Twenty-odd years – of Kolben Dance

“I have more plans than the ability to execute them,” he laughs. “That’s how it’s always been.”

‘Living in a Movie.’ (photo credit: DANI KITRI)
‘Living in a Movie.’
(photo credit: DANI KITRI)
Prior to founding his company, choreographer Amir Kolben had the sense that a dance troupe was a temporary entity.
“I had been part of the dismantling of two companies, Tamar Ramle and Tamar Jerusalem, before I founded the Kolben Dance Company,” he says early on a Friday morning.
“The first lasted a year and a half, the second five years,” Kolben says. “I didn’t plan for Kolben Dance to be around for 10 or 20 years, I just wanted to create, and having a company was a good way to do that.”
Now, he is about to celebrate exactly what he never dreamed would happen – the 20th anniversary of his Jerusalem-based troupe.
This season, the Kolben Dance Company will open the Jerusalem Arts Festival on March 29 with Kolben’s creation “Living in a Movie.”
Not one to sugar-coat, the choreographer speaks very openly about the endless questioning, doubt and challenges that go along with standing at the helm of a longstanding dance group.
“I can’t believe we have been around for this long. Even today I don’t think about having a 20-year-old company,” he says.
“I wake up in the morning and I ask myself, ‘Do I want to continue having the company? It’s good for me? Is it still worth it?’” he continues. “Having a company is very hard work. You are basically independent, but you have employees and they depend on you. You become a slave of this thing. So I ask myself once in a while if I want to continue.”
The answer, time and again, is yes.
KOLBEN BEGAN his career as a dancer in the Batsheva Dance Company and the Bat Dor Dance Group. He continued on to Europe and North America, where he danced with several leading companies. Back in Israel, he found himself teaching at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. It was there that the seeds of his troupe were planted.
“I taught a workshop at JAMD,” he explains. “I saw that the dancers in their final year were [at] high enough a level to perform professionally, so I suggested that the workshop turn into a performance. JAMD couldn’t sustain a company on its own, so we moved on.”
Based at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem, Kolben Dance is dedicated to performing the visions of its artistic director. Its repertoire includes “Charlie Mendelbaum,” “Four Seasons,” “Interface,” “Babel” and many more. In recent seasons, it has reached out to other choreographers, such as Margaret Jenkins of San Francisco and local choreographer Rachel Erdos, to create work for the company.
After opening the Jerusalem Festival, Kolben plans to celebrate the anniversary with an evening choreographed and performed by former company members.
“For ‘Homage,’ I invited choreographers who worked in the company in the past to come and respond to pieces they danced in the company,” he says.
“The list includes Nadar Rosano, Meirav Dagan, Maayan Zohar, Joel Bray and Oded Ronen, Irit Amichai and Erin Shand, and Maya Michlal Gelfand,” he continues. “The production will premier in May in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I’m happy to see people who worked with me moving forward in their own paths. Because of the budget, I am able to give these choreographers a commission, which I couldn’t do it in the past.”
While former company members are creating their pieces for “Homage,” the current company dancers are hard at work on a new piece by Kolben. Titled “Memorandum,” it is his way of taking stock of his choreographic history.
“It’s about memory and forgetting,” he says.
“I am a person who doesn’t remember well. I have to make up all kinds of tactics to remember things. My coping mechanism with it is to just look forward, not to remember. One of the ways it comes out is that I never look at videos of what I’ve done. Here, I gave myself the mission of looking back. What does it mean to remember, forget? Why do we block things out?” he explains.
“Memorandum” is lined up to premier toward the summer.
EARLIER THIS year, JAMD named Kolben as its new dean of dance, closing a big circle and opening some new doors.
“I debated very much about whether or not to take on the position,” he says.
“I chose to do it once I understood that I could do something significant there,” he goes on. “On me and the academy, there is a responsibility to make a big change. I’m giving it a chance. If I manage to turn it into a leading place for dancers and dance teachers, great, but if I feel that I don’t succeed at it, then the world is big and there are other people that will be happy to take a crack at it.”
As a veteran faculty member, Kolben is intimately knowledgeable of the academy’s strengths and weaknesses.
“The vision is to be the Juilliard of Israel,” he explains. “We already have the choreography program, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in Israel. We need to keep working on it and making it a real place for people who want to choreograph in Israel.”
He points out that there is no dance program for professionals.
“There are other dance programs for training, but they don’t focus on the academic side,” he says. “I want to give the things that these programs give, but with an academic degree that can be with them along the way. People who want to leave because they are working in the field can go on, but those that want a degree can stay and complete a bachelor’s.”
Balancing these two jobs, managing the company and overseeing the academy is going to be tricky.
“I see this challenge very positively, with maybe a little anxiety,” he states. “I hope that these two bodies will grow and that my administrative skills will grow with them.”
This season, the Kolben Dance Company will move up a rung in the Culture and Sport Ministry’s criteria ladder. The change, which mostly relies on administrative expansions, will allow Kolben to see out several ideas he has been waiting to see through.
“I have more plans than the ability to execute them,” he laughs. “That’s how it’s always been.” 
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