Discovery through dance

“Ethiopian dance is characterized by isolation of body part movements and an extraordinarily wide repertoire of movements for each body part."

Aviv Abeba Yossef (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aviv Abeba Yossef
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Abeba (Flower in Amaharic) Yossef was only one year old when her parents made aliya, and she has no childhood memory of Ethiopia.
After a short time in Nazareth, her parents separated, and she and her mother moved to Kiryat Gat, where Abeba, now named Aviva, was placed in the state-religious school system.
Little of that upbringing remains however, and neither does the name, shortened to Aviv during military service.
Yossef had no plans of making a career out of dance. She was studying for a degree in sociology, anthropology and eventually geography, when she was persuaded to perform her own interpretation of Ethiopian dance to mark the Sigd holiday (observed a month after Simhat Torah, it was recognized as a national Israeli holiday in 2008).
Shortly thereafter she began taking lyrical jazz classes provided by the student union. She later continued her training in contemporary dance and contact improvisation with Hakvutza BeYafo dance school in Jaffa and Ilanit Tadmor.
Yossef found the informality and improvisation of her chosen styles liberating and expressive, but it was not until she reconnected with her own background and introduced, or rather reintroduced, elements of Ethiopian dance into her choreography that she felt the real click.
“Ethiopian dance is characterized by isolation of body part movements and an extraordinarily wide repertoire of movements for each body part. It just felt right to me naturally. It’s not that I had any serious previous practice with Ethiopian dance. But when I started incorporating its movements into my rhythms, it just felt like this is what I should have been doing all along.”
Her family was less than pleased with her career choice.
“It’s not that they were opposed to dancing as such, it’s just that they didn’t understand how I would make a stable living. They would have been happy if I had become an Education Ministry employee, but I wanted something else.”
Yossef tried to expand her technical knowledge of Ethiopian dance at the Beheltzin (“our culture”) Center for the Legacy of Ethiopian Jews but found the experience less rewarding than she hoped for – and not just due to the center’s paucity of resources.
She says that Ethiopian Jewish secular culture was more integrated with their Amharic environment, so when they arrived in Israel, only fragments of their culture came over. “The result is that the techniques known here [Israel] are rudimentary and unprofessional – and there is a certain reluctance to admit this and learn more.”
Eventually, Yossef decided to go back to the source. Like a growing number of Ethiopians of her generation, she made a roots trip back to Ethiopia. She, however, had a very specific aim – study traditional Ethiopian dance.
“Ethiopia has an institute with no equivalent in Israel – the Ethiopian National Theater. It was built by the government [author’s note: the building was constructed by the Italian colonialists, then renovated and institutionalized by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1955] and was originally fully funded by it, even in Ethiopia’s darkest period under the Derg [Marxist rulers]. Ethiopia’s best artists perform under its auspices.
“It makes a conscious attempt to preserve and promote the traditional cultural forms of each of the nations and tribes which make up Ethiopia, not just the dominant Amharic-speaking people. But not statically – new forms and modalities of expression, some wholly native, some influenced and hybridized with Western dance forms, particularly contemporary modern dance, keep on arising.”
The normally demure Yossef speaks with rising passion when she discusses her art, and especially the difficulties of artists in general, and nonmainstream artists in particular, face in Israel.
“There is little government support for art in Israel. So what is left is a jungle where each artist is forced to compete for audiences and professional survival.
To do so, even innovative groups with a unique message are forced to tailor it to what the market wants. This is essentially what happened with the Inbal dance theater and world arts center. It had to deemphasize its original ethnic focus in order to attract more customers.”
And how does Ethiopian art fare in this dog-eat-dog world? “Israel is an incredibly rich mosaic of cultures from all over the world, from which Israeli art can, and often does, draw its inspiration. But in the Israeli melting pot, much of that richness is being lost every day as the older generation passes away without transmitting their knowledge into modern modalities of expression.”
Yossef does not generally blame conscious institutional ethnocentricity for the manner in which little government support for the Ethiopian arts is distributed.
“There are 150,000 Ethiopians in Israel and our voice, until now, has barely been heard in national culture. Partially, we ourselves are to blame for not speaking out louder. But all Israelis are the losers from this silence.”
Yossef sees positive developments as well.
“Many young Ethiopians are now trying to reconnect with their heritage and learn how to dance, especially before their weddings. I also teach a dance class for Ethiopian women in Ramle, and attendance is growing.”
Yossef, in addition to her better known “Ahavato” clip with Rephael Emanuel Ran, has a regular job as a dancing instructor in the Zeitlin High School in Tel Aviv, and gives Ethiopian dance classes around the country. She continues to evolve professionally, incorporating elements of West African dance into her techniques and studying the artistic accomplishments of the global Ethiopian diaspora for inspiration.
But in spite of the vast strides she has made in advancing Ethiopian dance in Israel over the past decade, she remains unsatisfied.
“I love my high school students, but what I really want is to help train the next generation of professional dance artists. That, and to lead my own dance company. Until I do, I guess I will always feel ambiguous about being interviewed. I just don’t feel I have accomplished enough yet to be proud about.”
She has, however, no intention of sitting on her hands and hoping additional accomplishments will come to her of their own accord. Instead, she constantly seeks to develop professionally and enrich her repertoire with new techniques and modalities of expression.
At the time of writing Yossef was in New York, participating in a Martin Luther King Day special weekend workshop for contemporary African dance, hosted by Joya Powell. It was attended by many renowned choreographers, with Nia Love as a guest mentor. The workshop brought together many artists and styles of the far-flung African diaspora, with which Israel is relatively unfamiliar.
Perhaps, one day, Yossef will have a part in changing that.