Artistic Dance in Israel

Turning away from tradition and establishing its own roots.

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New arrivals to Israel created dances inspired by the landscape of the country as well as by biblical themes--aiming to show a connection of modern and ancient Israel. After 1948, many cultural endeavors were supported by the new state, yet artistic dance was not. Seen as elitist, it took a backseat to more acceptably socialist folkdances.

In the beginning of the 1950s foreign dance groups began touring Israel. For the first time after a decade of isolation the standards of dance in Israel could be compared with that of other countries, and experts soon realized that both modern and classical ballet in Israel were behind the times. American immigrants such as Rina Shaham and Rena Gluck brought awareness of American modern dance. Martha Graham's historic visit in 1956, funded by the Baroness Bethsabee de Rothschild, inspired changed in Israeli dance.

But important projects were still developing in Israel. Noa Eshkol and Abraham Wachman invented a notation method based on geometry and mathematics that enabled an objective description of potential movements. In 1950, Sara Levi-Tanai created a unique body language in the Inbal Dance Theatre. Tanai dismantled the movement materials of ethnic Yemenite dance and reconstructed them to adjust to a modern Western concept.

From America

In 1964 Bethsabee de Rothschild founded the Batsheva Dance Company. This was a turning point in Israeli dance: the period of Ausdruckstanz was over and American dance became the dominant influence. Rothschild wished to create a professional arena for Israeli dancers, and Martha Graham, whose programs Rothschild had produced for years, became the company's artistic advisor. Several more dance companies came into existence such as Bat-Dor (1967), the Israeli Ballet (1968), the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (1969), and Koldmama (1978).

Throughout the next decade, all professional dance activities in Israel took place in professional companies, improving technical and teaching standards. Tours by these groups put Israeli dance on the global map. Batsheva and Bat-Dor, the leading companies, competed to bring in important choreographers from around the world. Local choreographic creativity waned.

Post-Modern and Fringe Activity

But by the mid-1970s, modern dance in Israel began to show signs of weariness. The dramatic, thematic approach as well as the movement and artistic concepts became repetitive. At that time, several young female choreographers who had studied in New York brought post-modern influences to Israel. This experimental post-modern dance supplied legitimacy for local dancers and creators to seek new opportunities outside the established companies.

The Rite of Spring by Emanuel Gat

In 1981 Pina Bausch came to Israel from Germany with the Wuppertal Dance Theater and exposed the community to the Tanztheater (dance theatre) style. While experimental dance works had been performed in Israel previously, some of them in the movement-theatre style, Bausch's visit reinforced that tendency. With roots in Ausdruckstanz, Bausch's performances awakened the historic connection that Israeli dance has with German dance. American post-modern dance began to seem too conceptual to Israeli creators.

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Ruth Eshel

Ruth Eshel is the author of Dancing with the Dream: The Development of Artistic Dance in Israel 1920-1964. She is a dance critic for the Hebrew daily Ha`aretz and the artistic director of Beta Dance Troupe which draws inspiration from the culture of Ethiopian Jewry.