At the center of this year’s Israel Festival (the 62nd) from August 1-11 is an event called Art/Battle, where the focus is on martial arts. Taking this unusual juxtaposition of militaristic and creative concepts, the Israel Festival uses it as a metaphor for a bigger reality. What appears to be a profound contradiction in terms is, in fact, the opposite.
The secret and beauty of such exercises as tai chi, el halev, or krav maga is the fact that they use military language to effect a peaceful resolution. The actual presentation of this event at the festival will take place in front of the Jerusalem Theatre on a specially rigged stage, where contestants of all ages and backgrounds will demonstrate how these sets of rigorous exercises lead to a healthy and satisfactory conclusion.
“The point of the event,” explains Itay Mautner, artistic co-director of the festival, “is to show how what appears to be aggressive, even violent, behavior can be used for positive results. This is the theme of the festival, which is taking place in an environment of conflict, not to say violence and hatred. This is not only a reflection of what is happening in Israel but also around the world.”
Not unconnected to this environment is the fact that it has been difficult to attract international artists to Israel at this time.
“It’s never easy to bring people to Israel,” Mautner explains. “Many artists refused. There are groups who didn’t even want to talk to us. A couple of years ago, the refusals were due to corona. But now it is much more because of politics: the events in Jenin and the right-wing of the present government and so on. The question we asked ourselves is ‘What is the role of the arts in a conflict situation? What role can it play that makes it relevant?’
“With ‘Art/Battle,’ we are consciously relocating these groups and placing them in a different context. That is because conflict is not just a question of fighting; it is a also question of reaching a resolution by means of listening to the other, by a different way of thinking, not just of the end result. These are philosophical concepts that have to do with conflict, and that’s what we are presenting.
“We even have a group who deal with autistic children, and another from east Jerusalem. The audience receive headphones so they can hear the participants explaining why they are fighting and what their struggle is about, where they are prepared to compromise – all sorts of things to describe where are our boundaries. It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you are.”
What's happening at the 2023 Israel Festival?
The festival, certainly one of the most acknowledged internationally, is being held this year in three main locations: the Jerusalem Theatre; the Jerusalem Arts Campus (adjacent to the Gerard Behar Theater complex); and Independence Park, where a specially built auditorium is being set up for the opening event.
This will take place on the Hebrew date of Tu Be’av (the 15th day of the month of Av), a significant day on the Hebrew calendar, since it was a day of reconciliation among the 12 ancient tribes of Israel.
The one-off performance that kick-starts the festival is called “About Love,” since Tu Be’av is the Israeli equivalent of Valentine’s Day. It features internationally acclaimed Mark Eliyahu on kamanche and baglama; Rita, one of the richest voices of Israeli music; the Sufi master from Turkey, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek; Israeli Oriental singer Shai Tsabari; and Valerie Hamaty, an Arab singer from Jaffa. Together, they sing and play about unity, love and forgiveness. The evening performance is an encounter between modern and ancient, secular and sacred, East and West.
Many of the events in Hebrew are accompanied by subtitles, while others do not rely on language – such as the performances of the many dance troupes. Groups from South America, Argentina, and Brazil appear all over the world.
Alice Ripoll from Brazil brings a dance piece called Lavagem, which means “cleaning” in Portuguese, but is also slang for “money-laundering.” The idea is to deal with the issue of cleaning of that which is dirty. Not just trying to clean that which is dirty but rather that which threatens us because it is dirty. The favelas suburb of Rio de Janeiro, for example, is a dangerous, dirty place, not for visiting; it is frightening. The stranger is threatened. How do you go about cleaning it up? There is a lot of water in the dance, trying to make things cleaner.
Ripoll’s other work is aCORDo, which is about thievery. The dancers take objects from the audience. They are then “caught” and stood up against the wall, as in a police inspection, before returning the objects to the people they took them from.
Another South American performance piece is called Minefield by Argentinian artist Lola Arias. The work looks at the Falkland War of 40 years ago between England and Argentina and examines these events in documentary form. It brings participants from both sides and asks how they feel about the war now. What happened to them with the passing of years, what careers they pursued, and whether it is possible to unite after all this time. They are asked to look at the conflict not in a melancholic way but with humor, action, dance, and music. This work has been very successful around the world, and putting it on in Israel has a special dimension to it.
“It is the type of play we Israelis could have produced about ourselves and our situation with our enemies,” says Mautner.
Marina Otero, an artist, choreographer, and dancer also from Argentina, presents a work dealing with control and fantasy and their relationship with reality. Otero appears in the performance, standing on the side while giving instructions to four men, all of whom are named Pablo. Since most of the time on stage these dancers are naked, a notice is published beforehand to allow the potential audience to decide whether or not to come.
One of the guest appearances at the festival is that of Ira Glass, who created popular podcasts in the US and is considered the guru of such broadcasts. He has two separate events. One evening, he will speak on things he has done in his career with video and audio, relating autobiographic stories as he goes. Then an evening after, he appears with Etgar Keret, the popular Israeli writer. Keret has written copiously about his family, especially his father and brother, but never about his mother. Keret says that as a Holocaust survivor, she gave him the ability to tell a story by making up a story to tell him every evening. Keret and Glass present an evening titled “A half-baked story,” in which the two will tell stories in English.
There will be many surprises at the festival, such as Lior Shoov, who sings in gibberish, English, French, and Hebrew and plays a number of conventional and non-conventional instruments.
Yama, in which Neta Weiner from Jaffa performs music that combines English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish, is a sort of ingathering of the exiles.
The Gathering (Kenes in Hebrew) at the Jerusalem Arts Campus has many people speaking about their struggles. The Gathering will also bring stories from around the world – from Russia, Turkey, Japan, and elsewhere – emphasizing how difficult it is to be an artist and how artists deals with this.
And the gallery at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium is running a special workshop where broken toys are mended by public groups.
All in all, the Israel Festival promises to be a lively affair, perhaps raising more questions than answers in these troubling times. ■