Everything is beautiful at the ballet

A long list of dancers from Beersheba and the South have risen to international prominence through the Bat Dor dance school.

Chorus Line 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chorus Line 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Today, Beersheba-born Netanel Bellaishe stars as “Larry, the Associate Producer” in the New York production of the Broadway hit A Chorus Line, the result of a decision made 21 years ago, when Bellaishe was just seven years old.
“I was studying at Beersheba’s Bat Dor Dance Studio,” Bellaishe recalls. “It was my first public performance, playing the role of a weight-lifter. My father had fashioned some Styrofoam stage weights for me, and I was using them in the dance.
“I remember so clearly the rush of energy, the way my body responded to being on stage. I knew, right then, that performing was something I was supposed to be doing. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
“I’ve always been a showman,” Bellaishe told Metro during a telephone interview from New York. “On stage, I’m always 10 times better than anything I ever did in class.
Everything falls into place for me once I’m in front of an audience.
“That was one of the things I learned at Bat Dor. It may have been coincidence that I found the dance studio, but it was through my teachers there that I discovered my purpose in life.”
BELLAISHE IS one of a long list of dancers from Beersheba and the South who have risen to international prominence through Bat Dor, a dance school established in 1975 by the historic Bat Dor Association in Tel Aviv. In fact, the Beersheba school has become something of an incubator, identifying, encouraging and training young dancers, who then go out into the larger world as professionals, either within Israel or more likely, into theater, schools and dance companies abroad.
Among Israeli dance schools, Bat Dor ranks high.
“With over 275 students, Bat Dor in Beersheba is the biggest and generally acknowledged best dance school in Israel,” says Bat Dor Director Daniella Schapira.
“Most of our students come from Israel, but we also have students from the US, Australia, Japan, France, Switzerland and Italy. When they graduate, Bat Dor’s dancers have gone on to dance with the Royal Birmingham Ballet, the Scapino Ballet in Rotterdam, the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany, the Metropolitan Opera, the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm and many other locales. Right now we have alumni performing all over the world, including Norway, Holland, London, Paris and the United States. Bat Dor prepares dancers for the world.”
Interestingly enough, Bellaishe’s path to stardom in A Chorus Line on Broadway began almost like that of “Mike,” another Chorus Line character. In his song “I can do that!” Mike tells how he, as a preschooler, decided to be a dancer.
“One morning Sis won’t go to dance class,” Mike sings.
“I grabbed her shoes and tights and all… I’m watching Sis go pit-a-pat – I can do that!” The difference, Bellaishe says, is that he didn’t take his sister’s place in dance class – he joined her.
“My brother and sister are twins, nine years older. They were both taking classes at Bat Dor, so one day my mother said, ‘Why don’t you go too?’ So I did – and I’m the only one who took it to the next level.
“As a little kid, I just enjoyed it, it was fun. But all the while, dance was growing on me. By the time I was 16, I was really serious – in fact, I’d been attending Makif Alef high school because we lived in Beersheba’s Yud Alef neighborhood; but then I switched to Makif Gimmel, because it was closer to Bar Dor. I could just walk over.”
His high-school schedule was demanding, Bellaishe admits.
“I didn’t have much of a social life. I was a good student, too, so I’d go to school in the morning, dance in the afternoon and then study into the night. That was my life during those years.”
Bellaishe’s introduction to dance remains typical for today’s young dancers, director Schapira says.
“Moms bring their little kids in, but we make them stay. We’re nice,” she laughs. “We make it fun for them.
We educate them to become dance lovers, so they want to work at it.
“Bat Dor runs two different schools. Kids up to age 11 come to two classes a week, 45 minutes each. They start with preballet, then start classical ballet at age nine. At age 11, they begin modern dance, and by age 12, they’re taking three classes of classical ballet a week, plus an optional jazz class, if they choose.
“By that time, their programs are starting to become very intense. By the age of 16, they’re taking eight to 12 classes a week, 90 minutes each. They’re actually pursuing a second education in addition to their regular school.
“Classes for the younger kids might have 15 students, but as they get older, it’s a pyramid – by age 16 and 17, the classes are very small. Students drop out along the way, deciding they don’t want to be dancers; or they’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not going to succeed as professionals. To succeed in dance, you have to have the right kind of body, the artistry and also be the kind of personality who can survive in an intensely competitive environment. Plus you have to love to perform.
“All in all, it’s a difficult combination to find. Most of it is something you’re born with – part can be learned, but much of it is something you either have or you don’t.
And then, don’t forget, after all that, you have to meet the right teacher who will see your talent, then nurture and encourage you.”
There’s a gender difference, too.
“We’ve had many more boys who became professionals than girls,” Schapira notes. “That’s somewhat unusual, but boys who manage to overcome the stigma of becoming dancers tend to be very focused and know exactly what they want. Then too, for men, there are many more professional opportunities – male dancers are relatively few in number, so those who pursue professional careers have a better chance than does a girl.”
IN BEERSHEBA, Bellaishe didn’t suffer the stigma of being a boy going to dance class.
“I never had a problem,” he says. “I had good social skills, and when my classmates would see me perform in school productions, they’d see that dance could be performed in a masculine way, that it wasn’t just for girls.”
As the years passed and Bellaishe’s commitment grew, he began to expand the scope of his studies.
“I performed with the Israeli Ballet, the Israeli Opera and Ido Tadmor Dance Company, then started doing some musical shows, too. When I was 22, I started to take voice lessons as well. I was in Chicago at the Beit Lessin Theater; I did Guys and Dolls, I played Judah in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Habimah. When I realized how much I enjoyed that aspect of performing, I wanted to study acting, too.
“In 2008, I won Israel’s ‘Born to Dance’ contest, so I was able to spend two years in New York studying acting and voice, learning and growing, perfecting my craft. I graduated from AMDA – the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. It was a great period for me.”
Much of the plot line of A Chorus Line involves end-ofcareer issues, what will happen when dancers aren’t able to dance anymore, or are shoved aside by younger dancers. Zach, the producer, asks each of them what they’ll do when they can no longer dance.
“It’s a real issue every dancer faces, especially in Israel,” Schapira notes. ““A dancer’s professional career is very short, and as in most professions, there are only a very few places at the top.
“In Israel, the world of dance is tiny – you can’t even call it a small pond. There aren’t enough places for even the most talented dancers to find work here, so many go abroad.
“In Europe, dancers can probably continue to dance until age 35, several years beyond what they could expect in Israel. But dancers also go abroad because in Israel, the salaries dance companies offer are very low – you can’t pay a home mortgage on what you earn as a dancer. So many of our best dancers either go abroad, where the opportunities are so much greater; or, sadly, they leave dance and do something else, sometimes in related professions of teaching, choreography or acting. Some leave the field entirely.
Ask Bellaishe how long he can continue to dance, and he quotes another Chorus Line character.
“As Cassie says, ‘I want to do what I love as much as I can, as long as I can.’ At this point, I don’t only see myself as just a dancer. I’m a performer. I sing, dance and act. My role model is Gene Kelly. His professional career didn’t really take off until he was 30 – he did his best work after that. For that matter, Martha Graham danced until she was 90.
“I may not be dancing hard core at 90, but I don’t see any limit on my future at all. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just beginning.”
Amir Levy, another Bat Dor alumnus who went professional in New York, says his dance career started at home.
“I began studying at Bat Dor when I was seven, but my love for dance started earlier than that. My mother is Osnat Levy, one of Israel’s most prominent ballet dancers,” Levy told Metro in a telephone interview.
“I grew up on a kibbutz, but some of my earliest memories are of watching my mother teach. Lots of times she’d take me along, and I’d sit there and watch, fascinated.
Everyone says my mother and I look a lot alike, so maybe my love of the stage came from her, too.
“She never pushed me – more than anyone, she knew the hardships a professional dancer faces. Dancing was something I chose for myself at a very tender age.”
LIKE BELLAISHE, Levy recalls an early performance that inspired him.
“That first year at Bat Dor, I did a little soldier dance that was part of the Royal Academy of Dancing syllabus.
The next year, when I was eight, I did a sailor dance. What I remember most is how much fun it was.
I was a kid, learning the basics. It was very theatrical and interesting.”
In New York, Levy has enjoyed an exceptionally diverse career. He’s presently a dance captain at the Metropolitan Opera; he danced a sensuous tango in Evita and was featured in Victor/Victoria. He both sang and danced in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and was a featured artist with the Ballet Hispanico of New York.
Nor is Levy a stranger to film and television. He has appeared in Matters of the Heart and Sex and the City. In the Miramax film A Price above Rubies, he played a hassid, while in the DreamWorks production of The Peacemaker, he played a UN worker.
Not only that, in television ads, Levy has touted the benefits of Bass beer, Sure deodorant and Colgate toothpaste.
What ties it all together is his love for music, Levy says.
“It’s music that inspires me. These days, I’m more of a performer than just a dancer. I started as a dancer, then my career evolved, first to singing, and now I’m getting into acting – but music is at the heart of it all.
“I live with music. There isn’t a silent moment in my body. As a kid, I expressed that love of music through dance because that was what was available to me. Today, what excites me is being on the stage, performing.
“Stage fright? No – I’ve never had any of that. It’s not one of my phobias. Not that I haven’t had a few butterflies when some specific performance presented some technical challenge. But that’s just natural, no different from any other professional dancer.”
Certainly one of the trade-offs of a successful career was having to leave Israel.
“I love being in this great city of New York – I want to explore everything the performing arts have to offer me, anything I can bite into. But there are many things I miss about Israel, too. My family, my friends, so many beautiful places. I love coming back. But my journey is here now, in New York.”
One of Levy’s family concerns was recently lessened.
“After 40 years of dancing and teaching, my mother recently retired. She ran her own dance school in Sha’ar Hanegev – which all too often meant dancing under fire.
One of her students was killed by a Kassam [rocket].
“It was unbelievable, what they all went through. The whole community was shaken by the loss of that beautiful dancer, but difficult though it was, they carried on. In the arts, that’s what you do. Now I’m carrying on, too, but in New York.”
Losing dancers to careers abroad isn’t really a tragedy, director Schapira says.
“It’s not as though we lose them completely. It’s true that most don’t return here to live, but they’re always connected to us. They come back and teach summer sessions or choreograph a special performance. They’re always part of us.”
Another Bat Dor graduate, Amir Yosef, proves one of the exceptions to the rule: Yosef went abroad, lived and performed for nine years in Germany, then returned to Israel, where he now teaches at Bat Dor, exactly where he started out.
“I grew up in Beersheba’s Gimmel neighborhood,” Yosef recalls. “At the time, Gimmel was not a good place to live. It was very rough, with crack addicts, hookers, drugs and a lot of things that made it a dangerous place for kids.
“I was six years old when Daniella [Schapira] came to our school and conducted auditions. She sent a note home to my parents saying she thought I had promise.
My parents were supportive, so I started taking classes twice a week. I loved it.”
Yosef’s life echoes yet another Chorus Line song, “Everything Is Beautiful at the Ballet.”
“I’d go from my rough, dangerous neighborhood into the beauty of Bat Dor, where there was nothing but the piano and the music and me. It was where I could express myself, say everything I was feeling through dance. Bat Dor allowed me to escape to another world entirely, leaving the ugliness behind.
“I kept going to classes, year after year, but when I got to be about 12, things changed. All my friends were playing football, basketball, tennis – I did all that too, but not like they did. At that age, there was a tremendous amount of pressure from the kids around me. I tried to ignore it, but it wasn’t easy. I wanted to quit.”
In fact, Yosef did quit.
“I stopped dancing, quit going to classes. It only lasted about three months. One day I realized how much I missed it, so I went back, and from that point on, I started to push myself much harder. The Academy of Dance, an international examination board, has standardized exams for dancers, and for each succeeding exam I took, I passed with a ‘highly commended’ rating.
“When I was 18, I was one of three Israelis invited to the Royal Academy of Dance in Tokyo. Danny Eshel from Bat Dor was also chosen. We went to Japan twice, first for a month, then came back home, then returned for another six weeks filled with rehearsals and a final performance.
It was the first time I’d been in an airplane, too. The whole thing was great.
“Next came army service, but I got a special exemption so I could serve and also work as an apprentice at Bat Dor.”
Yosef spent several years dancing in Israel.
“I was with Bat Dor for almost four years, and after that with the Israel Ballet, but I was looking around for something else. Then an opportunity came to dance in New York and Washington, DC, with the Inbal Pinto Dance Company, and I accepted. Then came the invitation to dance in Germany.”
In all, Yosef spent nine years in Germany, dancing at the Hannover Opera, later in Berlin, then working on a German television show.
“I went to Germany alone, but soon my wife joined me. Two of our three daughters were born in Germany. It was largely because of the children that we decided to come home. Living in Germany was difficult for the kids – we’d be alone on Shabbat and for the holidays.
“We have a big family in Israel – I have four brothers and two sisters. We missed them. Four years ago, we decided it was time to come back. There wasn’t a place for me at Bat Dor right away, but now I’m back where I started.
It feels good.”
DIFFICULT AS it is, making the choice to live in Israel is something Daniella Schapira understands – she made the same decision.
“I was born in Romania, and was 14 years old when my family came to Israel in that last big wave of immigration in the 1960s. In Romania, I’d been in professional ballet school.
“We went to Jerusalem first, and even though there wasn’t any proper ballet school there, I met a very good teacher who helped me continue my training. More than anything, I wanted to dance classical ballet, and just before I went into the army, I was accepted into a professional dance company. But no exemption was available then, so I came to Beersheba, to Bat Dor, to take classes.
“The director at that time saw me in class and asked if I wanted to teach, which turned out to be wonderful. She gave me the opportunity to develop and sent me all over the world to study – London, Paris, Denmark – but I was able to live here, in Israel. Now, as director, I’m able to help other dancers along the way.
“In 2002, Tamir Ginz and I, in affiliation with Bat Dor, co-founded the professional Kamea Dance Company.
Kamea offers Bat Dor’s most talented graduates a place to begin their professional careers. Kamea puts on about 70 performances a year in both Israel and abroad.”
