Dance in the Yishuv and Israel
Until 1920, dance—like other artistic activities—was virtually nonexistent in Palestine, then a neglected province of the Ottoman Empire. The Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (founded in 1906) operated in Jerusalem, while Tel Aviv had two modest music conservatories, Shulamit (founded in 1910) and Beit Ha-Levi’im (founded in 1914). Attempts were also made to set up small symphony orchestras and amateur theater, but these soon folded. There were no dance or drama schools or even auditoriums. Under the more liberal administration of the British Mandate which went into effect in 1920, waves of immigration increased until, by the middle of the 1920s, the Jewish population reached about ninety thousand. (There were 83,790 Jews in Palestine according to the first British census in 1922). The character of immigration also changed: while previously most of the immigrants had been young idealists who arrived as individuals, most of those who arrived during the third aliyah (1919–1923) were entire families, primarily from eastern Europe. They increased the population in urban settlements, built on the sands of Tel Aviv, and gave momentum to the development of the arts, particularly dance.
Since the Jewish people had no tradition of artistic dance, the pioneers of such dance in Palestine had to create it ab nihilo. The dancers who arrived in the country in the 1920s and 1930s, almost all of whom were women, brought with them their revolutionary ideas about the central European modern dance known as Ausdruckstanz (expressive dance). This style spoke to the pioneer generation because it was outstanding in its simplicity and liberation from the restrictions and rules of tradition, preferring personal expression and social involvement. It flourished in Palestine from the 1920s until the second half of the 1950s. While expressive dance took root, classical ballet encountered opposition from most of the population, who felt that it was outdated and belonged to the royal courts of centuries past.
A dispute developed among the modern dance artists as to whether to create a universal artistic dance in the spirit of European culture that dealt with the “I” and society, or to try to create a local form of dance unique to Erez Israel. Most choreographers in the country wanted to find a common thread that would connect the reviving Erez Israel culture with ancient Israel. The sources on which the choreographers could draw were a few archaeological remains, the cultural baggage that they had brought with them from Europe, the scent of the East to which they had been exposed, and the Bible. Most preferred to animate the figures they encountered in the pages of the Bible. The focus on Biblical subjects was meant to express, first and foremost, the continuous connection between the past and the present. The overwhelming desire to create a local art form led to the development of dances developed that featured Biblical characters or figures from the East, and dances that took their inspiration from the country’s landscape. For many artists, the Jew from the East personified not only the authentic Jew but also the connection between twentieth-century Jews and their ancestors. Various forms of the horah became especially popular. Performed after undergoing artistic arrangement, they symbolized the revived youth of the land.
Another subject that constituted a connection with tradition was the eastern European shtetl, but most dancers saw this as a symbol of the Exile from which they sought to free themselves. The attempt to create a native Israeli dance was, in the end, forced. The subjects were indeed taken from the Bible, but for most choreographers the movements were not significantly different from the expressive dance of Europe.
Most of the women dancers adopted the view of Rudolf von Laban (1879–1958), who researched the laws of movement and taught that it is possible to transmit an idea via composition and the use of the elements of strength, time and space. But there was a gap between the theory and its implementation, so that dancers ended up expressing their ideas in theatrical dance using exaggerated mime.
Dancers frequently appeared at recitals under unfavorable conditions, without lighting and with only piano accompaniment. Costumes were important not only per se, but were meant to compensate for the lack of staging and to add a theatrical dimension to the performance. Choreographers therefore preferred to invest the little money at their disposal in costumes. Each dance—and frequently ten short dances would be included in one performance—had its own costume. Dresses were long, made of fine, flowing material, and created one line from head to toe, a line that emphasized the expressive movement of the body. Their cut was appropriate to the idiom of the movement of the period, which included lifts, turns and leaps. The costume designers were usually artists of the Paris school.
The main goals dance teachers set for themselves were imparting tools for self-expression through improvisation and composition, developing rhythm and musicality, and improving physical fitness. There was no existing tradition or established system of teaching modern dance. The main influence came from Rudolf von Laban, his students Kurt Jooss (1901–1979) and Sigurd Leeder (1902–1981), Mary Wigman (1886–1973), Isadora Duncan (1878–1927) and the Eurhythmics system of Emile-Jacques Dalcroze (1865–1950).
