Oshra Elkayam-Ronen, who belongs to the pioneer generation of Israeli movement theater, is one of the important Israeli choreographers in this style. One can discern two main theoretical topics in her work: questions about the nature of life, and the relationship between men and women. She maintains that she feels like a human being who has been cast into the world, searching for a place to hold on to. She sees life as a paradox but at the same time has a drive to create, ambition to realize herself, “to climb on the ladders”—all of which require incessant pursuit. “The only permanent element that cannot be stopped,” she maintains, “is time, which acts like a local train going through a series of life stations that lead in the end to an unattained goal.” Her work appears as if it were immersed in a pool of fantasy, humor and optimism.
Oshra was born in Netanyah on September 24, 1939. Her father, Ovadiah Elkayam (1908–1987), was a farmer who graduated from the agricultural school at Mikveh Israel. Her mother, Rahel (née Payekov) Elkayam (1915–2000), was a nurse. Her parents were born in Tiberias and married in 1937.
The artists who most influenced Elkayam were Gertrude Kraus, ballet choreographer Antony Tudor (1909–1987) and film director Fedrico Fellini (1920–1993). Elkayam grew up on a farm in Ramat Tiomkin in Netanyah. She claimed that the burden she bore as the daughter of a farming family and working in the fields gave her strength for life. She saw her first dance performance at age twelve, when Gertrud Kraus’s Israel Ballet came to Netanyah.
At the beginning of the 1950s Elkayam began to study Ausdruckstanz (Dance of Expression) with Kraus and even participated in the dance company in Händel’s oratorio Samson and Delilah (1955), Kraus’s last work. After she saw Martha Graham’s troupe in Israel in 1956, she decided to study her dance style. That same year, she was awarded a scholarship by Bethsabée de Rothschild and traveled to New York to study with Graham. After two and a half years in Graham’s studio, she registered for dance and choreography classes at Juilliard and even staged a number of performances with her own company.
In 1960 Elkayam married Haggai Ronen (1938–1969), a member of Kibbutz Afikim, who was a pilot in the Israel Air Force. The couple had three children: the twins Itai and Amir (b. 1966) and a daughter Sivan (b. 1969).
Returning to Israel in 1963, Elkayam joined the first Batsheva Company as a dancer. She became well known mainly as an original choreographer by virtue of the dances she created for the company: Adam and Eve (1965), which humorously depicts how the socially inferior woman succeeds in duping the man by her wit and femininity, and David and Goliath (1966).
In 1967 Elkayam founded in Haifa, together with Ruth Eshel, the Oshra Elkayam Dance Theater—A Stage for Israeli Choreography, which operated for two years. Its repertoire comprised the works she had created while in New York, including The Trial, The Witches, Bird of Omen and Mediterranean.
In 1969, during the War of Attrition, her husband Haggai’s plane was shot down and he was killed. She moved to Afikim, her husband’s kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, where in 1969 she founded the Jordan Valley regional dance studio together with Hedda Oren. Elkayam helped found the kibbutz’s dance troupe at the end of 1969. For its first program at Kibbutz Yagur on February 27, 1970, she choreographed Homage to Paul Klee. During the second half of the 1970s Elkayam, together with Mirali Sharon, was among the few Israeli choreographers invited to create works for professional groups of which they had not been members. She was the first guest choreographer to be invited to create a work for the Inbal Theater, where she staged Requiem for a Warrior (1972), And the Sea is Not Yet Full (1976), and Song of Songs (1979). These dances dealt with fate and death, influenced as they were by her husband’s death. She choreographed Journey to Nowhere (1974) and Eclipse. The former dealt with relationships between people, while the second focused on the Holocaust. She created several works for the kibbutz company, including Triplet’s Trip (1979), which she claimed showed the first signs of her transition toward movement theater. “The subject deals with human beings’ lack of control over their fate. I expressed this idea through the imaginative journey of a group of wanderers, two men and a woman, who come from nowhere and go to nowhere. Although I was working with dancers, I allowed myself to use the whole gamut of physical expression, including movement, dance, pantomime, song and speech.”
The success of Triplet’s Trip imbued Elkayam with the confidence to continue in this artistic direction, but with a company of her own which would include artists from different theater disciplines. The first work she created for the movement theater setting that she founded was Terminal (1980), which has an urban quality, with people hurrying from place to place, moving from side to side like pendulums between the past and the future, unable to stop in the present for even a moment. The performance won the Kinor David prize in 1981 and was staged at the Israel Festival, the Berlin Festival, the Edinburgh Festival and the Pompidou Center. At the Israel Festival in 1984 the Oshra Elkayam Movement Theater presented One-and-a-Half-Inch Tremolo, which deals with the lack of communication between people.
In 1989, Elkayam staged Ladders, a contemporary fable depicting the constantly developing relationship between a man and a woman. Despite her inferior starting point in the race of life which is the result of societal norms, the woman emerges the winner.
After about a decade of protracted silence, Elkayam choreographed And Then I Went, to texts by Israeli poets, performed by actress Odelya Moreh-Matalon. This multimedia production was a rich combination of video art and animation, which conduct a dialogue with the written word of Hebrew poetry. Created from a feminine perspective, it is a nostalgic work of yearning for a time long past. Elkayam ends the show with a poem by Dalia Ravikovitch: “I don’t need to get there.” This does not mean that we are not meant to get somewhere, but simply that we must put the emphasis on the journey, not the destination.
Oshra Elkayam file at the Israeli Dance Library at Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv; Eshel, Ruth. To Dance with the Dream: The Beginning of Artistic Dance in Erez Israel 1920–1964 (Hebrew with English summary). Tel Aviv: 1991; Idem. “Movement Theater in Israel 1976–1991” (Hebrew with English summary). Ph.D. dissertation, Faculty of Arts, Tel Aviv University: 2001; Harlev, Shai. “She Doesn’t Need to Get There: About Oshra Elkayam-Ronen.” (Hebrew). Dance Today 8 (July 2000); Sowden, Dora. “Ladder of Dream.” Jerusalem Post, October 20, 1989.