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Ballet in a Modern Israel

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The Performance Awards bring teacher education and scholarships to Tel Aviv and beyond

By Mignon Furman

From my balcony at the Tel Aviv Hilton, I watched swimmers, surfers, and the waves of the Mediterranean Sea lapping on the beach below. In Israel for the Performance Awards, my program to encourage and evaluate ballet students, I looked out on this city of contrasts. Its skyscrapers towered over older apartment buildings built on concrete stilts, with bomb shelters in their basements and solar panels on their roofs. I could see the nearby marina, and the biblical Jaffa in the distance.

In the cool evening breeze, all seemed peaceful. But in Israel, suicide bombers might attack anywhere. For security, bags are inspected at stores and cinemas. There was a checkpoint on the approach to the Hilton; a security guard inspected the trunk of our car. At the hotel entrance, I was frisked with a metal detector and told to open my purse for inspection. On my return to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, the police pulled our car over for a random inspection.

From this group of finalists, three girls and three boys were selected for scholarships to attend the Summer School of Excellence at the American Academy of Ballet. Center: Mignon Furman. Back, from left to right: Brian Loftus, Merle Sepel, pianist Laura Kofman, and Talia Perlschtein, organizer of the trip. (Photo courtesy Mignon Furman)
From this group of finalists, three girls and three boys were selected for scholarships to attend the Summer School of Excellence at the American Academy of Ballet. Center: Mignon Furman. Back, from left to right: Brian Loftus, Merle Sepel, pianist Laura Kofman, and Talia Perlschtein, organizer of the trip. (Photo courtesy Mignon Furman)

On my first visit to Israel for the Performance Awards, four years ago, my decision to leave the safety of Manhattan for the potentially dangerous cities of Israel was therefore greeted with some surprise.

A teacher from Ashkelon, less than 10 miles from the Gaza border, told me that her students could not always come to their classes because of the missile attacks from militant organizations in Gaza. The Israeli army had already withdrawn from its invasion of Gaza when I arrived in Israel. Everyday life in Tel Aviv did not reflect the war that had been raging about an hour’s drive away.

I had several objectives to squeeze into my visit: Assess the students, awarding a medal and certificate to each one; instruct teachers in my programs and in those of Merle Sepel for the preschool child; audition students for scholarships for my Summer School (American Academy of Ballet); meet the teachers who had participated in the programs; and judge the first Performance Awards competition in Israel.

There are some eight modern dance companies in Israel, as well as jazz, tap, and European and Middle Eastern folk dance companies. The main ballet company is Israeli Ballet, which has its own school. I saw the company at the new and modernistic opera house in Tel Aviv and was impressed by its style in the classical ballets.

One of the most notable companies in Israel was Bat-Dor (which means “Generation’s Daughter”) Dance Company. Bat-Dor achieved world recognition before the recent deaths of its benefactress, the Baroness de Rothschild (who had previously founded Batsheva; it is now directed by Ohad Naharin) and Jeannette Ordman, its director and leading dancer for many years.

Into this milieu I gingerly stepped four years ago, uncertain of how the Israeli teachers would view my concept of medals and certificates as motivation for enhanced technique and performance. At first the teachers who attended my courses were skeptical; they asked so many questions about the program and its implementation that I began to think my ideas would never work there. The Performance Awards were already active in eight countries (the United States, Japan, Mexico, Holland, the Bahamas, South Africa, Spain, and Canada); perhaps I would not be able to add Israel to the list. However, since then the number of participating teachers and students has increased; the 26 teachers and 530 students are an indicator of the Israelis’ newfound enthusiasm.

On this trip I was assisted by Brian Loftus and Merle, both guest teachers at the Summer School and judges for the Performance Awards in the United States and other countries. Brian lives in London and teaches there as well as in New York, Paris, and Japan. Merle is on the dance faculty of California State University at Fullerton and owns a ballet school in Santa Ana, California.

Our travels, by car and train, took us to some of the local community centers, where most of the Performance Awards were held. Built with lottery proceeds, the centers offer performance spaces, libraries, and instruction areas for art. Apart from Israel’s three main cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, we visited six other towns, some poetically named: Nes-Ziona (Miracle of Zion), Bat-Yam (Sea Daughter), and Sefar-Amir (Beauty—Bough of a Tree). In the biblical town of Shoham (Stones), the mayor—in jeans and open-necked shirt, reflecting the informality of Israel—gave a laudatory speech of welcome. For a moment I felt that American–Israeli diplomacy depended on ballet!