In 1920, Baruch Agadati (né Kaushinski, born in Bessarabia, 1895–1976), a pioneer of artistic dance in pre-state Israel, gave a recital of expressive dance in the Eden cinema in Neve Zedek on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. In order to understand how innovative, daring and modern his act was, it is worth noting that this was in the same year that Rudolf von Laban, the theoretician and great teacher of expressive dance, founded his first dance company in Germany. A year earlier, Mary Wigman, the prime exponent of expressive dance, had appeared in her first solo performance in Dresden.
Two years after Agadati’s recital, in 1922, Margalit Ornstein, who came from Vienna, founded the first studio for expressive dance in Tel Aviv. When her twin daughters, Shoshana Ornstein and Yehudit Ornstein, turned sixteen, they traveled for hours once a week along the bumpy dirt roads to teach dance at the branches of Ornstein’s studio in Jerusalem and Haifa. Rina Nikova, who immigrated from Russia in 1924, became the “ballerina” of the Israel Opera, which the conductor Mordechai Golinkin (1875–1963) founded. She danced on a floor covered with Oriental carpets, accompanied by a young man and two young women amateurs who constituted the corps de ballet. In 1933, Nikova founded the Yemenite Company, in which young Yemenite women performed dances on Biblical subjects. The most outstanding among them was Rachel Nadav (1912–2003). The company even conducted a successful tour in Europe between 1936 and 1939. Each of these three central figures of the first generation acted independently, with no collaboration between them.
At the beginning of the 1930s, the second generation of expressive dancers began to take their first steps on stage, among them the twins Yehudit and Shoshana Ornstein; Deborah Bertonoff, who referred to herself as a mime and immigrated from Russia in 1928 with the Habimah theater; Dania Levin, who came from Turkistan in 1922 and founded the Movement and Speech Company in Tel Aviv in 1931; and dancer Yardena Cohen, a sixth-generation native, who succeeded in creating local Oriental dance with a European artistic angle. All of them went to Europe to study with the major teachers of expressive dance.
Although the 1930s were difficult years, with the White Paper that restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and the Arab riots, many artists visited the country, including dancers, most of them Jews. In 1931, Gertrud Kraus (1903–1977), a well-known choreographer and dancer from Vienna, came to the country on tour, as did Pauline Koner (1912–2001) from Poland, Ruth Sorell Abramowitsch (1907–1974), child prodigy Moussia Daiches (1915–1980, who was one of the children on whom Mengele experimented in Auschwitz), and the Indian dancer Uday Shankar (1900–1977). When they completed their studies in Europe, the local dancers returned to Palestine together with other Jewish dancers who saw the writing on the wall. All at once, the circle of women dancers expanded and in 1937 the first competition for women dancers in Palestine was held in Tel Aviv.
The Nazi rise to power brought more dancers and teachers from the expressive dance school to Palestine. They included Tille Rössler (1907–1959), who was the principal teacher at the school of Gret Palucca (1902–1993) in Dresden, and the dancers Else Dublon (1906–2002), Paula Padani and Katia Michaeli, who had all been members of Mary Wigman’s company. In 1935, at the height of her artistic success as a first-rate dancer and choreographer of Ausdruckstanz in Europe, Gertrud Kraus decided to immigrate to Palestine. She became a central figure, appearing in many solo performances and founding the Folk Opera Company (1941–1947), which was the first modern dance company in the world to be connected with an opera house. In retrospect, one can see that this small dance community, which grew all at once and not organically, was what facilitated the wealth of activity in dance during the Yishuv’s long and forced isolation from the beginning of World War II until the end of the War of Independence.
The third generation of modern dance artists began to appear at the end of the 1940s. Unlike the members of the second generation, the dancers who came after them were trained in Palestine and also gained experience on the stage. When war broke out in Europe, going there to study was out of the question and in any case by this time there were excellent teachers in the country. Most of the young dancers were pupils of Gertrud Kraus, among them Naomi Alesovsky (b. 1921), Rachel Talitman (b. 1929), Vera Goldman (b. 1921) and Hilde Kesten (1917–2002), all of whom danced in Kraus’s company. Hassia Levi-Agron, who later set up the faculty of dance at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, was a student of Else Dublon, while Rachel Nadav was a pupil of Rina Nikova.
As already mentioned, classical ballet was rejected as bourgeois, unlike expressive dance, which was welcomed in the pioneering society. Nevertheless, in 1936 Valentina Archipova-Grossman (1912–1977), originally from Latvia, opened a dance studio in Haifa and trained generations of classical dance teachers. Similarly, Mia Arbatova, formerly a dancer in the Riga Opera, founded a ballet studio in Tel Aviv in 1938 and trained generations of dancers and choreographers, among them Yona Levy, Zohara Simkins-Manor, Nira Paz, Domi Reiter-Soffer and Rina Schenfeld.
When World War II broke out, cultural contact with Europe was severed. Dance artists in Palestine entered a period of cultural isolation that lasted for about fifteen years, from the beginning of the war through the War of Independence and the austerity period at the beginning of the 1950s. From a cultural perspective, Palestine in the 1940s was a lone thriving pocket in a war-stricken world. The impressive quantity of creative work was nourished by the aspiration to turn the country into a cultural center. There was both a drive to create and an audience demand, and the isolation from Europe strengthened the reliance on local resources, which is why there were so many dance recitals and performances by teachers and their pupils. Thus, ironically, Palestine—the country where refugees from Nazi persecution found a home—became virtually the only place in the world where European Ausdruckstanz not only caught on, but became the dominant dance form.
In the first half of the 1950s, after a long period of cultural isolation, guest classical ballet companies began to arrive from Britain and France; Martha Graham’s company arrived from New York in 1956. It was now possible to compare what had been accomplished in dance in Israel with what had been done in other countries. It emerged that Ausdruckstanz had almost disappeared from the world map of dance and the spotlights were now focused on modern American dance. Exposure to the clean technique and the brilliance of the guest dancers, as well as the innovative scenery and lighting, shook the country and set new standards. These were years of crisis and numerous reports were published referring to the problems of artistic dance in Israel. Typical headlines read: “Dance of the Hopeless” and “Artistic Dance in Israel—A No-Man’s Land.”
Suddenly, Ausdruckstanz seemed dated. The closure of the Folk Opera in 1947 led to the disbanding of Kraus’s company, which had for a decade been the country’s major dance group. The Folk Opera was replaced by the Israel Opera, which Edis de Philippe founded and which was enmeshed in controversy from its founding until its closing. Most of the students of Mia Arbatova danced in the opera ballet. Work was not steady and the standard was low. Henryk Neuman, who arrived in Israel from Poland in 1957 bringing knowledge of Russian ballet with him, tried to raise the level of instruction.
Immigrant dancers from the United States, among them Ruth Harris (1950–1971), Rina Shoham (b. 1951) and Rena Gluck (b. 1954), brought the new dance form with them. Like previous generations, of whose work they knew little, many of them gave recitals, taught and, under pioneering conditions, founded semi-professional companies destined to break up after a few performances. They expressed their connection with the country by choosing subjects drawn primarily from the Bible. Graham’s historic visit, which took place at the initiative of Bethsabée de Rothschild, left a strong impression and led many Israeli dancers to stream to Graham’s studio in New York. At the same time, there began a rapid process of unchecked rejection of Ausdruckstanz and all its components.
Nevertheless, in 1949, during these twilight years of crisis, Sara Levi-Tanai founded the Inbal Dance Theater, which drew inspiration from Yemenite cultural tradition. At the recommendation of Jerome Robbins (1919–1998), the dance company became the first to operate with regular financial support and was invited to tour the United States in 1957. The company’s star was Margalit Oved. Inbal was viewed throughout the world as the exponent of Israeli artistic dance. Yet in Israel itself, it was perceived more as a folklore group and remained outside the main circle of artistic activity.
Also during the 1950s, Noa Eshkol (b. 1942) and Abraham Wachman invented the Eshkol-Wachman movement notation, which is based on geometry and mathematics and enables the objective description of all possible movements and their combinations. The notation is used in dance, research and teaching. In 1971, Amos Hetz, Eshkol’s student, founded Tenuah, a company that uses movement notation as a way of discovering a new world of movement. Now retired, Hetz was the director of the movement track at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance and the artistic director of the Festival of Ballroom Dance.
