Photography by Michal Chelbin
Mention “Israeli dance” and most people imagine a chain of elderly relatives stumbling awkwardly through the hora at some wedding or bar mitzvah. But dance in Israel has a much edgier face today. Even folk dance here, once an important tool for building national identity, refuses to be stuck in the past. On Saturday mornings, next to the beach, hundreds gather for dance sessions set to classic Hebrew tunes, as well as the latest pop hits.
Folk aside, it’s the contemporary dance onstage that has made Israel an international innovator in the form. For its modest size, Israel has an impressive concentration of companies and independent choreographers who have generated disproportionate interest and excitement in the worldwide dance community in the last few decades.
The buzz begins with Ohad Naharin, artistic director and chief choreographer of Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s premier contemporary dance troupe, cofounded in 1964 by American modern dance matron saint Martha Graham and widely considered among the world’s best. Since taking the helm in 1990, Naharin has infused the company with his singular brand of dark sensuality and physical wit, wrapping an aggressive militarism around a fragile emotional core.
Naharin’s work, along with that of longtime house choreographer Sharon Eyal, left Doug Letheren, a Juilliard grad from New Hampshire, “dumbfounded” when he first saw the company on tour. Letheren, 27, who danced with Batsheva from 2007 until he left recently to join Eyal’s new company, calls the work of his two mentors “natural, precise, and liberated.”
In addition to his choreography, Naharin has introduced the dance world to Gaga, a unique movement language he developed a decade ago. Not to be confused with Her Ladyship, this Gaga -- which caters to both dancers and non-dancers -- explores the relationship between body and mind, seeking joy in movement, embracing both “the use of power and the sensitivity of yielding,” according to Shamel Pitts, 27, another Juilliard alumnus from Brooklyn who has danced with Batsheva since 2009.
The vibrant spirit of the Israeli dance scene has attracted many foreign dancers like Pitts and Letheren to Tel Aviv. Of Batsheva’s 18 dancers, for example, half of them hail from outside Israel.
“I think dance in Israel has no geographic borders,” says Anderson Braz, 30, who arrived in Israel in 2005 from Londrina, Brazil, to dance with Batsheva before starting a new company called Maria Kong Dancers Company with three other former Batsheva dancers. “There are many dancers from abroad, but Israelis themselves have roots from all over the world. That creates the mix which makes Israel so unique.”
The popularity of Israeli dance abroad has also made it a target for anti-Israel protestors who claim that state-funded artists are complicit with the government’s politics. Batsheva in particular, which receives 30 percent of its operating budget from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, is regularly the focus of boycott efforts and demonstrations.
“Boycotting art based on the place that it comes from is completely missing the point,” says Letheren. He understands the motivation behind the anger and says the protests would be understandable if the government was in any way involved in the creation of the work, but that it’s simply not the case.
Pitts points out that, while he has come to love the country and the people, if Batsheva wasn’t based in Israel, he’d be living wherever it was located. “I am with Batsheva because I believe in the quality of the art.”
Braz, on the other hand, feels a deep affinity to his adopted country because of what it has allowed him to accomplish personally and professionally.
“I feel like I’m representing Israel, even though I was not born here,” he says. “When someone asks me today where I’m from, it’s difficult to choose: Brazil or Israel. I feel part of the community.”