Neighborhood beat

The extensive gentrification of Neveh Tzedek is largely due to the success of the area's most famous landmark, the Suzanne Dellal Center.

Suzanne Dellal Center 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Suzanne Dellal Center 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twenty-five years ago, walking around Neveh Tzedek was a scary experience. What was left of the formerly affluent Jewish neighborhood was in ruins. The streets were empty, the buildings abandoned. Only a number of families inhabited the area, mainly out of necessity rather than choice. Today, walking around the same streets gives the opposite impression. The homes have been fully renovated. Nestled among residential buildings are quaint boutiques selling the finest organic foods, baby clothes from France and designer Israeli jewelry. The extensive gentrification of Neveh Tzedek is largely due to the success of the area's most famous landmark, the Suzanne Dellal Center. Now celebrating 20 years of promoting and presenting dance, the center is not only an important piece of Neveh Tzedek's history but of Tel Aviv's development. The name Neveh Tzedek means "abode of justice." Twenty-two years before the establishment of Tel Aviv, a number of families set off to find a more comfortable living environment than overpopulated Jaffa could offer. They landed in Neveh Tzedek, making it the first Jewish neighborhood outside of Jaffa, which was then walled in. Around the turn of the century, these families lived peacefully in low, colorful homes scattered throughout the area. Remnants of these homes can be seen today, mixed in with modern glass structures. However, as the northern parts of Tel Aviv became more attractive, Neveh Tzedek entered a long period of disrepair. IN THE 1980s, when several forces joined to brainstorm a cultural center in the historic district, they were met with skepticism. Tel Aviv's philanthropists would never trek all the way to Neveh Tzedek to see shows, they said. There were serious doubts about whether such a far-off location could attract the kind of audiences needed to sustain an artistic venue. While there had previously been cultural activities in what was then the Neveh Tzedek Theater, the events were intimate and infrequent. Surrounding the theater was a cluster of small buildings which housed the Yehieli and Alliance schools. Neither school was active at that point. The grounds were unpaved, the buildings in shambles. Around the same time, the Dellal family of London suffered a tragedy. Their daughter Suzanne died at 25. She had been living in Israel before her death, pursuing a career as a dancer. To honor her passion for the arts, the family joined forces with the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Ministry of Education and Culture in establishing a center that would specialize in promoting dance. They renovated the Neveh Tzedek Theater along with the former schools and formed the Suzanne Dellal Center. Naturally when embarking on a project of such great proportions, the parties involved sought out the right person to be the director. In 1989, Yair Vardi was chosen for the role, which he continue to fulfill to this day. Vardi, a former dancer and choreographer, is credited with making the Israeli dance community blossom into a powerhouse of creativity. At present, he explained in a recent interview, "there aren't enough places for everything that exists here." The center is bursting at the seams with activity. Like many success stories, at first the center drew modest crowds. Slowly and steadily, however, word of the happenings in the South Tel Aviv spot traveled to local artists. The theater drew more and more dance lovers. Restaurants opened to feed hungry show-goers. Stores sprouted. Neveh Tzedek became hip. People abandoned their northern residences and moved in to the charming old homes on its cobblestoned streets. And as had taken place in neighborhoods in New York, Paris and London, the area was transformed from its neglected state to a hot spot in the blink of an eye. IN THE past 20 years, the Suzanne Dellal Center has expanded to include three performance spaces and five rehearsal studios. It is home to several companies, including the Inbal Pinto Dance Company, Batsheva Dance Company and Inbal Dance Theater. More than 600 performances and events take place in the center each year, bringing over half a million guests. Perhaps one of the most important functions of the center is to nurture new artists. The resumé of almost every Israeli choreographer includes at least one premier at the center. This past year, for the first time in many years, the Suzanne Dellal Center presented a project of its own. American choreographer Barak Marshall was invited to create Monger, an original dance piece with a cast of 10 local dancers. The piece was an immediate success and is currently on tour in Europe. However, Vardi has no plans to establish a permanent ensemble. Each year, the center hosts several programs such as the Other Dance Festival and Shades of Dance, which allow young choreographers to showcase their pieces. "I'll never know what the next thing is, so we try everything," Vardi said. "It takes a lot of time for a choreographer to make it - like Renana Raz, Idan Cohen, Saar Azimi and Yossi Berg. Then there is the next level, like Noa Dar, Inbal Pinto, Anat Danielli. Then there are the new new creators, like the ones that present in Shades of Dance. They don't even know where they will bring themselves. It takes a lot of hard work for the young choreographers to cope with many elements. As nice as it is to have a center to support them, to survive here is very difficult." In speaking of the future of the center, Vardi gave off an air of relaxed confidence. "Our plan is to survive," he said. "To continue the path that we started, to continue to grow, to take care of the place, to continue to further dance in Israel. "We are here to serve the dance community, to give it a home, to give a home to companies, to give young choreographers a place to show their work. I think the Israeli dance scene is very rich. We have a rich audience. We have gotten to an amazing place in a short number of years. I am always looking for what is missing. Money, maybe? If I had more money, I would do more projects. More artists, more companies."