Feisty Festival

In its 52nd year, the Israel Festival has made its mark as one of the top international arts feasts

Israel Festival521 (photo credit: JESUS VALLINAS)
Israel Festival521
(photo credit: JESUS VALLINAS)
Ask Yossi Tal-Gan, director of the Israel festival, what makes it unique among other international Festivals and he answers without missing a beat, using just one word – “Jerusalem.”
And this year, the festival is leaving no Jerusalem stone unturned in making the most of the nine out of 10 measures of beauty which, according to the Talmud, were allotted to the city. The festival, which will run May 23 - June 22, is breaking out of the confines of concert halls and traditional theater venues to set its stage in the city’s exotic and historic locations, even in a former leper hospital.
“Whenever I go abroad to international festival meetings I’m always an attraction because of Jerusalem,” Tal-Gan tells The Jerusalem Report. “Everyone knows the city from a historical or religious point of view, which makes it attractive and mysterious.
There is a sense of holiness that gives a special flavor to visitors as well as the artists who come here to perform.”
In its 52nd year, the multidisciplinary festival of music, dance and theater will stage 45 different productions from Brazil, Japan, Belgium, Great Britain, Spain, Switzerland, as well as the best of Israel’s own talent. Festival organizers expect to sell between 40,000 to 50,000 tickets with many programs scheduled for the weekend to encourage visitors to spend a few days at the festival. The Edinburgh International Festival, by comparison, possibly most prestigious in the world, will have 70 events and sell approximately 150,000.
The Israel Festival will open and close with two Israeli performances that, like bookends, frame 40 years – two generations – of Israeli music. Shlomi Shaban, one of Israel’s most interesting contemporary musicians, trained as a classical pianist before turning to rock and popular music, will open the festival.
Closing will be Kaveret, one of the country’s most popular rock bands that was disbanded in 1976 and whose members are all over 60.
“It took me three years to convince them to reunite,” says Tal-Gan. “They finally agreed to do it under the umbrella of the Israel Festival.”
Tickets for Kaveret’s three performances sold out in less than an hour. The concerts will take place at the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater, originally a Herodian-period reservoir that gets its name from Suleiman the Magnificent, who restored the site in the 16th century. The backdrop for the concert will be the floodlit walls of the Old City.
The Israel Festival, which began in 1961 as a modest classical music festival, has attained a respectable spot in the hierarchy of top international festivals, says Massimo Mercelli, vice president of the European Festival Association, of which the Israel festival has been a member since 1966.
“The Israel Festival is in the top ranking of prestige,” Mercelli tells The Report. “It is very highly respected and well known and keeps on thriving despite the problems and the political conflict.”
Mercelli, who is a flautist, appeared at the Israel Festival several years ago with a chamber music group. “Performing in Jerusalem was a mystical experience for me,” he recalls.
This year’s unique venues, steeped with strata of history, should be even more conducive to inspiration.
The Tower of David Museum, a medieval citadel near the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, will host amid its ancient ramparts a Spanish flamenco performance/runway exhibition, “Dressed to Dance,” which features 60 costumes, including historic designs by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.
Choreographed by Carlos Chamorro and directed by Margaret Jova, the performance, on May 30 and June 1, comes directly from New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
“If you see flamenco in the Tower of David with special lighting effects, you get a totally different experience than if you were to see it in a theater,” says Tal Gan.
Jerusalem’s Ottoman-era First Train Station, which opened in 1892 and was the final stop on the Jaffa to Jerusalem line, will be the setting for the opening concert by Shlomi Shaban on May 23 as well as other events. The station has been just recently renovated as an entertainment and cultural center.
But the most intriguing new venue is Hansen’s Hospital, known as the “Lepers” Home, built in 1887 by Jerusalem’s Protestant community. An architectural gem with one of the city’s oldest gardens, Hanson Hospital is just across the street from the Jerusalem Theater, the festival’s headquarters. Tal-Gan, who has been associated with the festival for 21 years, has walked by it many times over the years curious to know what lay hidden behind the meter-thick walls.
