Now celebrating its 58th annual session, the Israel Festival is the oldest cultural bash in the country. The issue that drives the current director is how to make it different from all the other festivals that have proliferated in Israel over the past decades and now weigh heavily on the cultural calendar. No month goes by without some festival taking place in one part or another of the country. There are festivals of music (chamber, jazz, classic, Eastern, etc.) of theater (legitimate, commercial, puppet, avant-garde, etc.), of ethnicity, and so on. Yet the Israel Festival has lasted and still commands respect, even though its contents are often controversial.
“We try to be relevant,” Eyal Sher, the present director of the Festival, tells The Jerusalem Report.
“Which means appealing to the younger generation while simultaneously keeping on our loyal supporters from yesteryear.”
But those 58 years, according to Sher, place a responsibility on the organizers not to be taken for granted. “We have a proud legacy,” he says, somewhat overawed by what he is saying. “The Festival began in 1961, as a classical music festival held in Caesarea. Abba Eban was the chairman and Teddy Kollek was on the board, as were Golda Meir, Isaac Stern, and Zubin Mehta. We feel proud of this legacy. It has survived because we have known how to renew ourselves, to adapt to the times. The Festival today is very central to the fabric of the city of Jerusalem, to the cultural landscape of Israel, in general, and, of course, to the international scene. It has become exposed to worldwide trends.”
Was Sher not apprehensive of the number of other festivals, especially in Israel?
“We know we are up against stiff competition,” he says. “Every city has its own festival, people travel abroad more, they are exposed to a wide variety of cultural events. Once the Israel Festival was the window to the world. It was the only festival that gave exposure to international fare. That is no longer true.”
Reflecting on some of the wider changes that shape the environment of the Festival, Sher points to the shift in the demographics of the potential audiences. “There are a lot of new challenges as a result, and within these challenges we have to create the Festival. We do so by bringing performances that do not exist during the rest of the year. There are things that you cannot see outside the Festival. It is the opportunity to introduce people to new art forms. We like to set up a discourse that enriches the artistic field, as opposed to merely repeating that which has gone before. So the emphasis is on the newest trends, on multimedia, on artists who use a new language, a language that doesn’t distinguish between dance, theater, music and video. We see artists mixing these media together, using all these tools. This is what we’re bringing to the Festival. In some ways this year sees the end of the first stage of rejuvenation and a redefinition of what the Festival wants to be. Every festival you try to bring the best, remembering that it has your signature on it.”
What is so different then about the upcoming festival? Sher is very clear about what he has aimed for.
“We have found a very specific theme, the theme of identity: cultural, religious, and gender identity. Not that we set out to create a theme and then try to place all the artists into that frame. Rather, we wait till the theme emerges out of the various performances that we have. This is how we discovered this year’s theme. We focus on personal identity and how it relates to the collective as part of a community. How do you live in a community, and what makes a community? The emphasis is on complete artistic freedom in a time of polarity and constant pressure from all directions on freedom of expression. We are holding up the flag of artistic freedom but doing it by looking at the environment and saying that art and culture generally need to create a space for an encounter to break through barriers. Inside Israel, these barriers could be Orthodox and secular, Ethiopians and Russians, Arabs and Jews. But the question is relevant across the globe. Our mission is to understand the role of the artist in all this, how he or she allows us to meet ‘the other.’ This is where the dimension of identity comes in – to respect another point of view, things that you think you know and have very firm opinions about and which art can shed light on by looking at the same things from a different angle. This is not to perform for the mainstream, or to become diverted by censorship.”
There is, of course, another dimension to putting on a festival in which about half of the performances come from outside Israel. This is the issue of BDS. For Sher, this has had a marginal effect.
“There are cancellations,” he admits, “but very few. In the past year one independent artist received very heavy pressure to withdraw. Last year, a Portuguese artist, whose performance addresses the issue of censorship, canceled. But these are individual examples. Nevertheless, it is an issue. When we are asked by candidates as to what kind of festival we are, who supports us and so on, there may be a possibility of people saying they’re not quite comfortable with this. Sometimes in a troupe of 30 people two people object to coming. But most of the time it is an opportunity to discuss the issues, the Arab-Israeli conflict is an obvious example. We explain the complexity of it, that it’s not just black and white, or what is reported in the media. Sometimes our explanations work, and at other times they don’t. This year in particular, we saw that artists are aware of the situation. They add the role of the artist, which they see as breaking through accepted opinions. A lot of the artists are very independent thinkers. They think outside the box in all sorts of ways, politically as well as culturally. They seek to find their own independent decisions.”
Sher throws out some examples of what to expect in the upcoming Festival that express his ideas.
“We approached Gilad Kahana, who is a singer, performer, writer and actor, and is well known from being a part of the local music group “The Giraffes.” We asked him to do the opening evening with an emphasis on beat – rap and hip-hop. The idea was to start the Festival with a frontal concert in the piazza in front of the Jerusalem Theater.
