Interview: Dance, dance, dance

A few questions for Yair Vardi, founding director and driving spirit of the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater.

Peridance New York, taking part in this year’s edition of Tel Aviv Dance. (photo credit: DEKEL HAMATIAN)
Peridance New York, taking part in this year’s edition of Tel Aviv Dance.
(photo credit: DEKEL HAMATIAN)
Let’s face it, if you are going to talk seriously about the art of dance in Israel, then sooner or later you will find yourself talking about Yair Vardi.
Born in 1948 in Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee, Vardi became enamored of dance early in life. After serving in the army, he became a much acclaimed dancer with the Batsheva Dance Company and a choreographer. Vardi joined the Ballet Rambert in London and later started his own company, English Dance Theater, as well as Dancity, in Newcastle.
He returned to Israel after 12 years abroad to become the founding director and driving spirit of the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, now the foremost presenter of Israeli and international contemporary dance companies. The center is the home of the prestigious and universally known Batsheva Dance Company, the Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollack Dance Company, the Inbal Theater, the Orna Porat Children’s Theater, as well as a premier venue for performances of dance companies from all over the world.
Vardi’s impact on the world of dance in Israel can be seen literally wherever one looks. Among the most important dance festivals that Vardi has created are the Flamenco Days Festival, the Shades of Dance Festival, the Dance Europe Festival, the International Exposure Festival, the Hot Dance Festival, the Only Men Dancing Festival, and the Maya Arbatova Classical Dance Competition. This year’s edition of Tel Aviv Dance, perhaps the most popular of Vardi’s creations, is ongoing at Suzanne Dellal until September 5.
He has been the artistic director of the Karmiel Dance Festival, a member of the judges panel for the Israel Prize in Dance, and until recently dean of the Faculty of Dance at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem.
Vardi has been awarded the Kinor David Prize (1977), the Tel Aviv Municipality Honor & Achievement in The Arts (2002), the Foreign Ministry Shield of Honor (2009), the French Government’s Chevalier de Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2009), and the Prime Minister of Israel’s EMET Prize for Science, Art and Culture (2010), among others.
Vardi took a moment recently to sit down with Metro and talk about himself, dance, the Israeli physique, his time-consuming responsibilities, and his critics.
How did a boy growing up on a kibbutz in the 1950s – even on an elite kibbutz like Kfar Blum – decide he wanted to dance professionally? I was interested in folk dance. I loved it, the expressions of the body, the joy of the body. It was great for me. I can’t tell you what caused it. But through the years, when I was young, 14, 15, I was dancing. You know, we had parties, evenings of dance, and I danced, and I loved it. And later, I joined the dance groups of the Labor Party youth movement. That was the first dance company I was a member of.
Following that, up north in Tel Hai, in Trumpeldor Fort, they opened a school of arts – for painting, for acting, for dancing, for music. I thought, Why don’t I try that, something different? So I went up there. I met this wonderful lady, Ariella Peled, and I joined the classes. I found it a wonderful way of expressing myself. I felt free and open and honest with myself.
In 1963, the Batsheva Dance Company was formed in Tel Aviv. And I said, ‘Wow! I have to go there and see what this is.’ So I went to a class and was granted a scholarship, while I was still in high school. I was living up north. It was then a four-hour drive to Tel Aviv, so I took it slowly. In the beginning I came once a week. That’s how it started. I evolved from there, after the army. I don’t know why. For me, dancing has just always been a wonderful form of expression. And in the kibbutz, we danced a lot.
Was there any sort of stigma attached to the idea of professional male dancers in the Israel of your childhood? Did anyone try to discourage you? It wasn’t popular, but I was very much appreciated in the kibbutz. Israel is a very open society. Back then, it was less open than now. But the idea was, If he wants to dance, let him dance. It wasn’t out of the ordinary. It was something different, a bit. But if a boy had such a vision, such a clear idea that this was what he wanted to do, then he was supported. I can’t remember any sort of objection at any time.
I am around your age, and growing up Jewish in America, our conception of Israeli dance was people dancing the hora while someone in a ‘kova tembel’ [hat] played ‘Hava Nagila’ on the accordion. It was certainly more than that, so what was dance here in Israel when you were starting to dance? From the start of the State of Israel, dancing was going in two ways. There was contemporary dance, and efforts to create something new, as well as folk dance. But most of our dance, Israeli dance, does come from folk dance.
I think we were always looking for a way to say something about ourselves with our dance. We used our physique, which was always very strong, very male. When we danced in the Batsheva Dance Company, touring around Israel and all around the world, we were very much welcomed all the time. We were always told that looked different, we danced different. We didn’t have the classical dance physique. We are rough, strong, sexy. We are very physical, and I think that’s something that comes out in the dance, up to today. But there is a softness now that is slowly coming into it.
