‘I was always an artist’

Sitting down with Israeli multidisciplinary artist Sahar Azimi.

 ‘Come Feel’ by Gadi Dagon, 2013. (photo credit: GADI DAGON)
‘Come Feel’ by Gadi Dagon, 2013.
(photo credit: GADI DAGON)

Sahar Azimi, 47, started his professional career as a dancer in 1994.

He danced in a number of dance groups including the Batsheva Ensemble, Inbal Dance Theater, Barak Marshall Group, Clipa and more, going on to win a number of prizes, including the Culture Ministry prize for young choreographers.

Co-director of the 2010-2011 Curtain Up festival between 2010 and 2011, he directed the dance festival in Jerusalem’s Interdisciplinary Arena from 2013 to 2018, as well as an ensemble of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Serving as artistic advisor to the Inbal Dance Theater, he is also a teacher in Israel and the US, and a performer, singer, visual artist, and of late, a water photographer. This March, his performance opened the exhibition Fields of Abstractions at the Israel Museum.

Having had all these professional successes, Azimi is not a stranger to life’s struggles and experiences of being homeless, rejected by his own family after coming out as gay and being consciously infected with HIV by a sex partner 12 years ago.

Azimi opens up about it in this exclusive interview with In Jerusalem. He also shares his diverse artistic ideas in which he is currently involved in the Old City of Jaffa’s central square and his Be-Ahava (With Love) gallery.

 A CLASS with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students, as part of the five-month residency for Schusterman Family Foundation scholars, 2011. (credit: Neti Foil) A CLASS with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students, as part of the five-month residency for Schusterman Family Foundation scholars, 2011. (credit: Neti Foil)
You are a multidisciplinary artist... you are active in so many fields, where should we start?

I say about myself that I create the environment for art and artists. I am investing in artists, in the environment of work, but I mean by that: the conditions and atmosphere of work.

It’s very modest of you not to start with the fact that you are an accomplished dancer and choreographer. Just recently, you performed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, at the opening of the Fields of Abstractions exhibition. Dressed in white clothes, with your head completely covered in red knitwear material, you were dancing so close to the paintings that you almost felt like one of them. In the end, you were dancing, hanging from a rope, in the center of a sculpture Turf Ring by Richard Long.

 ‘FIELDS OF Abstraction’ exhibition opening at the Israel Museum, in March. (credit: Zohar Shemesh) ‘FIELDS OF Abstraction’ exhibition opening at the Israel Museum, in March. (credit: Zohar Shemesh)
The audience could not take their eyes off you. How did you prepare for this performance?

I was asked to react to that sculpture. I was also sent descriptions of the sculpture and other paintings about a month and a half before the opening. I was close to the audience, but not seeing them, as my eyes were covered. I was also close to the paintings because I could be; normally we can’t. I was bowing to some of them. I danced to music by Roni Amitai, and for the look, Svetlana Livshits was responsible. This was the third time that I performed in the Israeli Museum and the second time that I created something especially for them.

You have been dancing most of your life; almost three decades. How did it all start?

I liked singing. I sang at school and local ceremonies in Hadera, where I grew up (a city that was not really a city for me: There is no cinema and no theater. I left this horrible place when I was 17-and-a-half, right before my military service). I did not plan to be a dancer, but my brother told me I don’t know how to move, so I took dance classes during my army service.

What kind of dance?

I learned whatever I could: modern, jazz, ballet. But, I didn’t think I would become a dancer. I wanted to be strong on stage, I wanted to sing and I hated being in the army, it was not my place. One day, a friend of mine told me that the Inbal [Dance Theater] was looking for dancers. I told her I had nothing to wear, she gave me her tights, and I changed into them in a bathroom and went to the addition. I met Margalit Oved [famous American Israeli dancer and choreographer], she saw me for five minutes and said: “When you leave the army, you have a contract.”

Amazing!

…and the week after, I came knocking at her door saying: “I left the army”. I got the job, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.

You just left the army in the middle of the service without any consequences?