We will start at 9 in the evening and go on til 11. From there, we’ll move into the Sherover auditorium where we’ve created an environment on the stage in which the same performers will continue to mix with the audience. What we are saying is that this mixture, too, belongs in the Festival. This opening is aimed at the audience we want to attract, younger people and people who don’t know the Festival; these will be the next generation of people searching for cultural events.”
The Festival also highlights avant-garde performers. This year is no exception. One of the many dance groups featured is The Cullbergbaletten troupe from Sweden who are making a return to Israel after an absence of some ten years. They are presenting two works, one by the American choreographer, Deborah Hay, who has set a piece of hers to the music of Laurie Anderson, and one by Swedish choreographer, Jafta van Dinther, inspired by the nightclubs of Berlin. Other choreography works are to be presented by Robyn Orlin from South Africa, who highlights the situation in his post-apartheid country. Another is a work by Brazilian choreographer, Marcelo Evelin, whose “Suddenly Everywhere is Black with People” is inspired by the book “Crowds and Power” by Nobel prize-winner Elias Canetti. Its five dancers examine what makes togetherness in the human community. It is noteworthy, too, that the dancers are naked, not the only act in the Festival to include nudity. Sher insists that these scenes are a legitimate part of the staging of these works and is full of praise for the Ministry of Culture, which gave full backing to present these works. “Of course,” he notes, “we explain which works contain nudity. Someone who doesn’t want to view the performance is told beforehand.”
Another reason for putting on these ensembles is the popularity of choreography within Israel, and a tribute to the fact that Israeli dance troupes appear all over the world. The Festival is thus encouraging cultural exchange.
In theater, the Festival offers a wide variety of new works plus several that base themselves on the classics. Clipa Theater, an Israeli company, continues to push the boundaries of theater with a performance that explores the social and political arenas of artistic action and audience-performer relationship. “ViewField” uses the familiar urban reality in a radical way. The audience is here located above the streets in the Jerusalem Municipality buildings, and is asked to look at the view below. From there they witness Clipa Theater members blending into the urban landscape and the everyday activity in the city at twilight. Our unique perspective as an audience and the expectation for something to happen will imbue and alter our perception of the events. In this specific location the audience can view a crossroads of east and west, Arab and Jewish, religious and secular, and think about what they are seeing.
A different theatrical experience is offered by French artist, Philippe Quesne whose production “Night of the Moles” combines music, video and theater. Quesne creates a cave from very simple objects. In this cave moles live and go about their daily business. The work is all about how we create a community, how it forms a perspective and how we can change its reality.
Full of humor and at the same time full of deep philosophical statement, it is aimed at the whole family. There are edgy things in it along with the music. It’s not what your are used to. It has no narrative –with a beginning, middle and end. Its structure is much more abstract and conceptual.
Among musical events is an ensemble from Poland – “The Songs of the Goat Theater” – who are both acting out and singing songs inspired by Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which they perform in Coptic! Another reinterpretation of a Shakespeare play is “Romeo and Juliet.” This is a work by an Israeli group, The Elad Theater, led by Boaz Dan, which works out of Kibbutz Eilot. They present a new adaptation of the banquet scene from Shakespeare’s timeless play. The audience is invited to join the performers around a bountiful table for a communal meal in the pastoral courtyard of the Museum of Natural History in Jerusalem, as the first encounter between the tragic young couple comes to life before them. Sher notes, “We thought this was a really interesting take on the play, though we can’t tell you much more about about it since it will involve unscripted audience participation.”
Music, too, plays a central part in much of the Festival. There will be a regular location for classical music, such as three concerts of piano music at the Eden Tamir Music Center in Ein Kerem. A special concert will celebrate 100 years since the premier of Gustav Holtz’s “The Planet,” this time reinterpreted by seven of Israel’s leading composers. Further reinterpretations will be apparent with the “Revolution Orchestra,” which was organized in order to reshape classical music. This Festival has taken its inspiration from several iconic musicians, such as Jaqueline du Pré, John Lennon, Glen Gould, Yehudi Menuhin and so on, and created modern classical interpretations. The show itself uses several videos of the artists, thus interweaving their music into the performance.
The Festival will also mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of Rabbi Shalom Shabazi in Yemen. The commemoration will take place at the Tower of David Museum. In this open air concert, some of Israel’s leading performers will participate, including Berry Sakharof, Ester Rada, and Miri Mesika. They will be singing many of the songs that Shabazi penned, with melodies that are adaptations of the original. Another mixture of old and new will be “The Great Gehenna Choir” rendering of the late David Avidan’s mystical poem “Tikkun Hatzot.” The choir, founded in 2015 is unusual in that it encourages audience participation in its renditions, so what will transpire here is anyone’s guess.
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