1923 – 2001
According to the judges who in 1998 awarded her the Israel Prize in the field of dance, Professor Hassia Levy-Agron was remarkable for her artistic and educational contributions over the previous fifty years, as a dancer, choreographer, teacher and educator who produced many generations of dancers, creators of dance and dance teachers. As far back as the 1940s, Levy-Agron gave many solo performances as well as cultural evenings and recitals. She initiated and participated in combined performances of dance, dramatic reading and music, which were called Mahol-Niv (mahol=dance in Hebrew, niv=idiom).
In 1948, during the War of Independence, Levy-Agron cut short her studies with Martha Graham and returned from New York to perform for Israeli troops. After the war she was sent by the Joint Distribution Committee to perform for the Jews in the Displaced Persons camps in Europe.
From the 1950s, Hassia Levy-Agron invested all her energy in developing and enhancing the status of artistic dance in Israel, thus leading to its inclusion in general and academic education in Israel. In 1951 she established the dance department in the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music and in 1965 founded the dance and movement department in the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music which later became the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Her belief in the importance of dance as an educational factor which shapes the human spirit guided her as a pioneer in integrating artistic dance in the educational system.
Throughout her career, Levy-Agron founded youth dance troupes to provide young dancers and artists with experience. Alongside her choreography, much of which was based on Biblical sources and Israeli life, Levy-Agron was adept at providing tools and skills to many other artists. In this way she fostered many generations of choreographers, artists and dancers. Her work in the service of dance, together with her personality and activity in various artistic organizations and public committees, contributed significantly to promoting the status of artistic dance in Israel.
A seventh-generation Jerusalemite, Hassia Levy-Agron was born on December 2, 1923. Her mother, Elisheva Rivlin (1895 Hebron–1964 Tel Aviv), was related to the well-known Rivlin family. Her father’s family came from Russia with the First Aliyah (1882–1903). Her grandfather, Baruch Shmuel Levy (Rosinsky; 1854–1917), was one of the founders of Tel Aviv. Her father, Hayyim Leib Levy (1895–1972), born in Jaffa, was a member of the board of the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which later became Bank Leumi le-Israel. Hassia had a sister, Aliza Adelman (b. 1920), and a brother, Baruch Shmuel (b. 1929). She was married to Dani Agron (b. 1921), a member of the Haganah, one of the founders of Israel Aircraft Industries and a well-known woodcarver. They had a son, attorney Amos Agron (b. 1957).
Levy-Agron danced from early childhood: from1928 to 1930 in the kindergarten run by the poet Levin Kipnis (1894–1990) and David Shitrai; with Tirzah Goitein, her first rhythmics teacher; and with Tovah Berlin. The dance teachers at the Lemel school in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv sisters Yehudit and Shoshana Ornstein, were certain that Levy-Agron was born to dance. In a 1989 interview with Ruth Eshel, Levy-Agron said: “Shoshana gave me a great deal in terms of creativity: improvisations on subjects from literature, music and themes related to ourselves. The lesson would begin with work in various rhythms (a kind of rhythmics), and end with choreography.” Shoshana stopped traveling to Jerusalem after five years. “I was consumed with jealousy over the fact that famous dancers and teachers recently arrived from Europe were teaching in Tel Aviv,” Hassia said, referring to Gertrud Kraus, Tehillah Rassler and Paula Padani.
Levy-Agron always had teachers who appreciated and encouraged her talent. They included Jerusalem-based Elsa-Aliza Dublon, a pupil of Mary Wigman, who enabled her to study with Gertrud Kraus in Tel Aviv. She summed up the uniqueness of her teachers as follows: “Gertrud gave inspiration, Dublon more tools and [Yardena] Cohen was a symbol of Erez Israeli authenticity.”
Despite parental resistance, Levy-Agron continued to dance, and then in the early 1940s began to appear as a soloist in artistic and cultural evenings that combined music, dance and song, organized by the impresario Moshe Vallin. Her performances reaped high praise from critics, who appreciated her originality, creativity and performance skills.
The seed from which her most important educational work developed was planted in 1951, when she founded the department of dance at the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music, directed by Yokheved Dostrovsky-Kopernick. In 1956, together with dancer, choreographer and dance-notator Noa Eshkol (b. 1923) and Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, whose field was the science of movement and culture of the body, Levy-Agron established an advanced class in Tel Aviv. The class was later included in the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music, thus constituting an academic basis for the dance academy. In 1976, when the Council for Higher Education granted the department academic status, it became the country’s first academic institution to award degrees in dance and to provide academic training to dance teachers in all educational frameworks. Prior to the beginning of the 1980 academic year, the Council also recognized the movement track (which differs from the dance instruction program) as part of the dance department, and in 1990 the degree was changed from Bachelor of Music to Bachelor of Dance.
In 1958, two years after the appearance in Israel of Martha Graham and her company and one year after Graham had given up appearing on the stage, the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance held its first summer dance course, which was dedicated to Graham’s method of modern dance. Graham herself was invited to be the principal teacher. The course, which became an annual event, drew a large number of participants from all over Israel.
In a most original manner, the department combined modern and classical dance with classes in dance notation, drama and art history, all taught by well-known practitioners in their respective fields. Every summer this staff was supplemented by teachers from abroad.
In 1978 Hassia Levy-Agron founded the country’s first high-school dance track at the high school of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. After what Levy-Agron termed “seven precious years of administrative warfare,” the Ministry of Education and Culture accredited the track as a program leading to matriculation. The goal was to maximally develop talented pupils, create a suitable setting for their skills within the framework of their high school studies, and thus raise a generation of dancers and choreographers.
In the same year, 1978, Hassia Levy-Agron was promoted to the rank of full professor. She said: “For me, the title’s significance is that dance is now recognized. I put so much energy into persuasion, until the words Academy of Music and Dance were written on the building, that I worked myself nearly to death.” Concurrently with her educational work at the Academy, Levy-Agron founded and directed the Jerusalem Contemporary Dance Company, which had ten women dancers, all graduates of the Academy, and existed from 1962 until 1967, performing in Israel and throughout the world.
In 1993 she founded the Springboard Company, whose goal was to give students at the Academy a framework in which to train for the professional stage. Funded by the Gertrud Kraus Foundation and by Gertel Miller (née Kraus), the company is an additional memorial to Gertrud Kraus, whose memory has been perpetuated in annual choreography competitions at the Academy since her death in 1978.
Tall, striking, with black hair piled up on the crown of her head, Levy-Agron was always a remarkable figure, usually dressed in long, dramatic garments and bedecked with a great deal of jewelry. On Wednesday, August 22, 2001, at 1:00 p.m., Levy-Agron closed her eyes, colorful with her vivid trademark make-up, for the last time. “I don’t go to a cosmetician,” she was wont to say. “True, I have wrinkles. That’s what I’ve got. But I will never leave the house without makeup. I wear makeup because I love color. I’m crazy about beauty.”