Metrotainment: The journey of 'Anne Frank'

After surviving political turbulence, Caracas Ballet founders Ofer Zaks and Maria Barrios bring their show from Venezuela to Tel Aviv

The journey of 'Anne Frank' (photo credit: Courtesy )
The journey of 'Anne Frank'
(photo credit: Courtesy )
'For us, the story of Anne Frank is a universal story. It is not only about the persecution of the Jewish people, but rather a story of a society that loses its tolerance,” says internationally acclaimed Israeli dancer/choreographer Ofer Zaks as he sits in a Tel Aviv cafe together with his wife and partner, the multifaceted artist Maria Barrios of Venezuela, who is no less prominent than her husband in the field of dance. Their dance theater multimedia show Anne Frank, which is based on Anne Frank’s diary and which brought them to Tel Aviv, premieres in Israel on June 12.
“Never in my life I could think that Venezuela, such an open and tolerant country with a flourishing 70,000- strong Jewish community, would turn into a totalitarian state,” says Barrios. “Most of the young Jews have left, mostly to Miami, where they have created a Little Venezuela, or to other Latin American countries, but again, this is not only about anti- Semitism, but rather about oppression and inequality. This simply is not the kind of country people want to live in.”
“We were sort of celebs in Venezuela,” Zaks smiles ironically.
“But one day, we lost everything and had to start our lives again in another place.”
Theirs is a tremendous success story – both as individual artists in their own right and together as a creative couple.
Jerusalem-born Zaks began his dance studies in Tel Aviv after his military service and continued to the Juilliard School in New York, where he acquired a BA in dance. Despite beginning his training at age 21, he has succeeded in having an international career as a versatile dancer (in classical, neoclassical and contemporary dance), noted especially for his elegance, dramatic interpretation, powerful stage presence and musicality.
While dancing in his first principal roles, he also began acquiring substantial experience as a teacher, assistant to master choreographers and later on as a manager and general producer in various European and US companies – and this is just the beginning of his story.
Zaks’s international career brought him to many places, including Venezuela, where he met one of the most prominent local dancers/choreographers – Maria Barrios, who has become his partner both professionally and in life.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, into a family of artists, Barrios began her education at a very early age. As an “extraordinary talented child,” she was offered a scholarship to Juilliard, where she continued her high-school studies, simultaneously earning her high-school diploma and a BA in dance and choreography. She also studied operatic singing. Over the years, Barrios has developed simultaneous international careers as a dancer, choreographer, costume designer and master teacher, and has acquired substantial experience as a ballet mistress, assistant to renowned choreographers and to artistic directors in various companies.
“We worked for the Caracas Dance Company, which was fantastic,” recalls Zaks. “And then we left for New York, and later to Europe – we were principal dancers at major houses in Lucerne and Bern and Zurich.”
In 1991, when their son was born, they moved to Italy and again were principal dancers at such major companies as Arena di Verona and Teatro di Venezia, in staged shows at the opera of Rome, where they worked with the great star of Italian dance Carla Fracci, among others. In 1992, Venezuela’s culture minister asked them to return to the country to found a national ballet company – the Caracas Ballet – as well as a social educational project in dance similar to the one that already exists in the field of classical music.
“Which we did,” says Zaks. “And for 17 years we had a company of our own, a theater that seated 2,000, with an orchestra, with huge and much lauded productions, some of which we brought to Israel and with a national school of dance, which we ran.”
Their activities brought them fame as well as prestigious awards. But their career came to an abrupt end overnight, after one “wrong step” in the eyes of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.
“The society in Venezuela was so polarized as a result of the Machiavellian policy of Chavez.
Everybody against everybody – and he knows how to fuel hatred and tensions.
Blacks versus whites, Christians versus Muslims and Jews, the poor versus the rich – you name it. And in this atmosphere of intolerance we decided to create a project, based on Anne Frank’s diary, in order to demonstrate to the people where this intolerance can bring them to.
We did not see Anne Frank’s story as Jewish or Israeli – but rather as a universal one,” says Zaks.
The couple got support from the Dutch and German embassies as well as from many private donors who embraced the idea, and the show ran in Caracas for a month, to great success.
“We were apolitical, we spoke to everybody,” Zaks says. They planned to tour Venezuela with their project, which looked like it would be possible due to a grant from the National Petroleum Company. And then the Gaza War started and Chavez decided to cut ties with Israel.
“This was not all,” says Zaks. “We were told that Chavez did not want any artistic pieces with Jewish connotations.
We were called into Chavez’s office and told that if we want to keep getting the money, we should be in line with the Revolution and create a ballet about the suffering of Palestinians – after all, we were a national company that received funding from the state. In vain, we tried to explain that we are not political in our art. A huge media campaign followed, with both Chavistas and non-Chavistas supporting us, but nothing helped. The budget was cut.”
But the worst was still to come.
