Going Gaga: New Movement in the Middle East, Sept 2009

By Nina Haft

September 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Blessed with a small grant and an apartment I found on Craigslist, I travelled recently to Israel and Palestine’s Occupied Territories to investigate dance and cultural diversity. For five weeks I based myself in Tel Aviv-Yafo, the hub of contemporary dance in this region. There I lived, swam daily in the Mediterranean, and explored all things dance during the hot and humid weeks of August.

I began my research at the Karmiel Dance Festival, which takes place every summer in the northern area known as the Galilee. The Karmiel Festival boasts a solid week of every kind of dance imaginable—from early-morning classes in flamenco and belly dance, to mid-day high school dance team competitions, to evening programs by Israel’s top contemporary dance companies. The fun doesn’t stop there; you’ll find people aged 4 to 84 dancing into the wee hours of the morning during folk dance competitions and exhibition programs, hemmed in by capacity crowds. If you go, be prepared to arrange a homestay with a Karmiel family (as I did), or bring your tent and earplugs and camp out next to the tennis courts. Karmiel has fewer than 20 hotel rooms and hosts more than 25,000 guests during this amazing weeklong event.

Israel boasts tremendous dance audiences. Virtually every show I saw was sold out! This may be due to the ubiquity of dance education in Israel. Each elementary and secondary school boasts dance classes for boys and girls as regular requirements of P.E. In addition, each school sponsors its own dance team that practices a hybrid form of traditional cultural dance mixed with hip hop and modern-inflected choreography created to illustrate the modern Israeli songbook. After school, most adults dance with friends and family at parties, nightclubs, or as members of local folk dance clubs. Scratch and sniff even the hippest most cultured Israeli, and you will find that she (or he) knows all the all the words (and every dance step!) to that song blasting through the P.A. system.

After my adventures in the Galilee, I relocated to Tel Aviv-Yafo, the hub of Israeli Contemporary Dance. Israel’s concert dance community is about the size and scale of the Bay Area’s. Most independent choreographers know each other and share similar trajectories as young artists; exceptional dancers are plucked from high school stages and local studios to train as apprentices with Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv. Professional dancers are given army assignments that allow for time to take class during their years of compulsory military service. Emerging choreographers receive training and mentoring through the Suzanne Dellal Center (Tel Aviv), the ODC Theatre/School of the region, while working their way up the ranks of national choreography competitions and presenters’ showcases.

The Suzanne Dellal Center of Dance and Theatre is located in the tony neighborhood of Neve Tzedek in Tel Aviv. A former boys’ school campus and later a strategic military base, the property was renovated in 1989 with the support of the Dellal family to house Israel’s preeminent Dance and Theatre companies. Resident performing arts groups include the Batsheva, Inbal Pinto/Avshalom Pollak and the renascent Inbal Dance Theatre companies, among others.

In contrast to Israel’s current dance artists, who privilege abstract art and dance sans politics, Palestinian dancers see their art as a form of political resistance. I visited two dance centers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Ibdaa Cultural Center in Bethlehem, and First Ramallah Group, a recreation and athletic club for youth in the city of Ramallah. Ibdaa opened in 1994 with children’s dance as its very first community program, later adding health care, education and other self-help programs. Today, more than 100 children and youth living in Dheisheh Refugee Camp learn traditional dabkeh (a rhythmic and athletic dance typically done at family and community celebrations) as well as dance theatre techniques. According to the young adults on staff, teaching dance at Ibdaa is a way to give back to their community and to keep Palestinian culture alive.

In Ramallah I attended a rehearsal of Sareyyet, a concert dance company directed by Khaled Elayyan. Elayyan himself began as a dabkeh dancer. As Sareyyet began to create original theatrical performances with dabkeh, the company incorporated contemporary dance strategies as a way of sharing what their lives are like in the Occupied Territories. Elayyan directly coaches the young men, while his co-director Lina Harami works closely with the young women in the company. Sareyyet also organizes the annual Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, which brings contemporary companies together each year with the aim of promoting dialogue and cultural exchange between the Palestinian people and the rest of the world.

Israel’s most successful contemporary dance companies are largely focused on touring opportunities in Europe, and their work reflects those aesthetics. Although independent choreographers receive government subsidies, they are required to match this income with artist fees and ticket sales. Despite an overall lack of enthusiasm on the part of Israeli choreographers for American dance, several notable Israeli companies have toured recently to the Bay Area.

Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company is one such company that I saw in Israel. They stand out to me for their integrated production values, overt narrative structures and sheer visual appeal. Imbued with a Fellini-esque aesthetic, these works testify to the impact of Pinto’s training as a visual artist and Pollak’s theatrical background on their work.

Another is Adama Dance Company (tr. earth). I spoke with Liat Dror, who runs Adama with her partner Nir Ben Gal. Dror and Ben Gal relocated from Tel Aviv a number of years ago to live and work in Mizpeh Ramon, a remote town perched on the rim of a crater in the Negev Desert not far from the Dead Sea. It was this very group, and their electrifying production titled Anta Oumri, that I saw one night at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 1994. Today, Adama performs throughout Israel and beyond. In addition to rehearsing with their company in this scenic desert outpost, Dror and Ben Gal teach workshops, classes and intensives open to the public. For a small fee and some work exchange, students may sleep in tents pitched inside a converted hangar, while taking classes and going to contact jams in the large studios there.