I didn’t plan to work at government offices, I was an artist…

 ‘A VERY Springy Rite’ by Efrat Mazor, July 2020. (credit: EFRAT MAZOR) ‘A VERY Springy Rite’ by Efrat Mazor, July 2020. (credit: EFRAT MAZOR)
So, at age 18, you were suddenly dancing at a very important dance company… 

Also at that time, someone told my parents that I am gay and they didn’t want to see me anymore. So, I left the army and I had no home. My parents just packed my things and threw me out. I moved to Tel Aviv, but I did not have a place to live. For a week, I slept on a street. But still, in my eyes, I was always a prince. I felt like I want to do amazing things, to get somewhere. 

As for my parents, I did my own work. I came back to them after five years when I was already a strong person.

... and they accepted you then?

I thought they did, but eventually, I found out they didn’t. Nowadays, I am in touch with my mother, she is my friend, but I divorced my father.

In the army, did you have to hide that you were gay?

Of course... you had to hide it back then. It was illegal. Even when people were open-minded, the word gay was a bad word. Something you don’t want to say. Even in Tel Aviv, we had underground clubs; we didn’t have an open life. But, it changed very fast. In 1994, we already had our first parade [Love Pride] and I was there.

It sounds like a very difficult start to adult life... But at the same time, still a teenager, you had already been hired by one of the best dance companies in Israel. What were the first experiences at Inbal?

They were very helpful and kind; I got private classes with the best dance teachers of the time. I danced there for six months, I understood this was not my style, and I left to another dance company and eventually, when I was 21, joined Batsheva.

This really changed my life. Then, I felt I am a real dancer. Batsheva is the most professional dance platform you could be involved with. It comes also with the responsibility of what you dance. I worked very hard there.

What did you enjoy more, rehearsals or performances?

Honestly, rehearsals... It took me time to understand that. I really like being in the studio. Going on stage is always stressful. I want to do it, but I also want to be already after it. However, I love the stage...

When did you start working as a choreographer?

I started choreography in 1999, when I had already been in professional dance for five years and I was doing a solo in the first Intima Dance Festival at Tmuna Theater. But I did not have a good experience. I had anxiety attacks; I felt the people looked into my soul.

And when did you start to choreograph others?

Soon at Habima, there was another festival called Duoman. I took an opera singer and three dancers, and I worked with them. It was a nice tryout, but when we finished, I said: “I will never create again.” But, Navah Zukerman saw me during the rehearsal and said, “Next year, you are going to be on stage,” and I said, “No.” 

Six months later she called me, “I don’t see your name on the applications.” I told her that I don’t want to create, but she insisted, “In two weeks, I will see you in the studio.” She pushed me.

You were lucky to meet the right people along the way.

Yes, but I really did not want to do it. The choreography was a big thing for me. You have to be trained for years and I was never trained as a choreographer. So, I felt that if I will choreograph, it will be a big lie. I preferred to stay on stage and service others. But, Navah did not want to hear it. So, I trusted her and I did six festivals (Curtain Up) with her, and then I was the artistic director of the festival. I was “the Navah” for others.

And while already being a dancer, choreographer and by that time, a dance teacher, you did not give up on your childhood dream of singing. A few months ago, when I walked into your gallery (we will speak about it later), you let me listen to your beautiful song “Morning.” Together with Amir Darzi you sounded like Simon & Garfunkel…

“Morning” was written about my HIV. I met Amir at The Voice Israel in 2012, and we became partners for singing for a few years. I loved his voice.

Four judges’ chairs on The Voice turned for you. They loved your voice. But, you just mentioned being HIV-positive, we cannot ignore this…

I went to The Voice because I did not want to be in a closet again, to hide. I said about HIV there. It was the first time that someone spoke about HIV on primetime TV.

Twelve years ago, I broke up with my boyfriend (after six years) and I started to meet other men. The second person I met infected me. I spent half a year in a hospital. The doctors tested everything to find why I was losing weight. 

