Ruth Ziv-Ayal (Sprung), a director and choreographer, is one of the most significant figures in Israeli movement theater. She was the first to choreograph in this style, beginning in the first half of the 1970s. Her creative output of more than thirty years, which is performed by an experimental theater group or a troupe of actor-dancers that she assembles anew for each project, employs a unique language of movement that she developed during years in theater and in teaching. Of the subjects presented in her work, she says: “How you meet and how you part: these are personal, intimate subjects that affect the soul of every human being … the questions connected to human life and my own life. … What changes as time passes is the medium: sometimes I use balls or newspapers, and sometimes water or sand.”
Ziv-Ayal was born in Haifa on January 4, 1944. In 1933 her father, Zwi (Herman) Sprung, who was born in Berlin in 1913, emigrated to Palestine, where he worked as a locksmith. He died in 1981. His wife, Regina (née Weiss), born in Berlin in 1914, also reached Palestine in 1933, was trained and worked as a children’s nurse and died in 1999. The couple knew each other from their membership in a Zionist youth movement. On arriving in Palestine they joined a kibbutz and subsequently married. In addition to Ruth, the couple had two daughters: Naomi (b. 1939) and Shulamit (b. 1947). In 1973 Ruth married Avishay Ayal, a painter and lecturer born in 1945. They have two daughters: Alumah (b. 1975) and Nurit (b. 1978).
Ziv-Ayal’s early work was characterized by the use of everyday materials such as household tools, newspapers and balls, which served as both a source and a boundary for the performance. Her work during the 1980s and 1990s expanded to use materials such as soil, sand, water, bread and clothing. Most of her work does not use text, the sounds coming rather from the concrete actions or the voice of the actor. Usually a small prepared sound track is used.
Ziv-Ayal’s work develops slowly in order to “give [viewers] time to breathe the moment and come to the full richness of the subject; like a hand-woven carpet, they must discover all the richness of the patterns within it.” She chooses to work with actor-dancers in a protracted process that includes improvisation and defined tasks while giving expression to the performer’s personality. Her works lead the viewer into an imaginative and sensual experience, though they all carry messages that can be decoded in political, psychological and social contexts.
When Ziv-Ayal was eleven years old she began to study modern dance with Naomi Aliskovsky, a soloist in Gertrud Kraus’s company. She took part in several of Aliskovsky’s productions, including The House of Bernarda Alba (1964) and Sun: Ritual Dance and Elusive Visions for the Bimat Mahol troupe (1965). Under Aliskovsky’s tutelage she learned the fundamentals of classical ballet and also the Martha Graham system of modern dance, together with modern dance exercises influenced by the Ausdruckstanz system of expression. She placed much emphasis on her improvisational studies, in which she excelled. With time, she studied in the theater department of Tel Aviv University and in 1966 went to New York to study. She stayed there for five and a half years, during which she earned both her bachelor’s (1968) and master’s (1970) degrees in dance at New York University’s School of Performing Arts. The director of the department was Jean Erdman, one of the first dancers in Martha Graham’s company. Richard Schechner, who gave a course on ceremony and ritual, was also on the faculty. This was a period of thriving for theater arts and fringe productions in New York, which included Happenings by Allan Kaprow and experimental theater in the form of works by Richard Schechner, Joseph Chaikin and Judson Church.
In 1971 Ziv-Ayal returned to Israel and began to teach movement at the Beit Zevi acting school. Since 1978 she has also taught in the theater department at Tel Aviv University. At the same time, she worked as a choreographer at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem, with the artistic director Michael Alfreds. In that setting, she created the movement for The Persian Protocols, Fun-Shun and The Immigrants. With Alfreds’s encouragement, she created a project for the theater, Secret Places (1977), her first movement theater work in Israel. The performance was a kind of “modern tale” in which a young couple encounters imaginary characters whose style is defined by the personification and humanization of silverware, buttons, bowls, ropes and keys. The performance contains neither text nor music; the only sounds are those made by the objects as the characters move.
In 1978 Ziv-Ayal choreographed The Scarecrow for a solo performance by Ruth Eshel. This short one-character play presents a scarecrow, stuck in its place with a trash can instead of a head, which dreams of walking away and breaking free of its isolation.
In 1979 Ziv-Ayal created a show for Ensemble II of the Cameri Theater. The performance comprises two parts: “Headlines” and “Bounce Back.” In the former, piles of newspapers are strewn all over the stage, serving as scenery, props and ingredients for creating the characters. This is a bittersweet, humoristic look at contemporary culture, the power of the media and their transformation of human beings into their servants. “Bounce Back” depicts a magic playground, an embarrassed character from the nineteenth century and “vacationers” wearing striped clothing playing with balls of all sizes, from giant beach balls to ping-pong balls.
In 1981 Ziv-Ayal choreographed White Death for the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, at the center of which is a virtuoso solo for a dancer who is always in conflict with the company, a sort of individual against the collective, until the bitter end. In 1982 she set up the first cast of her dance company, the Ruth Ziv-Ayal Troupe. At the initiative of Oded Kotler, the group worked at the newly established Neve Zedek theater center, where it performed a number of compositions.
