Amid coronavirus crisis, Israel Festival to adapt and move forward

Social distancing and online events won’t prevent the September gala from going ahead

THE VERTIGO Power of Balance, choreographed by Sharon Friedman, will be performed at the Jerusalem Theater on September 8 and 9. (photo credit: YOEL LEVI)
THE VERTIGO Power of Balance, choreographed by Sharon Friedman, will be performed at the Jerusalem Theater on September 8 and 9.
(photo credit: YOEL LEVI)
In case we needed reminding, art and life have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Art feeds off and reflects life and, in turn, imbues our quotidian existence with emotional import and leaves us with food for thought.
That, surely, has been glaringly apparent in the last five months or so, when we have been largely starved of direct cultural nutrition with only a morsel or two of stop-start live music and a smattering of – visitor capacity-controlled – exhibitions to satiate our hunger for witnessing the output of creative endeavor firsthand.
Itzik Jolie has long been keenly and painfully aware of the reciprocal art-life equation which has been around since cavemen first scratched the walls of their rock-hewn abodes with whatever they had to hand. As artistic director of the Israel Festival, Jolie was primed and ready to up the street-level ante of the forthcoming 2020 offering. The country’s premier annual cultural event will finally take place September 3-12, three months after its original slot. The festival organizers are still hopeful that, three or four weeks hence, it will be possible to perform before live audiences, but all the shows and other items will be made available online.
There is a pronounced social-communal and even ecological slant everywhere you look across the 10-day program. There are synergies with senior citizens’ homes, activities taking place at various public institutions, including the National Insurance Institute, works taking place in and around public transport, panel discussions that delve into the inner machinations of artistic ventures, and a gathering that will take a cold, hard look at the relevance of art in today’s world. Nothing like getting down to brass tacks, particularly in a post-coronavirus world.
Jolie says the purview of the initial festival program – naturally, planned as a far grander and international affair – took all of the above into account, although, of course, without taking the pandemic constraints into consideration.
“Our original curatorship considered two polarities of the economy of power and the economy of the heart,” he states. “Within these two opposites, we examined the artistic possibilities between them in general, the opportunities that exist in art and overall. Through the curatorial role we tried to consider reality as a whole, and the evolution of the possibilities of other realities which art can, increasingly, express.”
That is evident right across the festival agenda. There is, for example, the fascinating Kehulot (Blue) dance-movement show, scheduled for the new Interdisciplinary Cultural Center – housed in the former Rav Hen cinema premises in Talpiot – set for September 9 and 10 (both start at 8 p.m.). Seasoned choreographer Galit Liss has come up with a work that she says is designed to highlight “the physiological aesthetics” of the older body within the contemporary dance arena.
The performing troupe comprises 14 women, aged 65-80, who will offer the audiences – hopefully, both live and online – some insight into the experience of aging through movement, and address pervading social and political perceptions.
Intriguingly, the festival background blurb cites “the Zionist ethos on which the performers were brought up.” That, presumably, inter alia references the anthemic “Hare’ut” (friendship or comradeship) poem and song, penned by Haim Gouri and scored by Sasha Argov, which was written in the aftermath of the War of Independence and extols the sacrifices of “the elegant and handsome” young men who gave their lives so that the young State of Israel could continue to exist.
All the shows and events in the festival program feature exclusively local lineups, with the 14-day isolation requirement for visitors from abroad making the participation of any foreign acts completely impracticable.
But Jolie and festival general director Eyal Sher were determined to keep the annual show on the road, come what may.
“It’s not a matter of there being life without culture; culture is life,” Sher declares. “The 2020 Israel Festival is entirely devoted to artists who make our world a better place. Cultural activity is our protest. We are not giving up!”
STIRRING WORDS indeed, and the program reflects that steadfast banner flying across the board. The spread of concerts, theatrical works, dance and more cerebral items engage in community, the family, encounters, touching, empathy, individualism and technology, agism, democracy, acceptance of the other and more besides.
While the lineup may have been penciled in before we all started wearing protective masks, Jolie feels the pandemic has accentuated the need to take a step back and ensure no one gets carried away with their own creative philosophy and the artistic continuum keeps apace with real life.
“The coronavirus has suppressed our ego, and the ego of the world, and is quietly telling us to have a rethink,” he notes. “The materials the public will encounter in the festival incorporate searching and a wish for art that is looking to move away from its familiar surroundings, toward the public, and to allow the public to be an active and creative partner.”
The festival curator believes that, far from being an elitist field whereby the ordinary Avi or Dana on the street often approaches works of art with a sense of trepidation and from an inferior footing, he (Jolie) and his co-professionals should be aiming to join forces with cultural consumers and “to create, together, by means of an artistic vision, a domain that tries to understand how we can instill in each other innovative ideas, empathy and creativity.”
Jolie says the plan is “to advance dialogue that tries to retrieve the existing possibilities from the fluid circumstances while, together, attempting to imagine the future.” Sounds like a brave new world is in the offing.
Those ideas will be explored by a slew of top artists at several points through the festival continuum, including as part of the Soft Resistance online project. As the title suggests, the venture infers a more subtle and less upheaval-oriented mind approach to the global crisis we are all enduring, and suggests we should be looking more at taking baby steps into the unknown rather than bursting through into uncharted waters which may very well be shark-infested.”
The Soft Resistance team features six artists from a range of disciplines, including internationally acclaimed playwright Maya Arad Yasur, visual artist-writer Merav Shinn Ben-Alon, and musician-actor-poet Neta Weiner, will take a trip or two across the virtual domain of posts uploaded by the members of a dedicated Facebook group, and will respond with their creative fruits inspired by the said comments and suggestions.
“We initiated this activity based on the realization that Facebook serves as a sort of public square,” Jolie muses. “We wanted to talk about the routine, which has vanished, and about getting back to some routine – about how to return to our routine, after the new meanings that have pervaded our reality.”
The festival, he feels, offers an ideal opportunity to weigh up where we are all at right now, and how to somehow carve out a new pathway, with the fresh conceptual and emotional baggage that has been foisted on us by the pandemic and the ensuing constraints and conditions, including social distancing. “We need to look at our work routines, relationships between people, and what we want to change there.”
Acceptance, tolerance and empathy are front and center in the new line of thinking, and will be patently conveyed in the Vertigo Power of Balance work, choreographed by Sharon Friedman, which is scheduled to be performed at the Jerusalem Theater on September 8 and 9 (both 8 p.m.), and online.
Power of Balance, which takes place under the auspices of the Vertigo Dance Company, creates a meeting place for people with various physical disabilities and the non-disabled, using movement, contact and improvisation. That allows for direct physical encounter through spontaneous dance, as participants explore their own feelings and how they express them through their body, while feeding off and responding to others around them. That certainly embodies the aforementioned community-oriented zeitgeist.
Similar to Kehulot, Friedman’s creation aims to upend taboos relating to the way we perceive the bodies of people around us, specifically of people who are clearly – physically – different from us, and to find our way to delicate physical avenues that make involuntary movement a matter of choice, and turn what we consider anomalous into something natural.
There will be more in the way of audience participation in a series of workshops with the likes of dancer-choreographer Yasmin Godar, actor-director Nir Shaulof, Liss and musician Faye Shapiro. There will also be a lecture at the Interdisciplinary Cultural Center with sociologist Prof. Eva Illouz, and the residents of a senior citizens’ home will offer the fruits of their mature vocal skills.
Clearly, we can all look forward to a festival that reflects the spirit of these challenging times and that, hopefully, will help us to find our way forward into a better and more enlightened world.
For more information: