Dancing between heaven and earth

Religious men and women will be the focus of a dance festival, delving into the intersection of spirituality and choreography.

Between Heaven and Earth 521 (photo credit: Tami Weiss)
Between Heaven and Earth 521
(photo credit: Tami Weiss)
Who would have believed just a few years ago that a bunch of observant male Jews would get into contemporary dance big time? The proof of that surprising turn of choreographed events will be evident at Tuesday’s Bein Shamayim La’aretz (Between Heaven and Earth) Festival, which will take place at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv. This is the fourth year in succession that the festival has taken place and, according to its artistic director Ronen Yitzhaki, the idea for the festival fed off ready-made fertile land.
For the past few years, Yitzhaki has been working with religious male dancers at the Kol Atzmotai Tomarna educational and research-oriented facility based in the Ephron Dance Center in Jerusalem, and the nucleus of the festival’s performers come from there.
However, the germ of the idea for the one-dayer was set in place even longer ago.
“The idea came to me about 15 years ago, when I was working in Acre at the Acre Theater Center,” he recalls, “and a group of men from Ma’alot Yeshiva came to us, with the rabbi’s blessing, to look for a different means of expression – a non-verbal form, as they put it.”
So a bunch of yeshiva students went to him to learn how to express their inner feelings through dance? To the ears of religious immigrants, that could very well sound like a fanciful, if not a preposterous, concept.
“That’s the point,” continues Yitzhaki.
“That wouldn’t happen, say, in England. It could only happen in Israel. The connection between the religious Israeli and this country is really a bodily, physical connection. For him, the Land of Israel is a sort of corporeal entity, and you find the clearest expression of that concept in the teachings of Rabbi Kook. He was the avant-garde in this area.”
In fact, there will be dancers of both genders on stage at the Tmuna Theater on Tuesday. The program kicks off with an all-male performance of Nenia, which was choreographed by Elad Schechter and features four dancers – Asher Lev, Eyal Ogen, Hanania Schwartz and Ron Oren. The work is based on a stirring text that references “an odyssey of physical searching for a state of consciousness, the magic spawned by revelation, the passion inherent in exposure, the joy offered by devotion.”
There is also a female-only slot, with a solo rendition of Eshet Hayil (Woman of Valor) by Iris Neiss-Hadar.The show delves into the hidden world of women as Neiss-Hadar performs an emotive dance while preparing Shabbat dinner for her family. The three-show lineup is completed by Toda’at Hahet (Awareness of the Sin), which is choreographed by Maya Levy, who also performs the work along with Aaron Manor.
The religious dance activities in Acre ran for a while before Yitzhaki took them to a venue at Tel Aviv University, but he says things began to get serious about six years ago.
“Until then, it was a sort of weekly cultural activity, where religious men sort of let off creative steam. Then we started to work in earnest when I moved to Jerusalem, and we started working at the Ephron Dance Center.”
Yitzhaki adds that he was keen for the word to get out.
“The circle of people touched by what we were doing began to expand. That is a very important element. I want to set something positive in motion, both for the religious community – to let them know that they can use their body to communicate and express things – and for secular Jews, so that they can start getting a handle on Judaism, and not necessarily as a religion, but first as a culture.”
Yitzhaki is quick to point out that he is not in the proselytizing business.
“I am secular myself. I am not trying get anyone to become religious,” he says.
Encouraging secular Israelis to examine their Jewish roots is one of Yitzhaki’s long-term goals, and not just through the festival.
“We offer financial support for choreographers – at this stage, we are only talking about secular choreographers, simply because there aren’t any religious ones yet – to write works that look at Judaism,” he explains. “That can provide them with a vehicle for bringing out all sorts of thoughts and feelings, which can include anger, but not only anger. It can allow them to ask questions. Often, secular Israelis have absolutely no connection with religion. The main thing is to open up avenues of communication, to make religion accessible to secular Jews and to make secular Israelis accessible to religious people.”
Yitzhaki says the time is ripe to reach out. “The 1980s are behind us, and we are living in a postmodern Israel,” he observes. “We no longer live in a world of right wing and left wing, religious and secular and all that. I think you can take off in any direction you want these days.”
Tuesday’s dance event is, in fact, a pared-down offshoot of the threeday parent event that takes place in Jerusalem in October, and Yitzhaki says allowances have to be made in both locations, although there is a little more leeway for the Tel Aviv version.
“In Jerusalem, we have two evenings of men-only shows, and two for women only. The audiences can be mixed, but we have to walk a fine line and make sure we get the balance right. It’s complicated,” he says.
The complexity of the sector-bridging artistic expression requires constant examination.
“We have to decide whether we want to remain within the tight confines of a certain type of community, or audience, or whether to branch out and to access wider sectors,” says the artistic director. “It’s a sensitive area, and we are a bit apprehensive about it, but we’ll keep on working and see how it goes.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 561-1211 and www.tmu-na.org.il