Ethiopian dancers 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week, the Ministry of Absorption and the Confederation House in Jerusalem have joined together to unveil a new event, the Hullegeb Ethiopian-Israeli Arts Festival.
The festival will run for 10 days and will include theater, dance and many other art forms.
One of the centerpieces of this new festival is a screening and a performance by the Beta Dance Troupe. Beta is the Amharic word for “home.”
In the six years since their establishment, the Neveh Yosefbased company has thrived, traveling around the world to rave reviews. Founded by Ruth Eshel in 2006, Beta has come to represent a new era of Ethiopian dance, nurtured and inspired by Israeli culture.
On Sunday evening, the cast of Beta will take the stage at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem following a presentation of Dancing Shoulders, a documentary about the struggles and triumphs the company has encountered.
In the beginning, Eshel knew very little about Ethiopian culture, she explained in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post. “I didn’t know anything about them, but they interested me very much. So I bought I video camera and filmed the caravans, the dances, how they tied their babies to their back, how they prepared food,” she says.
“I discovered that very little research has been done on Ethiopian dance in Ethiopia.
There is a lot of research on Ethiopian life, but not dance. I learned the folk dances, but I had no intention of making a folklore group,” explained Eshel.
Then, while lecturing at the University of Haifa, Eshel had the chance to work more closely with members of the Ethiopian community. “There were several men that came to my class. They came from a theater background and were very creative,” she says. “I brought with me artistic taste and the professional knowledge of composition. They brought with them the movement material.”
THAT WAS the beginning of the constellation known as Eskesta, the name for the shoulder-shaking that characterizes much of traditional Ethiopian dance. For several years, Eskesta rehearsed and performed in the Haifa area.
Then, in 2006, Eshel decided to move the company closer to the homes of her dancers. Neveh Yosef was an obvious choice, as there is a large number of Ethiopian families there.
Now the company meets twice a week for three-hour rehearsals. They begin
their sessions with a warm-up designed to improve the dancers’
flexibility and agility. Then they explore.
“The main thing in our work is the experimentation. How do you take
ethnic movement material and make variations? How do you widen it and
make it rich enough to make artistic dance for the stage? This is the
challenge. The film tells the story about this experimental journey,”
Their ability to expand upon tradition has brought the Beta Dance Troupe into the foreground of contemporary Ethiopian dance.
“In 1980, the Ethiopian ambassador invited Eskesta to come to perform
for Israeli Independence Day. It seemed strange for an Israeli company
to perform Ethiopian dance in Ethiopia. We wanted to show the encounter,
what happened to their dance when they reached a new country.
It was very well received. Then, last year, we were invited back as part
of the celebration of the Ethiopian millennium. We are very important
to Ethiopia,” says Eshel.
The company is no less vital to its members, who have found a literal
home in Beta. “The most gratifying element is seeing dancers come in who
are very shy.
Then, after several months, they become artists. You see that they grow from within,” says Eshel.The Beta Dance Troupe will perform The
Best and Jerusalem Premieres at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem on December 19
at 9 p.m. Dancing Shoulders will be screened at 7 p.m. For more
information, visit www.betaeskesta.com.