A pioneer of Israel Movement theater, Oshra Elkayam-Ronen studied Expressionist Dance with Gertrud Kraus and traveled to New York to study with Martha Graham. After returning to Israel, she joined the Batsheva Company as a dancer and became well known as an original choreographer for the dances she created for the company. Her subjects deal with gender and human beings’ lack of control over their fate. She choreographed for Batsheva, the Inbal Dance Theater, and Kibbutz Dance Companies. Elkayam established her own troupe in 1984, the Oshra Elkayam Movement Theater, which includes artists from different theater disciplines.
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.” (interview with author) Her work appears as if it were immersed in a pool of fantasy, humor, and optimism.
Early Life & Dance Education
Elkayam was born in Netanya 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.
At the beginning of the 1950s Elkayam began to study Ausdruckstanz (Expressionist Dance) with Gertrud 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, Elkayam 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 order to present power visually, and in terms of differences in size and height, Elkayam put Goliath on stilts, like street clowns, thereby creating a tension as Goliath stretched upwards yet sought to maintain his precarious balance. The large, macho man is a fool, while David is lithe and quick. Writing in Davar Ha’Poelet (The Woman Worker’s Gazette) Rivka Katzenelson said: “If I were asked to decide on the best production on Israel’s stages in 1966, I’d point out two pieces in Batsheva Dance’s last program: Cave of the Heart by Martha Graham and David and Goliath by Oshra Elkayam.”
Elkayam-Ronen left the Batsheva company in 1966, following her husband, an air force pilot situated near Haifa. In 1967 she and Ruth Eshel founded the Oshra Elkayam Dance Theater—A Stage for Israeli Choreography in Haifa, which operated for two years. Its repertoire comprised 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 between Israel and Egypt, Elkayam-Ronen’s 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 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 a colorful suite for the company, Inspired by the Paintings of Paul Klee, that included a dance describing an ocean and the creatures that live in it, with the dancers’ arms becoming sea anemones, or sea-hedgehogs that moved or peeked from behind the rocks.
Elkayam-Ronen was the first guest choreographer to be invited to create a work for the Inbal Dance Theater, where she staged Requiem for a Warrior (1972), And the Sea is Not Yet Full (1976), and Song of Songs (1979). Influenced by her husband’s death, these dances dealt with fate and death. She also choreographed Journey to Nowhere (1974) and Eclipse of Lights for the Batsheva Dance Company. The former dealt with relationships between people, while the second focused on the Holocaust. She was asked by Kaj Lotman, the artistic director of Batsehva to choreograph a work to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The dance opened with a semi-transparent curtain through which the audience saw movement that looked like a frantic, pointless mass running about in an extermination camp encircled by an electrified fence. It resembled an event remembered in a dream of something beyond belief, that is and is not. In the journal Musag Leah Dov wrote a rave review entitled “The Ghastly Possibility Is Possible.”
Elkayam-Ronen also created several works for the kibbutz company, including Triplet’s Trip (1979), a comic-sarcastic-philosophical bent that related to the absurdity in the lack of proportion between man’s fierce desires and the brevity of his life. Elkayam claimed this work 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.” (interview with author)
The success of Triplet’s Trip imbued Elkayam with the confidence to continue in this artistic direction, but with an ensemble of her own that would include artists from different theater disciplines. In this she joined the path of the Independent choreographers, who burst on the scene in 1977. The first work she created for the movement theater setting 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 loneliness and the lack of communication between people. It is a kind of surrealist dream about a demented plumber who happens upon the home of an unremarkable couple and repairs the telephones and the homeowner as though he were a piece of sanitary equipment that was not working properly. Elkayam used plastic pipes of all sizes, including huge sewer pipes, that served as the plumbing, communication devices, and cables.
In 1989, Elkayam staged Ladders, which dealt with the desire to get ahead, to climb the ladder despite gender limitations. Elkayam’s woman is portrayed as a curious and creative person who, despite her relatively inferior beginning with regard to the man, manages to get the better of him. This was a strange story-line in the spirit of Baron Munchausen, in which a man goes fishing, casts his line, and “catches” his wife. The work was set on an imaginary planet, tying into the movie world that Elkayam recalled from her youth in the 1950s when fun was going to the movies. Those were the days of flashy Hollywood movies, as well as the neo-realism of films by directors such as Vittorio de Sica, Federico Fellini, and others, where there was no difference between imagination and reality.
After about a decade of protracted silence, Elkayam choreographed her last work, 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.
All the articles in Mahol Akhshav (Dance today) appear on the website: https://www.israeldance-diaries.co.il/
Dolev, Lea. “Batsheva Dance at the ‘75 Israel Festival – the Ghastly Possibility is Possible.” Mussage, April 1975.
Elkayam-Ronen, Oshra. “Allowing things to Flow – On the Creative Process.” (Hebrew). Mahol Akhshav (Dance Today). September 2001: 53-54, pp. 12-17.
Eshel, Ruth. Interview with Oshra Elkayam-Ronen, Ramat-Hasharon, September 4, 1995.
Eshel, Ruth. To Dance with the Dream: The Beginning of Artistic Dance in Erez Israel 1920–1964 (Hebrew with English summary). Tel Aviv: 1991.
Eshel, Ruth. “Gender in Israeli Dance,” interviewing Nava Zuckerman, Noa Dar and Oshra Elkayam-Ronen. The Academic Chanel, 1999.
Eshel, Ruth. Dance Spreads its Wings: Israeli Concert Dance 1920-2000. Tel Aviv: Israel Dance Diaries, 2016, pp. 206-208, 278-280, 306-308, 398-403.
Gluck, Rena and Lana, Iris. “A Talk with Oshra Elkayam.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoXHdhhVNTQ, accessed 26 July 2017.
Harlev, Shai. “She feels no need to arrive – with and about Oshra Elkayam-Ronen.” (Hebrew). Mahol Akhshav (Dance Today) 8, July 2000, pp. 12-17.
Katzennelson, Rivka. “Caves of Dance.” Davar Ha Po’elet, December 1966.
Sowden, Dora. “Ladder of Dream.” Jerusalem Post, October 20, 1989.