Shouldering a cultural tradition

Ethiopian-Israel performances grace Jerusalem in the Second Annual Hullegeb Festival.

Ethiopian-Israeli dance 300 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ethiopian-Israeli dance 300
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Four Ethiopian women sit on a bare stage. They wear brightly colored head coverings that match their outfits. The performance begins with them shaking their heads from side to side until the rhythm and routine build to their moving their shoulders and upper bodies. This performance, called Opus for Heads, from the Beta Dance Troupe, is just one of the movements that will be on display on December 18 at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem.
The Second Annual Hullegeb Festival for Ethiopian-Israeli artistic creations opens next Tuesday and runs for a week. The festival was founded last year as an initiative of the Confederation House’s artistic director Effie Benaya with support from the Immigration and Absorption Ministry. Benaya’s goal, he says, was to give the stage to Ethiopian performers and “reveal the colorful industry of Ethiopian culture in theater, dance and music.”
This year the festival will include six different performances, which include two plays, three musical acts and the Beta troupe’s dance. The shows will take place in Jerusalem at Confederation House, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Gerard Behar Center and the Yellow Submarine.
One of the unique elements of this year’s festival is the Beta group, which will be showcasing some of its traditional material, alongside the performance of a piece called Moments. Mika Ya’ari, the assistant manager of the Beta Troupe, describes a long history of its struggle to bring Ethiopian dance into the Israeli mainstream.
“I joined the company four years ago, but it has been around for 15 years since Dr. Ruth Eshel had this idea at the University of Haifa. We have worked with around 200 students at the university, and we try to work within the heart of the Ethiopian community as well. One of the things that Beta pioneered was trying to bring the Ethiopian traditional dance technique to the stage. For instance, the movement of the shoulders, called eskesta in Amharic. It is important for us to keep this tradition, to show the abilities of the community. I think we need to see it taught in dance schools, and I believe it will happen that there will be more awareness of this tradition.”
One of the most important things for the company is that it has recently found a great talent in Tzvika Hizikias, 29, who was born in Ethiopia and is now the choreographer of the group. Hizikias created Moments, which will be shown for the first time at the festival.
Ya’ari thinks that having an Ethiopian with a leadership role in the company and teaching the dance is essential. “He has the movement and can do things through his body that are unique. He knows a whole world of [dance] movement and is a real professional.”
Hizikias is a professionally trained dancer. “I grew up in Ashkelon and started to learn dance at the age of 12. I remember that in the beginning I didn’t like it that much, but I saw all these women dancing and I loved what they were doing, so I said to myself, ‘I want to dance.’ Even when I went to the army I was able to find a track because I had this dance skill that I could continue with dance classes while in the army. I received a lot of encouragement and support in my life and spent time abroad in New York.”
Hizikias wasn’t trained in Ethiopian dance and instead brought his skills in modern and classical dance to Beta when he joined them. “I met Mika, and we had worked on several projects. She told me about this group of Ethiopian students that practice twice a week, and I had never seen anything like it before,” he recounts. “Most of my life I had worked with modern or classical dance; I wasn’t familiar with traditional Ethiopian dance. Eshel asked me to come work with her.”
He recalls that at first he tried to bring his experience to the group, and after a while he was given the opportunity to help create his own dance routines and help manage the company.
“I wanted to take this traditional national dance and change things. So for four months, that is what we have been working on. What you will see in the show is some pictures of life, some moments, hence the name. These moments come from my life and the dancers’ lives. We are trying to take these two languages, of Ethiopian dance and modern dance, and combine them.”
One of those doing a solo in the dance performance is Mazal Damoza, a 24-year-old student who was born in Haifa. Damoza has worked with the company for several years and was on tour with them in Ecuador, Ethiopia and the US last year. “What you will see is a performance that is at a different level than last year. It will be more sophisticated and more technical. For the Moments performance we will be wearing a very simple outfit, not something traditional, so that the outfit doesn’t take away from the dance.”
Performer Hanni David, who was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Rehovot and served as a medic in the army, is also excited about the festival. “I am a third-year nursing student in Haifa. We practice twice a week for three hours, on Wednesdays and Sundays. I always loved to dance – not traditional Ethiopian dance, but all kinds of dance.”
Like most of those interviewed, David also learned about her own culture’s traditions through the company. “I learned traditional dance and also modern dance here. I was able to take both and understand it from my own point of view and add my own personality into this combination. Tzvika’s work with us has been very demanding, but I really hope that people will love what they see and feel connected to it.”
David also believes that it is important to include Ethiopian rhythms in mainstream Israeli dance routines. “There is a large population of Ethiopians here, and yet many Israelis who are not Ethiopian don’t know anything about this culture or how we dance. When they see the dance with their own eyes, they will see for instance the special movement that we do with our shoulders. We are a part of Israel, and it is important to get to know a different culture. But it is also important for Ethiopians to show off this dance and not just keep it among themselves.”