Elie Lazar is an incredibly energetic man. His gusto has been an immeasurable asset to him throughout his life. It is what set him apart from his peers as a dancer and is what makes him fit to take on the immense challenge of establishing a new dance company in Israel. Next week, Lazar will present the 10 dancers of the new Ballet Ness Ziona in an evening of his own creation entitled Hofesh.
Lazar walks into Café Dubnov in Tel Aviv wearing sweats and a faded gray T-shirt. His quick gait evokes the athletic physique that made him a shoo in for roles in ballets such as George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes.
“I meant to change into something presentable,” he smiles, “but I came straight from a costume fitting with the dancers.”
From the look on his face, it seems the fitting didn’t go as smoothly as planned.
“What we have to work with as dancers is how we look. Often, if a costume doesn’t meet our expectations, it can bring up a lot of bad memories and insecurity,” he says.
Lazar was born in Rehovot in 1964. He began dancing at age 17 and quickly found his way onto the stage.
“I wasn’t an ideal dancer for Israel. I was almost pushed to leave,” he recalls.
At 21, Lazar found himself in New Jersey, hosted by a family he had met while working as a camp counselor via the Jewish Agency.
“I went to a ballet competition in Jackson, Mississippi, with $50 in my pocket,” he recounts. “From there, I was invited to work with the Garden State Ballet and after, with the New Jersey Ballet.”
It was with these companies that Lazar danced roles in ballets by Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Paul Taylor and others.
As a choreographer, Lazar has received commissions to create works for companies around the globe. He is the founder and former director of the Joffrey Ensemble and has standing teaching engagements in cities from Tokyo to Kansas City.
When he landed in Israel in August, Lazar had no idea that he was returning home for good.
“I was invited by David Dvir to take over the afternoon school at Thelma Yellin High School. The plan was to be here for one year exactly,” he says.
As the director of the Joffrey Ensemble in New York City, Lazar initiated a program to host Israeli dance students.
“That relationship was already in place, so when Dvir contacted me, I saw it as an opportunity to continue something I had started long ago,” he explains.
Shortly after, Lazar was approached with an offer from the Ness Ziona Municipality.
“I didn’t plan to come to Israel and become a force in the dance world here. I thought it was going to be one year and back to the States. But I feel that a new road is opening before me, and I feel it’s right. Life has taken care of me all these years. I trust it will now, too,” he says.
Now the challenge is to create something out of nothing.
“No one expects there to be a ballet company in Ness Ziona, so we have a lot of work to do. We want to build something local that is ours, that belongs to the city and that the city can be proud of,” he says.
It took Lazar several weeks to assemble his cast of 10. A few came via recommendations; a few were acquaintances from New York; the rest, he found in an audition.
“I was looking for dancers who were very versatile because they have to be able to dance in a variety of works and styles. They needed to be open to working with new choreographers and to be able to enjoy creative processes.
I was very encouraged by the level of dancers I found. I feel that together we will be able to reach the standards I am striving for,” he says.
When creating Hofesh
, Lazar allowed the events of his life to seep into the studio.
“It’s not as much about freedom as it is about letting go. In order to grow old, you have to be okay with letting go of youth. In order to move forward, you have to be able to let go of the past. I think this work is about the spaces and distance that we create,” he says.Hofesh
is the first of four productions that the Ness Ziona Ballet will perform this season. The coming works include A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Nutcracker, as well as a repertory work.
“I want to create curiosity in the audience,” explains Lazar.
A man of big plans, Lazar is already dreaming up next season.
“I want to take stories of Israeli masters and translate them to the stage, to allow people to take another look at familiar stories,” he says.
Although he left a life behind and is facing a lot of uncertainty, Lazar seems to enjoy every moment.
“The best part about my job as a creator is that it allows me to act as a connector. I get to bring together dancers, lighting designers, musicians, painters, set designers, costume designers. Together, we can create an environment that contributes,” he says.Ballet Ness Ziona will premiere ‘Hofesh’ on June 20 at 9 p.m. at the Ness Ziona Cultural Center. For more information, visit www.tarbut-nz.co.il.