One day, armed people entered Zaks’s office and threatened him, finally seizing the company’s hard disk.
“We got the hint,” says Zaks. “They came from Chavez. In Venezuela, people disappear and you can never find them. We closed the company and together with our son just moved to Israel.”
“Can you imagine? This happened just four months after the same government granted us important national awards for our achievements and contribution to the country’s cultural life,” says Barrios. “But suddenly we did not fit the line anymore.”
BUT WHY did they choose to move to Israel, of all places? With their experience and connections, they could have settled in many Western countries that are far less problematic for artists than Israel.
“This is Ofer’s home, from which he was away for 35 years,” Barrios answers simply. “And I believe we have a lot to contribute to it.”
Zaks adds: “Modern dance in Israel is flourishing; there is a lot of young talent, lots of energy. Within three years, dancers turn into choreographers, they create new works, new language, and as a producer, I’ve represented individual Israeli artists and entire companies in Latin America.”
Zaks and Barrios started working on the Israeli version of their Anne Frank project in February. “We have 10 talented freelance dancers in our cast now, with the excellent dancer/actor Emily Meghnagi as Anne. As for the genre, this is not classical ballet and not modern dance, but something in between: dance theater, I would say,” Zaks explains.
“Studying with the great masters of the dance, Maria and I have learned how to express human feelings and how to tell a story through movement, which is the most expressive and eloquent language ever. I also believe that there is a huge and hungry audience in Israel for this kind of dance, and if our group survives, this probably will be our direction in the future.”
The premiere of Anne Frank takes place Tuesday at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art as a gala benefit performance for day-care homes for children maintained by Herut Women, and will be held in the presence of Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat. There will be a show for the general public on Wednesday at the same venue. For more information: (03) 620-1317.
Jazz wunderkind goes classical Pianist
Ariel Lanyi will perform a program of works by Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Janacek at the Felicja Blumental Center in Tel Aviv on Monday at 8 p.m.
Though he is only 14 years old, Lanyi already has an impressive resumé of musical recordings and concerts under his belt. He started out primarily in the jazz world, putting out his first CD at the age of 10 for the Jerusalem Kadima Collective label. Next week’s concert is based on his first classical release, Romantic Profiles, which Northern Ireland-based Lyte Records recently put out. Besides his accomplishments at the keyboard, he also plays violin in an ensemble, sings in a choir and continues to play jazz in a band.
In between school commitments and local shows, Lanyi maintains a busy performing schedule abroad and has played across Europe and the US, including in New York, Los Angeles, Rome, Belfast and Paris.
For more information: (03) 620-1185, and
Entertaining a kid’s view
At the Bat Yam Museum of Contemporary Art on Tuesday evening, pupils from grades 3 to 6 at the local Yad Mordechai and Rishonim elementary schools will pit their wits against each other to become the first Performance Champion.
The quiz, which starts at 7 p.m., is the brainchild of Daniel Yahel, who returned to this country three years ago after completing a master’s degree in performance studies in London, and set up the Performance – Developing and Advancing Live Art organization. He devised a year-long study program – culminating in the quiz – during which children learn about all facets of the performing arts, including recreating shows and researching the field in innovative ways.
The idea is to bring the performing arts to life for the children, and also to promulgate the field to teachers, parents and the community.
For more information: (03) 659-1140.
‘Back and Forth’ with Lifschitz
A new retrospective exhibition of works by the late artist Uri Lifschitz opened last week at the Pressler Museum in Tel Aviv. The “Back and Forth” show marks the first anniversary of Lifschitz’s passing; he died at the age of 75 after a long battle with cancer.
The artist made a name for himself in the 1960s both in Israel and abroad, and although he had no formal training, his work was highly valued. He also won a large number of awards. When he was 18, he enrolled in a painting course at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers’ College in Tel Aviv, but his teachers immediately informed him that he already had the ability to be a painter and had no need of formal instruction.
His popularity was at its height between the 1960s and the 1990s, but his public image dipped considerably after he produced a number of provocative paintings in the ’90s, including one of Margalit Har- Shefi, ex-girlfriend of Yitzhak Rabin assassin Yigal Amir.
The “Back and Forth” exhibition incorporates oil paintings, drawings and sketches, from the ’60s through 2010. Entrance is free. The show closes on June 30.
For more information: (03) 537-3017.
Fashioning paper
The Rehovot Shopping Mall is hosting a new exhibition, “Paper-Fashion,” which incorporates a wide range of works by fashion design students from the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. The show, which opened yesterday and will run until June 30, features a variety of fashion creations made of paper instead of fabrics.
The fourth-year-student show includes a number of iconic fashion designs from both the 20th and 21st centuries, which the students worked in pairs to create. The clothing items range from underwear to jeans, from street wear and summer dresses to formal wear for men and women.
One of the themes behind the project is the creation of durable iconic articles of clothing using perishable and biodegradable materials.
For more information: (03) 915-8639 and