Mia Arbatova


by Nira Paaz

Belorussian-born Mia Arbatova was one of the pioneers of classical ballet in Israel.

Institution: Nira Paaz

In Brief

Although Mia Arbatova’s parents at first forbade her dancing, seeing it as shameful, they eventually relented, allowing her to study at the National Opera Company of Riga in Latvia. She married her dance partner Valentine Ziglovsky in 1934, and after they divorced in 1937, Arbatova made Aliyah to Palestine. She began choreographing and teaching young dancers there in 1940 for the National Folk Opera. She opened her own dance studio in 1943 and created several ballet and performance companies, including Ballet Ammami in 1949. Arbatova thrived despite the lack of any aid from public institutions and even taught poor students free of charge. Her students went on to perform worldwide for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, the London Festival Ballet, and other prestigious companies. In 1985 she was made an “Honorary Citizen of Tel Aviv” for her contributions to Israeli culture. After her death, several former students founded the Mia Arbatova Ballet Association in her honor.

Ballet Beginnings

Mia Arbatova (née Hirshwald) was one of the leading pioneers of classical ballet in Israel.  Born in Belorussia, she was the daughter of Ze’ev Hirshwald (d. 1924), a chemist, and Zila Schmulian-Hirshwald (1879–1954). She had two sisters: Lisa (1906–1989) and Martha (1908–1973). At the age of eleven she saw ballet for the first time and was immediately captivated by the magic of dance. Her parents were horrified at the idea of her dancing, since it was considered shameful for a Jewish child to dance, and refused to allow her to take lessons. As a result of the conflict between her desperate desire to dance and her parents’ opposition to the idea, she fell ill. Later, when her parents realized how exceptionally talented she was as a dancer, they begged her forgiveness and gave her their support.

Arbatova began her studies at the school of the National Opera Company of Riga, the capital of Latvia, where her teachers were Olga Fiodrova and Alexandra Fokine, the sister-in-law of the famous choreographer, MichelM Fokine, who created many important ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, including The Dying Swan, Scheherezade, The Firebird, Petrouchka and Les Sylphides.

When Mia Arbatova joined the Opera Ballet as soloist, she was fortunate to work for a period with Fokine himself, as well as with the teacher/choreographer Asaf Messerer. In 1933 she married her dance partner Valentin Ziglovsky and in 1934 visited Palestine with him, performing there for two years. Following a tour of recitals in various European capitals and in the United States, the couple divorced in 1937, and in 1938 Arbatova returned to settle in Palestine.

Fighting Opposition in Palestine

Arbatova’s goal was to develop classical ballet in Palestine, in spite of the antagonistic attitudes of various influential groups, including the press. With this aim in mind, she began teaching ballet. In 1940, invited to choreograph for the National Folk Opera (Opera Amamit), she gathered together the most promising boy and girl dancers of those she was teaching and began training them to dance in opera.

In 1943 Arbatova married the singer and actor Josef Goland (1907–1973) and in 1953 gave birth to their daughter Ofra. The marriage initiated a partnership in various artistic activities. The first, a satirical cabaret in Tel Aviv, Af Al Pi, was followed by the Li La Lo and the Do Re Mi companies.

In 1943 Arbatova opened her first ballet studio in Tel Aviv. The first students were her two nieces, who both became professional dancers in Palestine and abroad. Over the years, she moved from place to place and eventually settled at 72 Keren Kayemet (later Ben Gurion) Boulevard in Tel Aviv, where her studio served as a secret arms “cache” at the outbreak of the War of Independence. At the time, ballet shoes were unknown in the country, so Arbatova taught a Tel Aviv shoemaker how to make them. She accomplished all this in the face of much opposition and criticism, since ballet was at first held to be a bourgeois art which distorted the body.

Teaching and Performing in Israel

In 1945 Arbatova created a ballet company for her pupils and three years later, during the War of Independence, performed with her pupils before the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. In 1949, together with Mia Pick-Ajolo, Elisheva Mona and Irena Getry, Arbatova formed the Ballet Ammami company, performing all over the country. In 1951 she staged Les Sylphides, as well as choreographing a number of biblical and Israeli dances at the Habima Theater. In 1955 her youth ballet gave performances of her work, including The Little Match Girl, The Nutcracker and a Chopin evening. Later Arbatova formed the first army dance group for the Israel Defense Forces.

Together with Mia Pick-Ajolo, her long-time friend and assistant, Arbatova produced three generations of dancers, many of whom became distinguished artists both in Israel and abroad, performing with such ballet companies as the Ballet Rambert, Roland Petit, New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Opera Ballet of Lisbon, the London Festival Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet. Many of her pupils received free tuition and some of them even lodged in her home. She never received any financial support or contributions from public institutions.

Success and Impact

In recognition of her talent and professionalism, Mia Arbatova was invited to judge at many important international ballet competitions. One of these was the 1959 International Festival of Youth in Vienna. The Gold Medal winners included such future Russian ballet stars as Rudolf Nureyev with Alla Sizova and Ekaterina Maximova with Vladimir Vasiliev. Among the Silver Medal winners, in both the classical and character sections, was a sixteen-year-old student of Arbatova’s, Yona Levy.

Mia Arbatova’s studio achieved a world-wide reputation and became the base for visiting dance companies and dancers when they were in Israel. These included Anton Dolin, Jerome Robbins, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, the London Festival Ballet, the Nederland Ballet and the Kirov Ballet. In 1985 Arbatova was honored by the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa with the title “Honorary Citizen of Tel Aviv” for her continued efforts and contribution to the art of dance.

In 1989, one of her distinguished former pupils, Nira Paaz, together with Arbatova’s niece and pupil, Zohara Simkins-Manor, Yair Vardi, Managing Director of the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, and the late Chezi Leskly, poet, ballet critic and choreographer, founded the Mia Arbatova Ballet Association, with the aim of creating a classical ballet competition, as a means to encourage and support ballet dancers and to honor Arbatova’s unrelenting work and incalculable contribution to classical ballet in Israel.

Mia Arbatova died in 1990, after a prolonged illness. She donated her body to science.

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How to cite this page

Paaz, Nira. "Mia Arbatova." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 27, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/arbatova-mia>.