Dancing with Norway

Though the country does not appear to have a good reputation here, its ambassador hopes to change that perception.

Norwegian-Israeli dance co-production 521 (photo credit: Yaniv Cohen)
Norwegian-Israeli dance co-production 521
(photo credit: Yaniv Cohen)
Norwegian Ambassador Svein Sevje says his country is keen to invest in cultural relations with Israel. “For the last few years, we have tried to start the second round of a two-year contract for a cultural attaché. It is a sort of trial arrangement, in the sense that it’s hard to get new posts these days for embassies – but Israel has been given priority.”
This, hopes Sevje, will help to foster ever friendlier ties between us and the Scandinavians.
“We are trying to improve different aspects of our contacts, culturally. It can go both ways. We can bring people to Norway and have Norwegians come here.”
Naturally, cultural ties can help in other areas too. “We also want to work with the media to ‘improve our standing’ with the Israeli public, which we think – of course unjustly – has been considered to be very anti-Israeli in many ways.”
The ambassador and recently arrived cultural attaché Henrik Width are clearly trying to get things moving in the desired direction, and this week’s Norwegian-Israeli dance co-production, at the Warehouse 2 venue in Jaffa, should help to engender some requisite positive energies. The program, taking place on October 24 and 25 (both start 9 p.m.), includes “Red One,” by a Swedish-born Norwegian resident, choreographer Christopher Arouni. The work explores the concept of what Arouni calls “the obvious center of attention,” who attracts the attention of the casual observer – the individual or the group – and looks at the action from the observer’s point of view.
The artistic agenda also features the work “Heaven or Tel Aviv,” by Israeli choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf, which examines facets of cultural differences and the disparate perceptions of reality between Israel and Norway. The presence explores what it means to live in one’s own country, and how people behave and speak.
Berg and Graf have been working together since 2005, and have become known for work that is exactingly physical, sometimes provocative, and by turns poignant and witty. They have performed with such acclaimed troupes as the Batsheva Dance Company and the London-based DV8 Physical Theater, and season their captivating physicality with in-depth explorations of theater, text and voice.
Sevje says he is looking forward to the Warehouse 2 event and hopes it, and other similar productions, will help guide the spotlight to more positive confluences between the two countries. “We think there are aspects that need to be clearer, in the sense that we have our political discussions.
Norway, from day minus one, has been in support of Israel; then came ‘67 [the Six Day War], then came the occupation, then came our interpretation of human rights and international law, and so on. That has created these problems [between Norway and Israel]. We think there is a basis of common ground to improve our bilateral relationship.”
With that very much in mind, Sevje is happy to cite the dance synergy as an example of ways to get Norway and Israel fully back on track, and on the same page.
The 65-year-old ambassador certainly has the credentials for his current post. Sevje is a trained historian and graduated in 1977 from the Academic Society for Norwegian Industry, University of Oslo. He was stationed here during the second phase of the Oslo Accords negotiations, and in 1995 was the first diplomatic representative of Norway to the Palestinian Authority.
“That was when we opened our first office in Gaza.
It was an exciting time, and there was a certain amount of optimism. But I think it was [senior Palestinian official and Oslo Accords negotiator] Nabil Shaath who said: ‘Let’s be optimistic, let’s not be euphoric.’ It was a difficult time, after the massacre in Hebron, and then you had the terror attacks.”
He was also Norway’s man in Syria and Lebanon between 2006 and 2008, including during the fraught time when the embassy in Damascus was set on fire by protesters – in the wake of the Muhammad cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Sevje not only brought his accrued professional experience with him to his Middle Eastern positions, he also took the trouble to study Arabic. He also has a smattering of Hebrew.
So, with his wealth of experience in this part of the world, does Sevje feel he has a handle on the Middle Eastern scene? “To some extent, I will be always be a stranger to many people from the region,” he states. “I think I probably understand more [about the Middle East] than most, but I think there is still a long way to go to get inside things here.”
Part of the latter entails getting into the cultural life of the society in which you work and reside. The ambassador has learned more about that side of things here than anywhere he has been in the region. Mind you, he is not exactly a first-timer in Israel. “I spent some time on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek over 40 years ago,” he recalls, adding that he didn’t feel too out of place when he came here. “The cultural heritage in Israel is so much like things I was used to, in many ways – the European kind of music. You know, the music you send to the Eurovision Song Contest is very much like the pop we have in Norway. Some of the musicians may have some flavor of a Jewish-Arab background, but it sounds very European and well-known to us.”
That wasn’t the case during his tenure in Syria. “In Damascus, it was more complicated and difficult to get into it [the local culture]. When they started playing the oud, it sounded very sad.”
Then again, it is common knowledge that music is a universal language, and many believe it has the power to bridge political and other divides. “That’s true,” the ambassador concurs. “That is very important. We should probably look into it more. We do financially support All for Peace [Palestinian-Israeli radio station].
Not politically, of course.”
Sevje says his country will continue to promote Norwegian culture here, as well bilateral collaborations such as the Warehouse 2 event, which is taking place under the auspices of the Israeli Choreographers Association. The venue will also host a photography exhibition of works by Yaniv Cohen, called “Second Best,” with shots taken during work on “Red One” and “Heaven or Tel Aviv,” including pictures taken in Norway over the last six years.
For tickets and more information about the dance co-production: (03) 902-1563.