Is that good or bad? I think it’s fantastic. Dance is something that evolves all the time. It’s great. There’s never been a dull moment in the history of dance in Israel. It’s constantly erupting, constantly changing. And it’s very well balanced sex-wise. Male and female creators. Everyone joining forces and working together. Dance in Israel has become such a wonderful, positive thing, a lot thanks to the Suzanne Dellal Center. It’s a place that allows people to do what they want to do. A place that gives them that opportunity.
Like most people who have achieved a lot, who are highly acclaimed and multi-awarded, and whose influence in their field has been enormous, you have your share of detractors. One of their complaints is that as director of Suzanne Dellal Center, creator of Israel’s most important dance festivals, and a judge on numerous award panels in dance, you are simply too powerful. They charge you with exerting too much control and with being, in effect, the ‘emperor’ of dance in Israel.
This is an old complaint.
Is it true? No... no. I just let things happen. I initiate things. I’m a man with vision, a man who likes to create – not for myself but for the people. I’m a man who believes that he’s here to make a statement in Israel and around the world. And I’m a doer. I don’t wait for anyone. I don’t seek advice. I sometimes consult. I think I know what I want. I know I can do what I want, and I’m doing it for the sake of the people, for the dancers. Of course people will say that I’m powerful. I’m powerful because I’m doing! I was chosen to be here to lead some kind of a statement, to develop dancing in Israel. And I’m doing it! And I think I’ve done it, over and over, beyond the expectations of anybody. Of course I have opponents, but that’s all right.
The other complaint of your critics is that your taste in dance is too mainstream, that your choices about what to stage here are all too often ‘safe,’ and that you are afraid of taking risks In this economic situation, we have to be very careful about taking risks. Only a very rich place can take risks. We are not rich. We are trying to survive. I’m taking a risk every time I create something new. Nothing is certain, and I don’t know how the audience will react to things. I’ve taken a lot of risks in my life here. Sometimes I hold back, and then push again. I’m taking a big risk next October. I’m doing a big production of Bollywood Dance. This will be a huge risk financially. I take risks when I think it’s right to take risks.
Because of what we have created, there’s so much dance going on. What kind of risk do these people want me to take? To commit suicide? I’m doing Tel Aviv Dance 2015 with 141 performances. Show me someone else who has done this. This is a risk. Am I going to have audiences for 141 performances? Would I? For Batsheva I might have. For the Paris Opera I might have. But what about the young ones? They need support, they need to be seen. But I’m not going to in - vent huge things. I have only small theaters, with 350 seats. That’s all. I don’t have what the Paris Opera has. They take no risks. Alvin Ailey – very secure, no risks. I have to choose very carefully. Very, very carefully.
So how do you make your choices? What are your criteria? I look for something interesting, something that’s not being seen, something I value based on the quality of the thing; and sometimes something very mainstream, because I need to balance. And I’m also attuned to the public a bit. I need the public. They respect me, and I respect them. But overall, I think I’ve been very daring in showcasing up-and-coming young dancers.
Is there any kind of dance that you absolutely do not like? Eh... well, hip-hop. I think it’s useless. It’s nothing. I don’t see anything in it. But you know, it’s a young way of movement.
Do you still dance? I stopped dancing when I was around 40 years old.
Do you still choreograph? No. Not at all. I have absolutely no time to do that now. I choreograph the running of Suzanne Dellal.
To what extent has the Suzanne Dellal Center been affected by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and similar anti-Israel agitation overseas? I don’t think that dance is being boy - cotted at all. Not that I know of. There have been some demonstrations in plac - es but no actual boycott. In Spain last year, and at a Batsheva performance in Montpelier, there were demonstrations but no cancellations, no boycott. The only political statement that was done recently against Suzanne Dellal was during the second intifada. Two dance companies that were supposed to come here from Europe canceled, but they were simply afraid to come here. Since then, we’ve had no boycott, no cancel - lations.
Batsheva performed in Belgium re - cently, and we could sense a bit of hostility. France can be difficult some - times. But we continue to perform abroad, and we keep getting requests by foreign dance companies to perform here all the time.
One final question. If some evil genie told you that you were go - ing to live to be 120, would enjoy perfect health, but from this day forward you could have nothing whatsoever to do with dance, what would you do? Well, first of all, I do not wish to live to be 120. As for what I would do, I’d prob - ably find something else. I love to write. I’m a good writer – when I have time to write. I write my thoughts, my reflec - tions on situations. I love to write, but I can never find enough time for it. I have no hobbies, not any more. I just don’t find the time to have hobbies.
I know it sounds awful, but this is my life, my life-sucking situation, from six o’clock in the morning until I eventually go flat at 1 a.m. I don’t even have time to think about something else