Schapira’s elementary school auditions have resulted in the discovery of many fine dancers, one of whom Schapira thinks might turn into Bat Dor’s next “singular sensation.”
Nineteen-year-old Lior Horev was first spotted at one of those auditions when she was just six years old.
“It was funny,” Schapira laughs.
“I’d gone to an open class in Omer, and the teacher pointed Lior out to me. ‘Look at that girl!’ she said. ‘She’s the one!’ “The teacher was absolutely right. Lior has been with us ever since. She’s now an apprentice at Bat Dor – definitely someone to watch.”
For her part, Horev says she doesn’t recall the details of that first audition.
“I was just a little kid,” she laughs. “Really, what I remember is only what my mother told me. I do remember starting dance classes in first grade and how much I loved it. At first all my friends were in class with me, but then one by one, they started to drop out. But not me. I didn’t want to quit.”
Asked if she can describe what it is that attracts her to dance, she hesitates.
“It’s not just one thing, but when I’m dancing, I feel this great power. I have your attention, and I have the power to take you somewhere, anywhere, however far you want to go. It’s a great feeling.”
Even in high school, when her friends were doing other things, Horev stuck to her dance routines.
“Dancing was so important to me, physically and mentally, that I never felt as though I was missing out on anything. Seeking my goal was far more important. Compared to that, it didn’t seem to me that the things other kids were doing were all that interesting. Dance was something I needed for myself.”
It’s not only leisure time that dance students – or their supportive parents – sacrifice, there’s also the matter of money. Dance classes are expensive.
“I was lucky,” Horev notes. “I won a scholarship from the American Israeli Foundation that helped my parents, because it costs so much to take classes. We auditioned for the scholarships.
“There was a ballet test, and then we each had to do a ballet variation before they decided who won. Winning the scholarship was good for me, too – it motivated me to work harder, and it encouraged me. It meant someone else believed in me, too.”
“Art is a problematic profession, and dancing is no exception,” Schapira notes, ruefully. “You hear the phrase ‘A star is born’ – but a star isn’t born. A star has to study – usually for many years. There’s no shortcut. You have to put in the time, and that costs money. For dancers, it’s an even more acute issue because, really, becoming a ballet dancer isn’t something you choose for yourself. Rather, the ballet chooses you, if you have the right body, talent, temperament and ambition.
“But those talents don’t necessarily coincide with wealth, so funding the years of study is always an issue.
And what’s the first thing governments always cut? Funding for the arts and entertainment. It’s a problem.”
That said, Bat Dor has an enviable reputation for solving the problem. “In all the years since Bat Dor was established, no one has ever been turned away because they couldn’t pay. For the little kids, parents usually pay. But no matter what, for kids who want to dance – for kids who can gain something from dance – they are never turned away if they can’t pay. That’s critical for the higher levels of instruction.
“For each successive year, the students are more and more subsidized. Bat Dor is recognized by the Culture Ministry and by the Beersheba Municipality, and with their help, so far, we’ve been able to see that no talented dancer is ever turned away for lack of funds.”
Horev still lives at home with her parents, and this year, her schedule is somewhat compromised because she’s combining dance classes with army service.
“I dance in the mornings, then do my army service in the afternoons. I work in an office, doing secretarial things. They wouldn’t want me on the battlefield,” she giggles. “In the evenings I can go back and take classes if I want.”
So is this it? Is dance going to be her life? Will she join the ranks of the Netanel Bellaishes and the Amir Levys? “Right now, that’s what I want. My immediate plans are to finish my military service, then dance one more season with Kamea, then look for a dance company that suits me, with people who inspire me. I’ll audition and try to get in.
“Will I stay in Israel? I like living in Israel, but I’m not sure there’s the right company for me here. We’ll have to wait and see.”
For Schapira, seeing her pupil Bellaishe starring in A Chorus Line constitutes one of the high points of her own career, she says.
“It brings me full circle. In 1979, I saw A Chorus Line in London and cried all through it – it’s so beautiful, and there’s so much truth in it. Now my student is in the New York production. It closes the circle for me.”
As for Bellaishe, eight times a week, twice a day on weekends, he takes the stage to play “Larry.”
“Professionalism demands tremendous commitment,” he says. “Today I did two shows, and before each, I had to warm up. I did a leg class for myself, then vocalized, to prepare my voice. All in all, I spend as much time preparing each day as I do performing the show.
“I don’t see that as extraneous. It’s simply what my work requires. I’m grateful to be doing it.
“Sometimes in that calm, quiet moment just before the show, maybe waiting in the wings to come on, I find myself marveling at the miracle of what I’m doing. Here I am in Chorus Line. I came from a foreign country.
English is not my first language. But I’m out there, speaking American, doing what I love to do, on the stage in New York.
“That’s pretty amazing.”