Cycle (1982), commissioned by the Israel Festival, was performed in the open air, on an earth stage in which was a pool of water. The work, for a cast of twenty, has three parts: the first depicts primitive, violent creatures who roll about on the earth from which they were created; in the second, the company divides into groups of young boys and girls who play courting and power games on the sand and in the water; and the third part depicts an infinite journey in blinding desert light of a group of people searching for their way.
Wear and Tear (1984) presents a story of escape and survival. Six members of the company leave a closet and pile clothing on the stage. Putting on and taking off layers of clothing, the performers assume roles and change identities.
The Window (1986) is a macabre family story, inspired by the life cycle of the black widow spider, which devours its mate after mating. Four women develop a charged relationship with one man, who fills the role of husband, father, brother and son.
Gravity (1989) was choreographed for the Kibbutz Dance Company at the initiative of its director, Yehudit Arnon, and commissioned especially for the Israel Festival in Jerusalem. The complex production has three parts: in the first, “Gravity,” the dancers move quickly and bump into each other, pushing and pulling each other. The second part, “The Gatherers,” presents aggressive, dwarf-like creatures who live in the forest and struggle to survive; in the third part, “Orbit,” the dancers, wearing bright orange clothing, stand in place and move slowly and almost imperceptibly. From 1990 to 1994, Ziv-Ayal choreographed “Parts,” a continuous theatrical piece in seven sections, for the Suzanne Dellal Dance Center at Neve Zedek. The work depicts a tribe of people who go on a journey. In walking, the human being’s most basic and daily activity, the people reveal their weaknesses and limitations.
While each part of the work stands on its own, the presentation of several together allowed for a broader and more complex tapestry. Each part was presented to the audience once a month as a separate event, and such a performance was called a “sketch.” Each new part that was created led to change and updating in all the earlier ones and these changes were apparent when the parts were presented together in a marathon performance. This manner of performance allowed the audience to be partners in the development of the saga and to grow close to the characters as they appeared over time.
Mangrusim (1998) was a solo performance choreographed for the Suzanne Dellal Center and sponsored by the Batsheva Dance Company. It is a homeless woman’s abstract journey among a landscape of stones. She dances on the stones, eats them, sings, feels pain and laughs with them. The performance has three parts: gathering, a meal, resting. It takes place on stage and the proximity that is created allows viewers to look closely at the minutiae of breathing, movement of the fingers and the shape of the stones.
Suf (Reed), a dance of about thirty minutes, was choreographed for the Batsheva Dance Company, commissioned by Ohad Naharin, the artistic director. Figures dressed in white stand on capsized boats. Their movement is restrained and delicate, like the trembling of reeds in the wind. A mysterious character moves slowly on a thin pipe stretched high up, like a beam of light.
In 1979 Ziv-Ayal received the Silver Rose award of the Ma’ariv daily newspaper for an original creation for the theater and in 1996 Tel Aviv University’s Rosenblum Prize for Theater Arts.
Avigal, Shosh. “Life’s Concentrated Formula.” Davar (9.3.1982); Admon, Telma. “A bullet in a crowned head.” Newspaper clipping; Aldor, Gabi. “Cycles—A work in progress.” In Mahol be-Yisra’el 1983: 26–29; Bar-Kadma, Emanuel. “A man’s visit.” Yedi’ot Aharonot (25.7.1986); Eshel, Ruth. Movement-Theater in Israel 1976–1991. Doctoral thesis. Department of Arts, Tel Aviv University: October 2001, 77–100; Handelsalz, Michael. “Finally, theater.” Ha’aretz (24.7.1979); Hashilony-Dolev. “A different dance.” Yedi’ot Aharonot (19.2.1992); Witz, Shosh. “Relationships form and end.” Yedi’ot Aharonot (23.3.1984); Zartal, Idit. “Surprise, humor and the rest of the spirit.” Davar (8.9.1976); Yaron, Eliakim. “Experience without words.” Ma’ariv (29.7.1979); Ibid. “The clothes are rags.” Ma’ariv (9.3.1984). Leskli, Hezi. “Coming out of the closet.” Ha’ir (24.2.1984); Ibid. “Swallowing life.” Ha’ir (8.8.1986); Fuchs, Sarit. “The body cannot lie.” Ma’ariv (26.6.1979); Manor, Giora. “The exile of the remembered headline.” Al Ha-Mishmar (2.6.1976); “Of balls and newspapers.” Al Ha-Mishmar (2.6.1976); “Water and soil.” Al Ha-Mishmar (5.9.1982); Ibid. “A window to women’s realm.” Al Ha-Mishmar (9.8.1986); Ibid. “The wondrous journey of Ruth Ziv-Ayal.” Israel Dance Quarterly 4 (October 1994): 10–15; Reuven, Tikvah. “Dialogue without words.” Yedi’ot Aharonot (9.7.1979).