheva and Naharin are anything but done with their own flow. And in Batsheva everything is moving, much like in a Gaga class. Despite calling one of his recent works Last Work, Naharin is far from quiet. The tensions and conversations between different voices are always shifting; the winners are Israeli dance audiences, treated to a wide array of dancing performances. Batsheva underwent a seismic shift recently, after Gili Navot was appointed Artistic Director; Sahar Harrari continues to run the Gaga programs; Naharin continues to create and this winter will present a new work, named simply 2019. No one in the home of Gaga opposite Suzanne Dellal is done yet with working or developing thinking around movement.

In Batsheva’s home, no fewer than three classes per day, sometimes five, bring together the Gaga community: young and old, of all genders and nationalities. Gaga is now a tourist draw as well as a community hallmark for Tel Aviv. Once a month, Naharin himself teaches a class in Batsheva’s gorgeous studios. Despite the immense popularity of the class, Naharin’s demeanor is laid back. Gaga is thriving nationally and internationally, and is expanding into a range of new ventures, from intensives in the desert to methodology courses.

Its quest to “connect to sensation” is timely—a sentiment echoed in its expansion beyond the world of dance lovers, in the wake of the 2015 documentary film Mr Gaga. Directed by Tomer Heymann, the film places the viewer in medias res; capturing not only its singular story in the world of dance but also the way in which a celebrated choreographer succeeds in sustaining an open feeling. “Be available” is the calling of Gaga; the film captures and presents this forcefully.

Nothing is simple in Israeli society; thus, nothing can be simple about Israeli dance. The complexities and tensions that feed into everyday life nourish a diverse, vivid and creative dance scene. Paraphrasing our joke from the beginning of this piece: Two Jews = three movement languages. But all of them will be great to watch.

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