At first, my HIV tests were negative, but after half a year, it came out positive. So, I went back to the guy and I told him, “You must be tested because we did not use protection.” And he looked me in the eyes and said that he knew he was HIV-positive for over a year but was not getting any treatment, he did not want to tell anyone.

I was shocked. He was educated, a person with values, a someone who would never do something like that... But, then I realized, I did not have to say yes when he asked me to take off the condom...

Is that why you decided to talk about it and to be involved in promoting awareness about HIV?

I started to educate kids, telling them they must have a rule, to be able to say no. I also did an intimate visual dance piece dealing with the appearance of body devastation by the virus, called “Cell in a human scale.”

What were the reactions to it?

At first, I felt that people were happy that I spoke about it. But, later on, I found out that my community, the gay community, is very dark about that.

Still taboo… Do you need to take medications until the end of your life?

Yes, but it’s just a pill. I don’t even think about it (my father is diabetic; taking care of diabetes is much harder). I test every six months. That’s it. I am in very good health now.

So let’s move on to the present. We are at your gallery in Jaffa’s Old City, where you give space to other artists to do performances in the window of the gallery. And you also show your visual art.

I called the place: Communal Space for Work in Progress, “With Love.” It was not even my dream to have this gallery. And there are people who don’t have space to work, so if I got the place, I thought, “Why not share this place?” I also have a big goal in Jaffa to open a street festival of theater. We are a very sunny country and I hardly see any outdoor performances.

I am trying to find ways to do it without money. Since I moved to Jaffa, I succeed to do art projects without funding. I am new to Jaffa. Half a year ago, I was invited here by the society of the Old City of Jaffa, among a few other artists, to move here and work here to refresh the local scene, to be the new blood.

 RED JAFFA (Ponds project), by Sahar Azimi, 2022. (credit: Sahar Azimi) RED JAFFA (Ponds project), by Sahar Azimi, 2022. (credit: Sahar Azimi)
When I first met you a few months ago (I must confess, I just walked in here not knowing who you were), I saw mesmerizing photos of reflections in the water hanging on the walls of the gallery. What’s the story behind them?

The water happened to me during the COVID-19. After the first wave, when I was subletting a place in Givatayim and I was really depressed, I found a boat in Jaffa port. I rented it for one month, but I stayed there a whole year. It changed my life.

Nature was always around me. The water reminded me so much of what does it means to let go. You must let the water do what it wants to do, to let it go. Even when there is a storm and the boat is moving, you can walk with your coffee, if you understand it.

During this time, I had no money, no bank account. I tried to work. I cleaned boats... but had no real work. I was waking up full of anxiety. But, my amazing neighbor was telling me, “Everything happens as it should, let it go.” Since then, I tell myself that sentence maybe three times a day. It’s like a prayer or a mantra.

Besides the boat, I had a kayak and every day I did at least 5 km. and every time I saw those reflections, suddenly I wanted to see what is there, so I took my camera (phone) and started to take pictures. I found this amazing fantasy world and I felt like I wanted to stay in this world. There was not a day since that day I would not shoot a water reflection.

The fantasy world in this very difficult time and in a relatively short time… So your life was on that boat, you were jobless… and now we are here in the heart of Old Jaffa at your gallery. What or who changed it?

I was a part of an artistic collective Protective Edge [named for the war in 2014], for three years at Chelouche Gallery in Tel Aviv. With this group, we decided to make an action during coronavirus – for four nights to sleep in different places connected to art: The Opera house, Cameri Theater, Beit Ariela (library) and the Israel Museum. We slept inside and screened everything live outside. We just were sleeping.

What was the goal of this performance?

It was a reminder that there are artists in “the corona,” and we are sleeping. We had all the tools, and people needed us, but we were not working. People could not just stay at home and cook all day long. And the producer who volunteered to produce it, became like my angel. Later, thanks to her, to my surprise... I was offered to move and work in Jaffa.

In 2022, you run the gallery and art projects in the heart of Old Jaffa, you help other artists to create the environment for work and you just had a very successful performance at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Artistically, you are in between many different fields. If you could say in one word, who are you?

I am an artist. I was always an artist. ❖