“It was always enclosed and mysterious,” he says. The mystery will resolve for those who will attend the 16 dance performances in the courtyard of the former hospital by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, who have created a new rendition of their creation, “House,” with their new dance company, L-E-V.
The grounds and building of the Hansen Hospital will be transformed into a stage and performance installation.
Sharon Eyal danced with the Batsheva Dance Company from 1990 until 2008. She began choreographing within the framework of the company’s Batsheva Dancers Create project and just recently formed her own company. The performance will take place on the patio with the audience standing on the surrounding balconies and seated on stage.
Eyal was born in Jerusalem and was aware, and even frightened, of the hospital as a child.
It frightens her still. “We were told not to get near by the hospital,” she tells The Report.
“I didn’t quite understand the meaning of it, but it was still forbidden. It was weird because I used to perform in the Jerusalem Theater, which is nearby, so I often passed near the hospital. Imagination is a wild thing, a combination of spaces and moments that activate our brain. I got this certain feeling about this place and even these days when we first came, it took me 30 minutes to go in.”
Performing in the Hanson Hospital, a place that for many years was closed off from the world by stigma excites Eyal and inspires her.
“It’s a live performance in a lost place. The building is amazing and to think about all the things that happen there, make us wonder and fulfill us. It’s very unique. The work is ‘built in’ to this place and the feeling of the place brings something else to the work. I can’t call it dialogue but, more, an inspiration and influence. You are stepping into this place and you can still feel what was there, especially as dancers. We are doing things from and with our body, kind of reviving it.”
The Israel Festival maintains its position as Israel’s most prestigious arts festival despite the proliferation of new ones that have popped up over the past few decades in almost every city, most catering to a specific niche. Safed has a Klezmer festival, Karmiel, a folk dance festival, Eilat, the Red Sea Jazz Festival and Acre, a fringe theater festival, to name a few.
This year’s lineup in Jerusalem forms a respectable offering by any measure, but lacks the superstars that previously graced Jerusalem’s stage, names that read like the A-list roster of the performing arts world: Dizzy Gillespie, The Kirov Ballet, Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Ricardo Muti, Joe Cocker, Bobby McFerrin, Carlos Jobim, Peter Brook, Jessye Norman, Joan Baez, Theodorakis, Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Pinchas Zukerman and many more.
Has the quality of the festival gone down over the years? “Our aim is not to bring only the very famous,” says Tal-Gan. “The famous come on a commercial basis. You don’t see Barbara Streisand or Madonna perform in festivals. It’s the new, upcoming artists that it is important to expose to the public.
Many years ago the Jewish stars came, sometimes even for free, because of their special emotional connection to the Jewish state when it was a young country fighting for survival. This doesn’t exist anymore because now Israel is not a poor country and the public pays for the tickets.
“The quality of the festival has remained high and our prestige in the world and among Israeli artists is also very high,” Tal-Gan says. “No one else could convince Kaveret to reunite for one last time.”
Despite the political pressure by vocal pro-Palestinian groups to boycott Israel, Tal-Gan says that with very few exceptions, international artists have all shown up. And despite the country’s wars and turbulent history, the Israel Festival has never been canceled.
“To be very honest, I don’t feel the effects of the boycott in most of my work,” he says.
“It’s very rare that we hear someone will decline to come because of the Palestinian issue. We get many requests to come to the festival from all over the world.”
Renowned British director Peter Brook brought his political play about South African apartheid “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead”, to the Festival in 2006. “Peter Brook is a famous leftist. When he got to Jerusalem, he loved being here even though they tried to convince him not to come,” says Tal-Gan.
But it is unlikely that Tal-Gan would succeed in bringing Brook to Jerusalem today. Last year Brook canceled at the last minute a booking with Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater because he is “against the act of colonization.”
What is Tal-Gan’s dream for the festival? “My dream is that there will be millions of people coming from all over the world,” he says. “But we don’t have enough hotel rooms, and they are expensive as are the flights.” He notes that Europeans can usually drive to nearby festivals, which significantly cuts down the costs.
“If we had peace, then people from Amman and Beirut could drive here,” he muses.
But that’s another dream. 