Going home

Ethiopian-born Israeli dancer Tzvika Iskias balances the two sides of himself through his work at the Beta Dance Troupe.

Beta Dance Troupe (photo credit: Courtesy Eyal Hirsh)
Beta Dance Troupe
(photo credit: Courtesy Eyal Hirsh)
It took Tzvika Iskias years to find himself at the helm of Beta Dance Troupe. Beta means “home” in Amharic. In fact, the notion of home is one that has baffled the emerging choreographer for most of his life. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Israel, Iskias has battled with cultural clashes both in himself and in the world surrounding him for as long as he can remember.
“It may sound strange to say this,” says Iskias over coffee in central Tel Aviv, “but I’m more Ethiopian now than I have ever been before.” He is something of a public figure in Israeli society, having danced with the Batsheva Ensemble and participated in the once-popular “Born To Dance” televised dance competition. With his dreadlocks and sparkling eyes, Iskias is at once striking and disarming.
As he describes, his life has been full of highs and lows.
“I’ve gone through so much, from dormitories to being in and out of touch with my family to these amazing highs dancing. With me, there is no middle, it’s either up or down,” he says.
The last several months undoubtedly fall into the “high” category.
In only a few short days, Iskias will premiere One, a new choreography for Beta Dance Troupe, where he is currently director, at the Hullegeb Festival of Ethiopian Creation in Jerusalem.
Iskias created the piece together with his choreographic collaborator, Shiri Capuano Quantz.
Though almost everyone thinks that they are a couple, there is nothing romantic about the relationship between Quantz and Iskias. Their partnership, which began by chance, has allowed Iskias to combine the two sides of himself, the Israeli and the Ethiopian.
This blend is the breath of fresh air that Iskias brought with him when he hit Beta Dance Troupe like a ton of bricks two years ago.
Beta Dance Troupe was founded by Dr. Ruth Eshel as an evolution of the Eskesta Dance Theater in 2005. Based in Haifa, the ensemble is devoted to presenting Jewish Ethiopian dance, focusing mainly on eskesta or shoulder dancing. For Iskias, who spent his highschool years at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance studying classical ballet and modern dance, this traditional style of movement seemed worlds away from his reality. However, as he is happy to point out, the ability to dance eskesta was a birthright.
“Every Ethiopian dances,” he smiles.
“It’s automatic. It’s the expression of the joy of living. We have so many different types of dances and they are all based on rhythms. There are the appropriate ways of dancing depending on the beat and the occasion. And it isn’t something that we learn but something that we just know how to do, a part of us.”
This ability was undoubtedly part of the allure that brought Iskias to the forefront of the international dance world. His natural fusion of technical dance with his keen ear for music made Iskias a shoo-in at Batsheva and later at the Alvin Ailey School in New York City. Upon returning to Israel from his studies abroad, Iskias searched for a new outlet for his love of movement.
“When I heard about Beta I thought, ‘How can I be Ethiopian and I haven’t touched on our traditional dance?’ At the time, that type of dancing embarrassed me,” he says.
“It is very limited after all. On my first visit to the studio, I saw that the dancers weren’t professionals and it was kind of magical to see. Ruth and I talked a lot about taking the company out of the pure Ethiopian dance realm and moving it into something more contemporary. After all, Israel is such a melting pot.”
Having put aside his reservations, he dived headlong into work at Beta. From the troupe he received a platform to create, an invaluable asset to a young choreographer. Earlier this year, he premiered Moments, a group piece for Beta. The cast was a combination of Israeli and Ethiopian dancers, a fact that has given Beta something of a face-lift.
“A lot of the old cast left because of their studies,” explains Iskias. “Beta, now, is an Ethiopian company that isn’t filled with Ethiopian dancers. I think we will open the eyes of the audience with this new piece.
Maybe it will help the audience be more open to what we are doing.”
One is the expansion of the movement language of the duet Tarab, which Quantz and Iskias presented as part of the Other Dance Festival at the Suzanne Dellal Center.
“The duet is about the relationship between a man and a woman. It’s about how we can accept one another through anything.
She steps all over me and I still get up and accept her,” he says.
In the weeks following their late summer premier, Yair Vardi, the artistic director of Suzanne Dellal, approached Iskias about a new project. A meeting of three young male choreographers, the new production is a huge boost for Iskias’s budding career.
“I have 20 minutes to create on a group of eight dancers and I will also dance a solo that I am creating to a song by Tupac Shakur,” he says. Like One, the new piece will be a further exploration of the world created in Tarab.
“We don’t know where it will go yet only that the music will be played live by the unbelievably talented Amit Chai Cohen.”
Though the Hullegeb Festival has been a staple in Beta’s calendar since the festival’s inception three years ago, Iskias does not take for granted the importance of such an event to Israeli society. “The Ethiopian community isn’t a closed one but it is a quiet one.
We’ve been in Israel for over 30 years and we still aren’t seen in Israeli culture and society.
Because of the nature of the Ethiopian community, it takes time for us to give what we have and I don’t think that Israeli society is completely open to receive. We need to have more chutzpah,” he laughs.
“There are a lot of people who strive for integration through art. I’m not trying to represent anything. I am just trying to do what I love and create. But I don’t forget for a second that when people see me, they see an entire ethnicity behind me.”The Hullegeb Festival will take place from December 20 to 27. One will be presented at the Leo Model Auditorium in the Gerard Behar Center on December 23 at 8:30 PM. For more information, visit www.beta-eskesta.com. For tickets, visit www.bimot.co.il. ■