All the attempts during the 1950s and at the beginning of the 1960s to found a lasting, unsubsidized modern dance company on an international level failed. Gertrud Kraus’s Israel Ballet Theater (1951) survived for only two years, as did the Lyric Theater (1962–1964) of Anna Sokolow. Sokolow was an inseparable part of the world of dance in Israel, but since she did not settle there permanently, the company’s work was sporadic.
The younger generation who studied dance abroad had no professional company to return to. There was a sense that unless drastic measures were taken, modern American-style dance would soon go the way of Ausdruckstanz. Then, in December 1964, Bethsabée de Rothschild established the Batsheva Dance Company. At the same time as the curtain rose for their first performance, it fell on the country’s pioneering dance, its dancers and its choreographers.
The Batsheva Company’s starting point was high. Graham, herself previously sponsored by Rothschild, consented to serve as artistic advisor and even allowed the company to perform seven of her pieces. Batsheva was thus the only company, apart from Graham’s own, which performed her work. Besides original creations by the best choreographers in the world, at the end of the 1960s the troupe’s management encouraged the creation of original works by dancers in the company. Among these were Oshra Elkayam-Ronen, Rena Gluck, Moshe Efrati and Rina Schenfeld, the company’s prima ballerina. In 1967, after a clash between Bethsabée de Rothschild and the Batsheva Company regarding the status of Jeannette Ordman in the company, Rothschild founded the Bat-Dor Dance Company under the artistic management of Ordman. This ensemble also had a center built in Tel Aviv, which included a theater and several dance studios, where they trained most of the dancers of the next generations, a theater and several dance studios. Rothschild severed her connections with the Batsheva Dance company but continued to give the company money until 1975. The Israel Ballet, a classical ballet company, was founded in 1968 by Bertha Yampolsky and Hillel Markman. A year later, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, directed by Yehudit Arnon, was formed. In 1969, the dancer and choreographer Shimon Braun, formerly a member of the Batsheva Company, founded the Jazz Plus troupe in the style of the American choreographer Luiggi. The company, most of whose members had once belonged to Batsheva (Ruth Lerman, Galia Gat, Yehiel David), took the audience by storm with its performances on the weekly television program “Ulpan Agol” (Studio in the Round, one of the first entertainment programs on Israeli television). In 1978, dancer and choreographer Moshe Efrati left the Batsheva ensemble to form the Kol Demamah troupe, which at first had both deaf and hearing members for whom Efrati created a unique choreographic style.
For more than a decade, from 1964 to 1976, almost all professional activity took place in professional companies. The Batsheva and Bat-Dor companies competed with each other in bringing to Israel such major choreographers as Glen Tetley, Robert Cohan, Alvin Ailey, Rudy van Danzig, Hans van Manen, José Limon, Lar Lubovitz, Paul Taylor, John Butler and many others. The companies’ world tours put Israel on the map of international dance and improved the technical level of Israeli dancers. On the other hand, apart from a few exceptions such as Mirali Sharon and Oshra Elkayam-Ronen, companies were reluctant to engage Israeli choreographers, with the result that local creativity dried up. In the field of artistic direction the opinion prevailed that a director from abroad was preferable. In 1975 Caj Lottman (Selling), the male star of the Swedish Ballet who immigrated to Israel, was appointed director; later in the 1980s Moshe Romano, a former dancer in the Batsheva ensemble and its rehearsal director, was appointed the company’s first Israeli director.
