Chutzpah Festival celebrates Israel’s finest artistic exports

The country’s dance makers are in demand around the world, and the Chutzpah Festival consistently attracts their work here.
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Israel’s dance scene is one of the hottest on the planet, and as it sends artists whirling out into the world, its influence is spreading. Choreographers who’ve worked at Tel Aviv’s famous Batsheva Dance Company—names like Ohad Naharin, Hofesh Shechter, and Barak Marshall—are in demand at major international troupes, with everyone looking for that adrenalized, magic Israeli touch.

Vancouver may sit halfway around the globe from Israel, but fortunately artsgoers here have been plugged directly into its scene and its seemingly never-ending stream of exciting new voices. This is thanks, in no small part, to the Chutzpah Festival, the city’s annual midwinter celebration of Jewish arts and culture. When artistic managing director Mary-Louise Albert took over the fest in 2005, it had a limited dance component. A former Anna Wyman Dance Theatre and Judith Marcuse Dance Company dancer herself, she’s boosted the art form’s presence in the multidisciplinary event to impressive new levels.

“I was very interested in dance, and we also have a venue that’s very well suited to dance,” she tells the Straight over the phone from her West 41st Avenue office, amid organizing for the fest, which runs February 22 to March 9.

Looking back, Albert says a big turning point was the coproduction, with DanceHouse and the Cultural Olympiad, of Batsheva’s first appearance here in 2009. From there, she’s presented Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, New York’s Gallim Dance (run by former Batsheva member Andrea Miller), and several American companies that have commissioned work by Israeli choreographers. She’s brought in young, avant-garde Israeli talent like the duo Yossi Berg and Oded Graf, who worked with local dancers Noam Gagnon and Justine Chambers in a residency in 2011. This year, the fest hits another high, boasting not just a residency by Shechter with a new commission from L.A.’s BodyTraffic (which will also bring a Canadian premiere by Marshall), but a visit from one of Israel’s rising stars, Idan Sharabi, who opens for the Italian troupe ImPerfect Dancers.

For Albert, who travels to Israel’s International Exposure showcase every year, it’s about much more than just booking the acts. “For me, it’s about building these relationships. We provide them with space to come and work,” she says. “Basically, it’s facilitating in a way, putting resources in so they are able to rehearse, and it’s about grouping them together.”

Albert’s goals coalesce almost perfectly with those of BodyTraffic, a good example of the international troupes she’s formed an ongoing relationship with. The company debuted here in 2012 and comes back this year with the new work by Marshall and a residency to complete a new commission by U.K.–based sensation Shechter.

“In a way, what Chutzpah does is similar to what we do: it’s a small organization trying to do really big things, so we’re kindred spirits,” says Tina Finkelman Berkett, who codirects the company with Lillian Barbeito. “Of course, we feel so thankful that we have such a nice relationship.”

That bond started over the work of Marshall, a uniquely theatrical, witty dance visionary who was born in America but left for Israel, where he became house choreographer at the acclaimed Batsheva. Albert wanted to program his work, and BodyTraffic at that time was one of only two American companies performing his pieces. For its first visit here, the L.A. team brought Monger, an existing work it had acquired from Marshall. This year, it brings a 2012 commission by Marshall: And at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square, a portrait of shtetl life from hell, based on a real-life family of yellers and driven by Yiddish folk tunes.

“It’s a work that highlights his interesting vocabulary and that would meet the athleticism and passion that is BodyTraffic,” Finkelman Berkett explains. “I think we have a lot of heart, and you get to see all the colours of who we are in this piece. Barak’s work really allows each person to dive into character development.”

Shechter is another Batsheva-influenced choreographer, and although he’s vastly different in style from Marshall, Finkelman Berkett says he made BodyTraffic’s wish list because he also has a “strong, clear voice”. Anyone who saw Shechter’s own company perform in a DanceHouse presentation at the Playhouse in 2009 knows he has an intense, beat-pumped way of reaching into the human condition. BodyTraffic wooed him for years until he agreed to create the new piece. “Hofesh’s work is so emotionally grounded and has real inner, deep focus. As a dancer, to look at yourself in a deep way and explore the depth and even the darkness of who you are, you feel exposed in every way,” she says of the new commission, called Dust.

BodyTraffic worked on the piece with Shechter in December, but the chance to come here and finesse it in the week before the shows is an almost unheard-of luxury, Finkelman Berkett says.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to let the work rest and then for him to have the ability to return to it and say, ‘Maybe I want to make another little edit.’ So we’re excited Chutzpah is giving us this chance to refine it.”

Idan Sharabi is one of Israel’s new voices.
Tami Weiss

As a Jewish artist, the dancer says, she’s always been drawn to the art coming out of Israel—and fortunately, audiences also find it appealing. “It’s kind of pure coincidence and luck that Israel is having a renaissance of dance, starting with Ohad Naharin and filtering into so many Israeli choreographers’ work.”

Shechter may be one of the bigger, established names in that filtering-down, but the attraction at Chutzpah is that it’s also a place to see the stars of tomorrow. One rising talent this year is Idan Sharabi, and as is so often the case, Albert is bringing an unknown name here in the hope that he will click with audiences.

“That’s the thing about the artists I bring in: they’re not already stars first,” she says. “In his case, you know the level of the artist, though. You don’t dance with two of the best companies in the world without being good.”

The young, gifted Sharabi grew up in the tiny village of Mazkeret Batya but moved to Tel Aviv to attend a performing-arts high school after a sharp-eyed dance presenter saw his moves on a resort-hotel dance floor when Sharabi was about 13. He went on to graduate from New York’s Juilliard School and was immediately snapped up by one of the world’s top contemporary companies: Nederlands Dans Theater. After four years there, he finally returned to his homeland to dance for Batsheva.

“Ohad [Naharin] invited me to be in the company and have a lot of free time to do choreography. He really supported me in my choreographing,” says Sharabi, who spent only a year at Batsheva before venturing into his own project full-time. He’s speaking to the Straight from just outside Tel Aviv, where he lives.

“I don’t dare call it a company; I call it a group,” he says of his dancers, who have experience in companies around the world, and most of whom have returned to Israel to live. His group (three of them will travel alongside him to perform here) is an apt example of the way Israeli dance and dancers are ricocheting around the globe these days. “I think I’m basically very lucky that all these amazing dancers want to come back home, and they call me and say, ‘I want to do your stuff,’ ” explains the charismatic dance artist, though he’s reluctant to attach his work too strongly to his homeland’s cultural renaissance. “I think it’s exciting that we are Israeli, but I don’t feel the ‘being Israeli’ thing.”

As someone who’s lived in the U.S., Europe, and Israel, Sharabi is more focused on the idea of home, a theme he explores in his work here to an eclectic soundscape of live and recorded spoken thoughts about the subject from his equally international dancers, as well as electronic music, Joni Mitchell songs, and the strains of Frédéric Chopin.

At Nederlands Dans Theater, where he won an award as one of the top upcoming choreographers of 2010, Sharabi’s work became known as having an offbeat mix of humour, seriousness, and pain. “When I hear that, my heart agrees. I’m ironic. It’s always funny to be serious, but you’ve always got to be laughing,” says Sharabi, adding that he thinks his sense of humour is drawn not just from Israel but from the other places he’s lived.

Sharabi embodies the fact that it’s almost impossible to pin down an Israeli “style” of dance. Anyone who’s visited Chutzpah over the past five or six years knows it can range from the brutal collision of bodies in conflict in Kibbutz’s Ekodoom to the theatrical, darkly playful struggles of domestic servants in Marshall’s Monger.

Speaking of the common base so many Israeli artists have at Batsheva, Sharabi offers this: “I see it as an influence that can go both ways. You can be influenced but choose to go the other way, or you can agree with it and take it further.

“I’ve been struggling with it for years, this word influence. I feel like with choreography, or just creativity in general, it depends so much on the watcher. Like at NDT [Nederlands Dans Theater], they were calling me a super-energetic Israeli choreographer. And then when I came to Batsheva, I was the NDT dancer with the perfect lines.”

Perhaps in the end, it might not be the look or style of Israeli dance that defines it, but the sheer volume of original voices, like Sharabi, that it’s producing and exporting. And for the future of dance programming at Chutzpah, that can only mean more good things to come.

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