Merle had two memorable experiences. She traveled to a kibbutz in Ga’aton, near Lebanon, where she met a teacher who was 17 when she was freed from Auschwitz at the end of World War II. Then, at the Performance Awards in the Arab village of Shfar’am, the students danced in tights and leotards while their mothers in the audience were covered in black from head to toe, their faces and heads veiled with yashmaks. The teacher there, anticipating Israeli animosity, did not attend the teachers’ meeting, which of course was erroneous thinking.

 At all the Performance Awards there were flutters of excitement, flashes of cameras, and bevies of flowers as parents shared the thrill of the students when the medals were awarded, whatever the color—gold, silver, or bronze. Several exceptional dancers received gold medals with distinction, which are rarely awarded. The improvement in the standard of schools I had visited a year before was quite apparent. I felt a sense of fulfillment that my concept of ballet education had been accepted in yet another country.

Our travels, by car and train, took us to some of the local community centers, where most of the Performance Awards were held. Built with lottery proceeds, the centers offer performance spaces, libraries, and instruction areas for art.

My second objective was a two-session course, attended by about 52 teachers from all over Israel. (Considering that the population of Israel is about 7 million, that’s the equivalent of roughly 2,100 teachers in the United States.) Although Hebrew is the official language of Israel and many of the teachers are sabras (born in Israel), they all had a good understanding of English; some were immigrants from England, Canada, or South Africa.

For the teachers’ course I showed videos of my two new programs, which are detailed instruction classes for different ages: “Junior Steps” for students ages 10 to 12 and “Now I Am a Teen.” I also included a session on beginning pointe work, an area of teaching that I often find needs improvement; some teachers (not only in Israel) do not seem to grasp the concept of the training elements.

 Merle’s program for 3- to 5-year-olds includes a voice-over and special sound effects. She performed with the teachers as she taught them “Fantasy Sea Adventure” and “Jungle Adventure.” While these courses were taking place, Brian gave classes to senior students in another part of the center.

The next day we held the scholarship auditions. I award about 40 scholarships to our Summer School each year to U.S. dancers, and over the years I have helped more than 500 students attend. By improving their technique and performance quality, they take a step toward achieving their dreams of becoming professional dancers. I have also awarded scholarships to students from England, France, Spain, and South Africa, so I decided to extend the program to Israel. Forty-six students attended the audition. Brian gave the class; Merle and I made the selections—not an easy task, considering the high standard of the students. We awarded six scholarships.

Because in Israel both girls and boys are conscripted into the army (for two and three years, respectively) after leaving school, we had to choose extra dancers in case our first choices were unable to get military leave. (The army has an office of cultural affairs to enable young performing artists to continue their studies during their military service.)

The Performance Awards is not a competitive event in that the idea is not to find a winner but to assess the students and award a medal (gold, silver, or bronze) and a certificate to each dancer who participates. However, annual competitions for the high achievers are held in New York and Durban, South Africa. All dancers perform the same choreography, which is part of the repertoire taught for their level, wearing leotards and tights. Since attire, music, and choreography are not part of what’s being judged, the winners are chosen solely for their dance quality, technique, and presentation.

Since the program was now in its third year in Israel, I decided to hold a competition for the first time. Only dancers who had participated in the program and who were awarded a gold medal were eligible to enter—and 65 did.

In the highest level, the dancers were required to dance the solo from Act 3 of Don Quixote. Four students danced this demanding variation with great aplomb and technical virtuosity. The winner received a scholarship to the American Academy of Ballet’s summer school at Purchase College.

Prima Soft, Capezio, and Mondor donated prizes, and winners in each level received trophies. Because competitions are not as frequent in Israel as in America, the entrants and audience did not quite know what to expect. But their doubts changed to enthusiasm and the event was pronounced a success.

 My final endeavor in Israel was a meeting in the Tel Aviv Hilton’s conference center with teachers who had participated in the Performance Awards program, in order to correct any deviations from the choreography that would diminish its style or technical demands. The Hilton laid on juices, coffee, tea, and eats. A great sense of bonhomie prevailed among the teachers, some of whom had never met each other previously. It was with many rounds of goodbyes, hugs, and kisses that our trio said farewell to the Israeli teachers. They continue to unfurl the banner of artistry and ballet education for young Israeli dancers, who, in addition to facing the usual complexities of life, are embattled by hostile forces.

On my last day, I asked Talia Perlschtein, who organized our visit and the travel logistics, to translate the Hebrew lettering on a wall at the dance center where the classes were held. She said that the center is called the “Seasons of the First Fruits.” As I left Israel, planning to return the next year, I could understand the psyche of the Israelis, who live the hope that the seasons will be perennial and the first fruits abundant.

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