In the mid-1970s young Israeli women choreographers began to return to Israel, bringing American post-modern dance with them. They included Rachel Cafri, who studied with Merce Cunningham; Heda Oren, who studied with Alwin Nikolai; Ronit Land, who returned from a course in Britain for young choreographers in the “New Dance” style; and Ruth Ziv-Ayal, who studied at New York University. This dance form gave them the legitimacy to rebel against the canons of American modern dance and allowed local dancers and choreographers to believe that there was professional dance other than in the established companies which refused to open their doors to the avant-garde choreographers. At the same time there were women dancers in the professional companies who felt artistically stifled and began to search for other forms of dance. In 1976, Ruth Ziv-Ayal choreographed Secret Places, the first work in the movement theater style, and in 1977 Ruth Eshel gave her first dance recital in the style of post-modernism and movement theater, which choreographers Ronit Land, Heda Oren, Ruth Ziv-Ayal and Rachel Cafri created for her. In later recitals (until 1986) Eshel herself created the choreographies for her programs and established chamber ensembles, her works for which related to natural materials and ritual. In 1977 the Batsheva 2 company (comprised of younger Batsheva dancers) staged works by Rachel Cafri, Ronit Land and stage director Miri Magnus, who had returned from studying with Peter Brook. In 1977 Dorit Shimron founded the Tnuatron ensemble, a company of young girls who combined dance and acrobatics. A year later, Rina Schenfeld appeared in her first solo recital. Flora Cushman established the Jerusalem Dance Workshop in 1978. Some of these programs were in the movement-theater and post-modern dance styles. At the same time, Spanish dance began to develop with the immigration of Silvia Doran, a dancer who opened a school in Tel Aviv and taught generations of Flamenco dancers.
Israeli choreographers adopted the rebellion of the post-modern style against established dance forms and against the canons of modern dance, searching instead for a language of movement based on everyday movements, free of burdensome costumes or scenery. They created a rich fringe dance, in which objects constituted integral parts of the choreography. At the same time, they refused to reject theatricality, plot, message and feeling; without going back to the accepted components of traditional dance, they internalized some of the values of post-modern dance, though with restraint and distance. These components of fringe dance led its practitioners to link up with creators of installations in the plastic arts and with the avant-garde fringe theater, which developed at the same time. In 1981 Pina Bausch and her company arrived in Israel for their first tour in the Tanztheater style. She came to a place where experimental work had already been done in the movement-theater style—created under the influence of American post-modern dance. Bausch’s visit to Israel with a rich and well-developed movement theater, combined with her international reputation, empowered local choreographers and provided them with new tools.
Since Bausch had her roots in Ausdruckstanz, her performances awakened the unique historical connection between dance in Israel and the dormant ausdruckstanz. Suddenly, American post-modern dance seemed foreign, too rationalistic and conceptual, a sort of half-way station on the road back to the real “home,” Europe. The creative awakening after Bausch’s visit to Israel was immediate. A year later, Nava Zuckerman founded the Tmu-Na theater and veteran choreographer Oshra Elkayam-Ronen, who was identified with the establishment, founded the Oshra Elkayam Movement Theater. Like Bausch, they also dealt with topics of gender, societal norms and lack of communication between people. In the second half of the 1980s additional choreographers and dancers joined the fringe dance artists of the 1970s, who themselves continued to create new projects almost annually. Among them were Mirali Sharon, who founded her own company, and dancers Sally Anne Friedland, Tami Ben Ami, Yaron Margolin, Nir Ben-Gal and Liat Dror. In 1983 Meira Eliash-Chain and Zvi Gotheiner founded the Ramle Company (Tamar) together with former dancers of the Batsheva Company. This company later became the Tamar-Jerusalem Company headed by Amir Kolban, which focused on Israeli-Palestinian political issues.
The increased activity on the fringe led the Council for Culture and Art and Omanut La-Am (at the initiative of Elida Gera and Gideon Paz) to found Shades in Dance (1984), which provided a professional stage and public exposure for young fringe artists. This was joined in 1990 by Curtain Up, designed for veteran Israeli fringe artists. The yearly Karmiel Dance Festival in the Galilee, established in 1988 and directed by Yonatan Karmon, draws thousands of people who come to dance folk dances for three days and nights. The festival program includes hall performances as well as mass dances in public parks and in the streets; folk dance, ethnic dance and artistic dance are all combined.