Batsheva Dance Company’s most recent performance at in San Francisco was Shalosh (tr. Three), presented at YBCA in 2006. Batsheva was founded in 1964 by Martha Graham and the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild as part of an early campaign of Israeli physical culture; Israel’s founders understood that cultural and concert dance were powerful tools for building a new Israeli identity based upon strength and community. In recent years, Batsheva has exploded onto the international dance scene under the artistic direction of Ohad Naharin.

Naharin was himself a former dancer in Batsheva before moving to New York City to dance with Martha Graham among others. Naharin has articulated what he calls his own ‘language of movement’ that he playfully calls “Gaga.” Gaga is a way of researching the actual experience of movement through guided improvisation. It is particularly subversive and transformational for dancers who have trained for line as opposed to sensation and imagery. Gaga now is the only company class for Batsheva dancers, who are an astonishing and international group of virtuosi able to rock everything from classical ballet vocabulary to frisky street dance. But Gaga is not only for the übertrained dancer. In fact, Naharin developed this method as a way of healing his own chronically debilitating back injury. Gaga is offered as frequently as three times a day as a community movement class in the Batsheva studios, taught by current and former Batsheva dancers with formal training in Naharin’s pedagogical approach.. I had the opportunity to study Gaga for a ten day period at the close of my stay in Israel, and found it to be an extraordinary way of opening up to movement possibility.

Movers from novice to professional dancer, teens to the elderly share the space and find profound satisfaction in Naharin’s movement practice. I found Gaga to be about reconnecting to the pleasure of movement, finding new pathways for kinesthesia and imagery to coexist.

According to Naharin’s handouts in class: “Gaga is a new way for learning and strengthening your body, adding flexibility, stamina and agility while lightening the senses and imagination… [it] elevates instinctive motion, links conscious and subconscious movement. Gaga is an experience of freedom and pleasure.”

Gaga is finding its way to the Bay Area. Choreographers such as Kara Davis of Project Agora and myself have traveled to Tel Aviv and studied at Batsheva, going on to incorporate new ideas learned there in our works. Meanwhile, Summer Rhatigan and the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance include Gaga as part of their summer intensive curriculum. Dancers in the community were welcomed to participate in a series of four open classes this past summer in Gaga with Bobbi Smith, a Batsheva Dance Company member. Gaga is sure to become a favorite of Bay Area performers interested in layered states of being (e.g.: Anna Halprin, Shinichi Momo Iova-Koga, William Forsythe, Ruth Zaporah, Sara Shelton Mann, among others). For me, Gaga redefined the rigor of technique as the ‘expanding of’ rather than the ‘narrowing into’ specific movements. All delivered of course with a healthy dose of Israeli sensuality and irreverence!

Dance Resources in Tel Aviv and Jaffa
There are abundant places in Tel Aviv and Jaffa to take class, see shows and rent studio space. Here are a few artists and resources that I found inspiring and helpful:

danceinisrael.com Find fantastic coverage of contemporary dance, including blogs, podcasts, performance dates, places to take class, etc. Written by Deborah Friedes.

batsheva.co.il Batsheva Dance Company. Their home site has info on Gaga, classes, company and performances.

inbalpinto.com Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company.

suzannedellal.org.il Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theatre is home to resident companies Batsheva and Inbal Pinto. It is the premiere venue for contemporary dance in Tel Aviv and produces Summerdance Festival, showcasing the best of each year’s artists and works.

More names and resources to Google…

Dance Library of Israel (video collection viewed by appointment)

Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company

Renana Raz, a young, up and coming dance theatre artist whose work explores the many cultural complexities of Israeli society.

Yasmeen Godder, who regularly tours Europe and teaches weekly class in her own studio in Jaffa’s Mandel Center, she is known for her raw, disturbing and intensely theatrical works, including Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder, about Israelis’ relationships to violence.

Sahar Azimi, another up and coming artist whose visceral work, Come Feel, will tour Croatia this year.

Barak Marshall, based in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, his theatrically charged work explicitly straddles European and Mizrahi (Arabic) cultures in Israel. Marshall is a singer and choreographer of Yemenite and American descent.

Beta Dance Troupe, an Ethiopian-Israeli dance company that blends traditional (Eskesta) and contemporary dance. Based in Haifa, Israel, directed by Ruth Eshel.

Noa Dar, an established choreographer with her own studio in Tel Aviv. She offers classes and workshops, rehearsal space, and more.

Tmuna Theater, an alternative dance and theatre performance venue.

There are also a number of athletic clubs that offer legitimate contemporary dance classes on a drop-in basis—think Rhythm & Motion housed at 24 Hour Fitness.


Nina Haft work in New Jewish Performance has been profiled in Dance Magazine and supported by CHIME, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, the Conney Project on Jewish Arts Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, and other Bay Area funders. Her article, “36 Jewish Gestures” was recently published in Moving Ideas: Multimodality and Embodied Learning; Mira-Lisa Katz, ed. [Peter Lang: 2013]

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