Israel Festival 2018

This year's performances highlight Israeli artists.

The cast of ‘Soul Doctor’ on stage (photo credit: SIMON HALLSTORM)
The cast of ‘Soul Doctor’ on stage
(photo credit: SIMON HALLSTORM)
COME SPRING, and the Israel Festival is upon us, burgeoning with a potpourri of new offerings in music, dance, theater and art. This year – the 57th – is no exception. Except, perhaps, that the emphasis, in this 70th year of the State, is on Israeli artists.
“We wanted to show the very best of the new Israeli artists and performers,” Yitzhak Guili, the artistic director of the festival tells The Jerusalem Report. “And there is a lot to choose from. We have for example three world premieres of dance – the Inbal Dance Theater, whose founder, Sarah Levi-Tanai, pioneered a fusion of the folk tradition of Yemenite dance with a modernist flavor. Here, the group presents, “While the Fireflies Disappear,” which similarly balances a vanishing dance tradition with an exploration of new possibilities emerging from those same traditions. Then a male duo, Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor, present a new adaptation of “The Third Dance” created by another Israeli couple, Liat Dror and Nir Ben-Gal. Perhaps the most innovative of these premiers will be supplied by the Batsheva Dance Company – probably the most highly regarded Israeli terpsichorian group – who team up with the avant-garde Portuguese choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas in a piece called “Canine Juanatre 3,” which promises to be a unique fusion of Lego figurines and scenes from a rowdy circus. The general idea is that young choreographers are placing themselves at the feet of great choreographers from the recent past and creating something new. A fascinating combination of technology and humanity is to be found in Amit Drori’s “Monkeys.” Five years in the preparation, all the puppets have been constructed by hand. The piece pitches three people and nine monkey robots in a dance that challenges conventional reality, as the “monkeys” demonstrate human characteristics.
It stimulates people to think about the relationship between mankind and its creations.
Turning to theater, Guili, who is now in his fourth year as artistic director of the festival, cites ways in which the present is informed not only by the sci-fi future, but also by the past. “The group of Sala-manca, Kaplan and Carmel are staging an updated version of the Jewish classic “The Dybbuk,” originally a Yiddish play by S. Ansky and made into a memorable film in 1937 by Michal Waszynski. The group uses the original Polish film as a backdrop, while the original soundtrack is replaced by a live orchestra and real-time actors speaking their lines dubbed over the now silent film. The object of the play is to see how we remember the past. How do we find motifs there that relate to our contemporary life? It is not concerned with preservation, but rather with an active and critical interpretation of the present.”
Since the original is set in an East European shtetl, it will be fascinating to see how Israelis will ‘adapt’ this tragic play to relate it to the contemporary world. Guili is giving away no spoilers. All he will say, with an enigmatic smile, is that the “ending will be a surprise.”
The opening of an exhibition called “Hamsa, Hamsa, Hamsa” at the Museum for Islamic Art also looks at superstitions, folklore and amulets – but this time in the Sefardi world. Graduates of the local School of Visual Theater will present five performances relating to the exhibition, ending with a performance of music from Bucharest featuring the Aleav family and Liraz Charchi.
STILL IN the world of theater, Yonatan Levy is presenting his version of the famous classic, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince.” Directed at children, as well as the child within us all, Levy’s adaptation adds live music, composed by Yehuda Zisapel, as well as sand images created in real time on the stage by artist Ilana Yahav.
Foreign theater will also be represented.
“King Size” from Switzerland’s Christoph Marthaler brings a parody of the bourgeois lifestyle of the four characters in the play, in which a “king size” life crashes against the rocks of reality, here signified by eclectic musical styles – folk, classical and pop. As with many outside productions, King Size comes with a reputation. Marthaler, who has been producing plays for over 30 years, is considered the enfant terrible of Swiss theater. Nevertheless, this production received the prestigious Ibsen Award for this year; it’s the Nobel prize for theater. This play looks at four characters inside a hotel room, who are not aware of each other. So it’s a play about being simultaneously present and not present.”
There are also events that involve the audience. These include “Nohlab,” a Turkish- Israeli production in which members of the audience are invited to go on stage and be engulfed by giant digital projections, accompanied by the pianist Udi Bonen playing works of Prokofiev, Ligeti, Cage, etc.
Another participatory project is called “By Heart,” in which ten people from the audience are asked to memorize a poem they have never seen before, and which the director Tiago Rodrigues then weaves into an amazing whole.
An interesting juxtaposition of Israeli and ‘foreign’ cultures is the performance by Israeli singer Shlomi Saranga, who brings to life the work of one of the greatest modern Greek singers, Stelios Kazantzidis, who anointed him as his successor. Kazantzidis’s songs were big hits in Greece’s nightclub scene, particularly those of his great loves.
A controversial production is “Soul Doctor” coming straight from Broadway, which tells of the surprising relationship between Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and jazz singer Nina Simone. The Israeli version will star Josh Young and Ester Rada.
Most of the productions take place in and around the Jerusalem Theater, though certain sessions will be at other sites around the city, including Bach Recitals at the Eden Tamir Music Center in Ein Kerem, a hip-hop performance by various artists in the Talpiot Industrial Zone, and, of course, the opening event, which takes place in the Sultan’s Pool and which, this year, features three of the country’s young musical divas – Miri Masika, Dikla and Nasreen Qadri.
Apart from staged performances there will be a number of outside events to which the public are invited, some of them for free. “The festival is heavily subsidized,” Guili points out, “and we have kept ticket prices to the minimum, the highest price is 180 shekels, about half of what some of the performances would normally cost. This is to encourage as much as possible all Jerusalemites to attend these world-class events at popular prices. The fact that many of the audience come from the coast only underlines the festival’s importance as a national event that draws people from outside Jerusalem, something which cannot be taken for granted.”
Although there have been some artists who have refused to come to Israel, under the influence of BDS, for example, these have been few in number. “Sometimes,” notes Guili, “we try to solve the specific problem, talking to the artist and finding that they are amenable to changing their mind. Sometimes this doesn’t work. But it hasn’t set the festival back in any way.”
In some ways Guili can vouch for this in his own life. Born in Lod to a North African family, he attended a high school for the arts in Tel Aviv before commencing a career that encompasses writing, acting, directing and visual arts.
He believes that the arts should be open to all, but stresses that they should not be “just entertainment, offering a feel-good sense to the audience.” He believes in “raising the bar.”
“I seek a dialogue with the audience, an encounter,” he says. “I think the avant-garde artists are brave. They respect the audience, but they want a true dialogue. They are asking the audience to open themselves up to new experiences. It’s the reason that we stress new works. There seems no point in just repeating the same old thing. The works we present are all well-crafted, and they appeal to common folk just as they appeal to the more sophisticated ones. They are works that make people think and reflect, so that even a year later they will say, ‘Ah, that’s what it was about.’ That’s an important process.
“We do try to see what’s going on around us culturally and find out what we can bring to the debate.”
Is he not apprehensive that the festival is too involved in our own Israeli image, and not universal enough? “Not at all. As it so happens, Israeli culture is increasingly popular around the world. Its artists are proving themselves at the highest level in literature, music, art, theater,” he replies. “I know of artists who are traveling the world presenting their work. People worldwide are interested in our culture and spirituality. If only our government would understand this.”
The Israel Festival runs from May 24- June 9. More details can be found on its website,