Dance in Fragments in The Holy Land: Then and Now.
By. Laurène Duez
Israel, a country whose political status and legitimacy are constantly questioned, discussions around Israel have often found a way to make the front pages of the newspapers. If we often hear only about the territorial polemics and violent conflicts, there is nonetheless an important side that is far less represented which deserves to be made visible to the world. The world of theater arts, music, cinema, and dance. As a former professional dancer who has worked as a researcher at the Jerusalem University for a year, I will focus exclusively on how dance is shaped in Israel. I am examining questions of choreographic identity, and how this identity informs the roots of Israeli dance in recent story. While highlighting how the political context contributes, to shape the uniqueness of contemporary dance in Israel, and finally conclude with the impact dance can have on future generations in this region.
Israel is the cradle of intercontinental crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia. Both humanity and religion as well as the economic nerve center for trading. Migratory movement has never stopped and is still shaping this region alongside the blending stories of passions and wrenches in a fragmented landscape with unclear borders. In a constant battle of tension and contradictions, attack and defense, it is essential to understand the historical foundation and the political mood in which the state was born and has evolved through.
In Israel emitic ethnic groups including Jews and Muslims had the common tradition of folk dance as part of daily life celebration : Hora from the Balkans, Dabké from Palestine, Esteksa from Ethiopia, and Hassidic dances from Eastern Europe exposing only a few of them. The beginning of the 20th century was marked in Europe by the Jewish diaspora and the continuation of pogroms in Russia, which led to a massive immigration in Eretz Israel. Bringing about new cultural knowledge with the masses, against all expectation ballet was actually not a success and was outdated by German dance expression ausdruckstanz. Imported partly by Leah Bergstein after studying in Vienna in the 1920's. Rivka Sturman born in Poland in 1905 and raised in Germany, later settled in Palestine in 1929 and wondered why migrants were still singing and dancing along to foreign songs. She became one of the pioneer of The Israeli Folk dance and the movement of “the New Jew”. This ausdruckstanz developed mainly in Kibbutzim and was seen as an attempt to depict the rural socialist life as a reconstruction of Jewish identity after diaspora.
At this time the first dance festival appeared and at the same time created a combination for traditional dance moves with a focus on improvisation, relationship to space, and outward expression of inner physical and psychological being. In 1922 Margalit Ornstein who immigrated from Germany opened the first modern dance studio in Tel Aviv, preceded in 1919 by Baruch Agadati, Russian ballet dancer who also contributed widely to teach and broadcast Ausdruckstanz in Neve Tsedek. (A long list of other major choreographers could be added on this short article). However, the success of this movement suddenly stopped during WWII, and Europe was not seen as a model anymore, Israel isolated itself after war of Independence for about 15 years and later turned toward USA to shape a new type of dance.
The Israeli Dance landscape transformed in 1956 with the arrival of Martha Graham and her modern technique from USA. From that point Israeli choreographers went overseas to get receive training in formal dance institutions, such as the Juilliard school and came back in Israel to teach a new type of dance. In 1964 Martha Graham and Baron Betsabee de Rotshild created the Batsheva dance cie, known today as the leader of Israeli dance companies along with KCDC ( Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company) founded by Yehudit Arnold ( survivor of Auschwitz camps) in 1971. These two major companies are touring world wide today and attracting more and more students from around the globe to study their styles. I have wondered for a long time what makes the Israeli movement so atypical.
“Occupy the space” this is what my dance teachers have told me with an obvious ironic tone. “You need to dance bigger, spread into the space”. “Be versatile, you need to be prepared to attack, or defend your borders, switch instantly into a different mood, a different quality. Make your intention clear. Don't close your eyes when you move, always be aware of what is happening around and behind you”. I heard these phrases on and on, impregnated of political sense give us not only a different view on what movement implies in such a country but also information on how the body is perceived. Israel movement is a “group movement”, a “mass dance” where collectivity is literally incorporated into individuals.
We always push boundaries, expand until we distort the body and move horizontally. We ancre our pelvis into the ground until we get so rooted we connect to the Earth. It is a constant game of tension/ release, attack/protect, grabbing and letting go, persistence and giving up, hope and despair. A physical dance influenced by tradition, academism, travels, nature, religions, and wars. The Israeli body is glorified through movement bringing along it’s story of Holocaust trauma, impregnated with past generation’s traumas. Artists are trying to heal through expression and artistic affirmation, asserting their right to create and develop. Judith Brin Ingber wrote in the Jewish Folklore and Ethnology review vol 20, an article called Vilified or Glorified ? Views of the Jewish Body in 1947. A good experience to approach through archives, the astigmatisms of Jewish people in Western World and how it led to shape today's cultural identity in Israel.
Another meaningful dimension I wanted to conclude with, is the power of movement when it takes over, when action prevails on word. When debates and negotiations have reached a dead end in a country in war for 70 years, how dance could impact on young generations by teaching them not only to live but also to create and share a same space together. What if dance could get a new function as a diplomatic mediator and recreate a clear communication ? There is an obvious and sometimes disturbing proximity between communicating bodies, that we managed to escape using “oral language” . A dancing body is humble and vulnerable, therefore teaches us respect, for us as well as “the other”.