As the kibbutz movement becomes obsolete, Rami Be'er and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (KCDC) are giving new meaning to the concept of a "kibbutz" and the range of possibilities within it. In the Dance Village at Kibbutz Ga'aton in the Western Galilee, dancers step outside the box with a vigorous upbeat kick, spinning freely in dexterous choreographed speed.
The KCDC was founded by Yehudit Arnon, who arrived at the kibbutz after surviving the Nazi death camps. After World War II, her application to an Austrian dance academy was rejected on the basis that she no longer met the age requirements. As such, Arnon does not hold any dance credentials herself. Nonetheless, since its founding 38 years ago, the KCDC has made significant headway, as Arnon coordinated the troupe's activity with the establishment of the Ga'aton Dance Workshop and Dance Studio, both of which are devoted to cultivating young talent. The KCDC is now the oldest of two leading modern dance groups in Israel and is rapidly gaining international renown.
Be'er, a native of Kibbutz Ga'aton, was one of the troupe's fledgling talents. He joined the company as a dancer in 1980 and shortly thereafter began creating new dance routines for the group. In 1996 Arnon made him the troupe's artistic director, and since then Be'er has continued to broaden the KCDC's scope.
Meeting with Metro on a warm winter day, sitting at a wooden picnic table along the winding pathways of the kibbutz, Be'er explains that the company's "vision is that the group's activities spread [and become increasingly encompassing] like a pyramidâ€¦ working on all aspects of movement from a most professional stance and incorporating the community in all its diversity."
Indeed, in addition to the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company's activities, the Dance Village also houses the KCDC International Dance Center and the Dance and Ballet School. A BA program in conjunction with the Western Galilee College in Acre for teachers, artists and dancers - set to comprise both practical and theoretical work - is scheduled to open in two years. Additionally, the Dance Village runs advanced programs, summer programs, movement and dance classes for young children and hospitality facilities for visiting dance groups and dance majors. For those with special needs, the village's Dance Movement Therapy treatment center offers a variety of approaches such as hydrotherapy, the Feldenkrais method, the Alexander Technique and Tai Chi.
In the Galilee Dance Village, nestled among the kibbutz's expansive lawns and small whitewashed houses, the dancers dedicate themselves to their craft. The village experience is certainly different from the dance scene in bustling Tel Aviv, which teems with dance groups, most of which are not institutionalized. The big city offers students ample opportunities to earn money by waiting tables at cafes and restaurants, a lively nightlife and plenty of opportunities for competition in the hope of catching the eye of a choreographer. But each year the kibbutz company's dance groups participate in about 200 performances in Israel and abroad.
This summer, the National Dance Festival will be held for the first time at Kibbutz Ga'aton. "Yehudit Arnon planted the first seeds in this place more than 50 years ago," Be'er says. "As one who was born and raised here, it is only natural to continue and develop it. I think that this location, immersed in green and quiet, fosters complete concentration and creative productivity. Naturally, the development of an inclusive Dance Village is warranted."
Besides the crisis in the kibbutz movement, another predicament ultimately launched the Company's enterprise. During the summer of 2006, residents of northern Israel found themselves under attack. "During the Second Lebanon War we went through a very difficult crisis. Ga'aton was in [Hizbullah's] range of fire. One missile hit the dance studio and another hit a dancer's home. For three months these young people were emotionally shaken up. We felt like everything was falling to pieces, but for us this place is anchored deep. We could easily have abandoned it. It's always easier in the center of Israel," recounts the Dance Village's production coordinator, Sara Ram-Schlein. "The KCDC was forced to move ... to the center of the country. However, after the war, upon returning to Ga'aton, activities were given a fresh boost with the aid of contributions to rehabilitate northern Israel and assistance provided by Ra'aya Strauss - [one of the] company's main benefactors." "Renewal" is the motto - reinforced markedly since the war by those donations and support that have facilitated the company's continual growth.
Be'er calls developing a center like the Dance Village in the country's periphery - as opposed to Tel Aviv - significant. "We're working to advance the Galilee and transform it into a cultural center," he declares.
To that end, Be'er is working with several professionals, among them Sivan Cohen, a resident of Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv. Cohen was once the troupe's solo dancer and today serves as the project team administrator - organizing national and global tours, festivals, conferences, seminars and other events for professionals and the general public interested in dance-related topics.
The Dance Village at Kibbutz Ga'aton and the activities and services it provides have generated much interest, and find enthusiastic collaborators in Israeli and international artists, students and choreographers. "This is a bold attempt to transform a periphery into a center," says general manager Natan Tal, a former Kibbutz Movement secretary. "People come here to benefit from something rather than bestow upon the 'needy,' and this is unique in the periphery. Everything here is first-rate, including the dance company. When the public enters the studio to watch a rehearsal, dancers have to suck in their stomachs. You're not remote and isolated, but a role model."
Dancers can be spotted all over the kibbutz. The building that housed the old communal dining hall before Ga'aton was privatized has been renovated and now serves as the company's main studios. Be'er's father, the architect Menahem Be'er, designed the dining hall in accordance to kibbutz traditions: a round structure with a wide stairway, right in the middle of the kibbutz, overlooking the landscape. One of its walls is still adorned with engraved plaques made by a kibbutz artist.
In one of the studios, choreographer Nikolai de Lusignan, a guest teacher and old friend of the KCDC, is working with the dancers on classic ballet techniques. Lusignan, of the Rotterdam Dance Academy - one of Europe's leading professional institutes for contemporary dance - is British and currently lives in Amsterdam. His dedication is clear in the way he shows up at the dance studio first thing in the morning, ready to work, after landing in Israel for a four-week visit the previous evening. He has been making visits to Israel for 14 years, even in wartime, and plans to return this summer for another six to eight weeks.
"In Europe there are no dance villages," he explains, commending Be'er's efforts. "Though the dancers in this group constantly change, the commitment level among the group members persists for years. Rami chooses dancers who suit his approach and draws from both their strengths and weaknesses. He regards them as people, even if they have flaws, and that's amazing."
As part of the ongoing renewal, one of the big kibbutz buildings, which looks like it could have been a chicken coop or been used to dry tobacco (which was once one of the kibbutz's agricultural niches), has been transformed into a performance auditorium. Ram-Schlein says that the company is constructing it bit by bit, according to its needs.
In the afternoon, the troupe gathers for rehearsals, observed by students from the dance department of Ra'anana's Ostrovsky School, run by Haim Ohn, a former Batsheva Dance Company dancer, whose daughter Danielle has been dancing with Be'er for four years. The students' two-day sojourn at Ga'aton will include watching rehearsals and classes, and even the chance to perform an excerpt from a production piece, directed by one of the troupe's dancers. This afternoon they're watching a rehearsal for "60HZ" from Be'er's newest repertoire, a piece that combines themes of fantasy and reality. Suddenly we hear the swift whoosh of IAF planes flying low, just above the Spartan building. Costumer Ofra Sharon Hayman mumbles, "I don't like the sound of those planes." They remind her of the Second Lebanon War.
The Galilee Dance Village at Ga'aton aspires to bring the Western Galilee's mixed population together, promoting coexistence. It also seeks to draw Diaspora Jewish youth to Israel. Working with The Masa program and the Jewish Agency, the village has recently opened Dance Journey, a nine-month dance program that gives overseas students an opportunity to experience Israel while discovering themselves as artists. The first seven dancers to participate in the program hail from nations as far-flung as Colombia, the United States, Mexico, Norway and Iceland.
Colombian dancer Alex Spinoza, 23, tells Metro, "I'm on an amazing journey every day of self-discovery while fulfilling my dream to dance every single day in Israel."