A tale of two festivals

The Israel Festival usually happens around June, but it was moved to September within the restrictions imposed by the Health Ministry.

‘Practicing Empathy’ by Yasmeen Gooder’s company (photo credit: TAMAR LAMM)
‘Practicing Empathy’ by Yasmeen Gooder’s company
(photo credit: TAMAR LAMM)
The annual Israel Festival is a highlight of Israel’s cultural year, presenting its usual cocktail of cultural events: music, theater, dance and performance. This year was meant to be no different, but of course the coronavirus prevented it from taking place at its usual time.
Eyal Sher, the organizer of the festival, noted that many festivals around the world were canceled completely, while others were curtailed drastically. However the Israeli penchant for improvisation came to the forefront. Sher, along with Itzhik Guili and others (mainly the organizers of the Jazz Festival) put together a double-header of two festivals telescoped into a new time slot.
The Israel Festival usually happens around June and the International Jazz Festival comes in December. This year they were morphed into one package, brought together in September within the restrictions imposed upon them by the Health Ministry.
The international aspect of both festivals were scotched. As Sher told The Jerusalem Report: “We had lined up groups from Spain, Italy and France – exactly the countries that we most affected by the coronavirus! At the last minute we had to cancel them. We decided we would go with local talent whom we had already invited to participate.”
Nevertheless, Sher observed: “We simply didn’t know what was going on. Things were changing from week to week.”
The size of the audience at live performances was one such restriction. “At one point, we were limited to audiences of 20 people. Luckily that changed and at the Rebecca Crown auditorium, for example, (that holds some 450 people) and where the new work of the Virago dance group was presented, there were a lot more than 20 people, but not so many that the rules about social distancing were not adhered to.
However, the Yasmeen Godder Company, appearing in a new multi-purpose location in the Talpiot industrial area, were restricted to a far smaller audience, since the new space could hold less than a hundred people.
‘Shape on Us’ by the Vertigo Dance Company (Credit: Yoel Levi)‘Shape on Us’ by the Vertigo Dance Company (Credit: Yoel Levi)

The Godder Company highlighted another important aspect of the Israel Festival, namely that it is a showcase of the new and experimental. Thus the group of six performed “Practicing Empathy” on a bare stage with no scenery, and initially at least, in silence. Barefoot, they appeared to be performing some ancient ritual in which the sounds they emitted were not of words or of singing, but rather of animal noises that were enough to help the stylized action go forward. There was no leader but they worked as a collective supporting each other or comforting each other as the need arose. There was a strong sense of inter-dependency and well illustrated the theme of the evening which was empathy particularly through actions, and in particular helping the physically challenged.
As with the company, other performances were televised so that the number of viewers were much greater than the live audience in the auditoriums. Yet, as Sher noted: “It’s not the same experience. There’s no sense of participation. If you do something on Internet you have to do something which is fitting to that medium. We’ve tried to do the filming in an enriched form, by interviewing the creators of the works, for example, and explaining more about the content of what people see.” Another experimental evening was given over to contemporary music. In this case it was in appreciation of one of the pioneers of electronic music, the American, Eric Siday, who was, according to Dr. Stephen Horenstein – who helped organize the evening – “the richest composer/musician of the modern period.” This is because he introduced electronics into American television and the world of advertising in the 1950s and 1960s. He was also the inventor of the “sound logo.” On this basis two contemporary Israeli orchestras, “The Castle in Time Orchestra” under the direction of Matan Daskal and “The Lab Orchestra” led by Horenstein, created two distinct works fusing acoustic and electronic music, movement and video. In the Henry Crown Auditorium, the strains of this very unusual music were accompanied by videos projected on the large backdrop of the stage calling up the advertisements and the events of the 1950s and 1960s in America. The overall effect was somewhat bizarre but was powerful enough to hold the attention of the audience.
More audience grabbing performances came from the Pathos Athos Company, who evoked one of the seminal events in the history of Israel – the Eichmann trial – using multidisciplinary methods to recall this major historical happening. “ The Eichmann Project – Terminal 1” was inspired by a radio show, “When Eichmann Entered Our Home,” which first aired in 2002 and presented accounts of people whose life changed after the trail. The well-known local media man, Dori Ben-Zeev, led the audience through archive, media, and academic materials, as well as personal testimonies, on a journey that incorporated sound, movement, light, and projections. The audience was invited to be witness to the various narratives that were generated by the trial. Simultaneously they were also asked to contemplate the meaning of themes that emerged from the trial, most notably Hannah Arendt’s pungent criticism, “the banality of evil” in her phrase, by which in certain eras systems of ‘normal’ behavior collapse. The anomie which results from this upheaval creates the dangers of obedience without criticism or thought. The trial and the personal stories in the play were intended to bring to the fore the profound questions concerning the conditions that facilitate a certain social and cultural reality and how they can be resisted. Perhaps this was too much to ask from a theatrical work which tended to obscure rather than enlighten these goals. That is surely the danger of trying to make a comparison between one social and historical situation and another. Comparing Eichmann’s trial with the COVID-19 pandemic was a bridge too far.
Alongside the Israel Festival was the Jazz Festival, usually highlighting some very notable international musicians. This year, of course, this was impossible. Not that Israel lacks some extremely competent jazz musicians. In fact, in recent years jazz has become extremely popular among practitioners and audiences alike in Israel. Many of them were on display here. They at least had a bigger venue, located in the Sculpture Garden of the Israel Museum – one of the sponsors of the festival – with audiences of up to 500 or even 1,000 people. The groups played a variety of jazz styles, both American and original Israeli pieces.
Though the festivals were funded mainly by the Culture and Sports Ministry with agreement of the Finance Ministry, Sher felt that the government didn’t do enough to encourage what is a showcase of artistic talents, especially this year when of necessity these talents were home-grown. “We think that culture is very important for the society,” he summarizes. “It gives tools for people to view themselves from a different perspective. These performances give them hope. We’re giving them hope to their souls, their spirit, to humankind.”