The second generation of fringe artists began their activity at the end of the 1980s. There was a gradual return to dance that required high technical skill on the dancer’s part and to dance of a multidisciplinary postmodern nature. Many small, high-quality ensembles sprang up, the most outstanding of which was that of Nir Ben-Gal and Liat Dror ; operating in Mizpe Ramon in the Negev, it deals with topics pertaining to the place where they live and includes Oriental elements in its work. Vertigo in Jerusalem (founded by Adi Sha’al and Noa Wertheim) is distinguished by its virtuosity and freshness. The two companies started with duo programs for couples who are real-life partners, later expanding into companies. Noa Dar’s company is characterized by Dar’s original movement language, while Inbal Pinto, together with actor Avshalom Polk, creates a surrealistic world of characters that look as if they were taken from a magician’s box. Choreographer Barak Marshall creates works that combine motifs taken from hasidic, Oriental and American street dance. Ido Tadmor’s ensemble excels in outstanding technical ability; Tadmor himself is today considered the best male dancer in Israel. He creates works that concentrate on people’s relationships with each other and with the world in which we live. In addition, Yossi Yungman, Anat Danieli, Tamar Borer, the Mu-Za ensemble and Yasmeen Godder constitute only a partial list. Among the veteran choreographers still active are Rina Schenfeld, Ruth Ziv-Ayal and Nava Zuckerman, who during the 1990s founded a theater in Tel Aviv that hosts experimental interdisciplinary works by young artists. Amir Kolban established the Kombina ensemble, which operates in Jerusalem.
There are many ethnic companies in Israel: Arab, Bukharan, Russian, Caucasian, Druse, Yemenite and Ethiopian. The Inbal Dance Theater is located in the Suzanne Dellal Center as the Inbal Ethnic Center directed by Haim Shiran and Ilana Cohen. Flamenco and oriental dance are popular, including a performance in an original encounter between the flamenco dancer Neta Sheazaf and belly dancer Elina Pechersky. Another manifestation of the relation between follore and artistic dance is the University of Haifa’s Eskesta Dance Theater, which studies Ethiopian dance and creates artistic dance inspired by folklore.
The large companies are still active. Ohad Naharin, formerly a member of the Batsheva company, formed the Batsheva Ensemble, a company of young people who mainly perform works by local artists. Occupying a central position alongside the Batsheva troupe is the Kibbutz Dance Company, under the artistic direction of choreographer Rami Be’er. In 1990 the Suzanne Dellal Center in Neve Zedek was built only a few streets away from the Eden movie theater where Baruch Agadati gave his first solo performance in 1920. Most dance performances in Israel take place at this dance center, which is directed by choreographer Yair Vardi, a former Batsheva dancer.
Along with the abundant creative work, there have also been developments in dance theory. At the initiative of editors Giora Manor and Judith Brin Ingber and later Gila Toledano, an annual publication, Dance in Israel, was published in 1975 and lasted until 1991. The quarterly Dance in Israel, edited by Giora Manor and Ruth Eshel, appeared from 1993 to 1998, followed from 2001 by the quarterly Dance Today, edited by Eshel. Higher education in dance takes place at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, founded by Hassia Levi-Agron in 1960. The academy’s movement track is directed by Amos Hetz. Another academic track is that for movement and dance teaching at the Kibbutz Seminar, which Yehudit Bineter and Lotte Kristeller helped found after the War of Independence. The two women came to Israel at the beginning of the 1930s from central Europe and taught according to the Ausdruckstanz system. Naomi Bahat-Ratzon, an ethnomusicologist and dance researcher who concentrated on the study of Yemenite dance, served as director until 2000.
The Dance Library of Israel in Tel Aviv was founded by U. S.-born Ann Wilson and Esther Sommers. Its development began in 1984, when the library, which had until then been part of the music library, became independent. Gila Toledano was its director and Giora Manor its artistic advisor. Tali Perlstein took over the directorship in 1997. In addition to books and videotapes of dance from all over the world, the library contains an archive of the development of dance in Israel.
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Idem., The Drum and the Sea (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1976.
Eshel, Ruth. To Dance with the Dream: The Beginning of Artistic Dance in Erez Israel 1920–1964 (Hebrew with English summary). Tel Aviv: 1991.
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Manor, Giora. The Life and Dance of Gertrud Kraus (Hebrew and English). Tel Aviv: 1988.
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How to cite this page
Eshel, Ruth. "Dance in the Yishuv and Israel." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 20, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dance-in-yishuv-and-israel>.