Israeli Dance, From Afar
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Israeli Dance, From Afar

Choreographer Dana Katz crafting a career a long way from her homeland.

“‘Israeli Dance?’ What does that even mean?” wonders Israeli choreographer and dancer Dana Katz. “I’ve been hearing more and more people use that term, but I’m still not sure what it entails.”

Katz, 31, is the co-curator of the weeklong Out Of Israel Dance Festival, hosted last week by the 92nd Street Y. Her own dance troupe, Danaka-Dance, was one of six Israeli groups featured in the festival, where it premiered a pilot of her new and conceptually unusual creation, “Thousand Plateaus.”

Active mostly outside of Israel for the past decade, Katz has witnessed Israeli dance artists’ rising prestige around the world. Much like Israeli jazz, contemporary Israeli dance has become a sought-after cultural export. Yet while Israeli jazz shares a set of recognizably Israeli and Middle-Eastern characteristics, the diverse body of contemporary dance that evolved outside of Israel, and is broadly categorized as “Israeli Dance,” has few artistic unifying features, notes Katz.

“The term Israeli Dance started popping up in conversations only a couple of years ago,” she recalls. “People used it to describe very different artists, working in completely unconnected styles and places in the world. … But when I asked what they think of as Israeli dance, what they think it looks like, there’s no clear answer.”

Sometimes they’d answer by demonstrating moves reminiscent of Gaga, a movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, the renowned artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. Naharin is indeed the godfather of modern dance in Israel, notes Katz, but by now Gaga has become so much a part of international dance vocabulary that it’s no longer particularly Israeli.

“If anything, the fact that we are all called ‘Israeli Dance’ is pretty ironic,” she continues, “considering that the one thing most of this generation has in common is that in order to survive and grow as artists, we all had to leave Israel.”

Katz still remembers the event that first turned her on to dancing: it was 1990, she was 7 years old, and her mother had taken her to see “Kir,” Ohad Naharin’s first work for Batsheva. Raw, brutal and darkly humorous, shockingly different than anything seen in Israel before, “Kir” would revolutionize the mindset of Israeli dance in general and of Katz in particular.

“It was earthshaking, especially for a little kid,” says Katz. Enrolled in dance and gymnastics classes since she was a toddler, her interest in dance suddenly took a sharper, more personal form. She started badgering her mother to take her to any and all dance shows, and developed her own taste from early on.

The 1990s were the formative decade for contemporary dance in Israel, and Katz was a child of this revolution. “Being in the midst of all these things happening in Israel, from a very young age, had a huge influence on me later on as an artist,” she notes.

By second grade she had joined the youth program of Tnvatron dance theatre, a well-known troupe, and spent much of her elementary school years touring Europe and the U.S. (“One of the reasons I loved it was because I got to miss so much school,” she chuckles). During high school she performed with the Bat-Dor Dance Company.

At 21, in the Gvanim Dance Festival in the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre in Tel Aviv, Katz presented “BoomBox,” her first work as a choreographer. “BoomBox” was a duet with Katz and another female dancer, performed in a custom-built boxing ring placed in the Dellal Centre’s outdoors plaza. One of the first site-specific dances in Israel, it was later developed into video art and presented in art and dance festivals throughout Europe and the U.S..

After completing her BA at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia, Katz returned to Israel to develop “Egobus,” a piece portraying, through a combination of video and live dance, the intersections between the inner and outer worlds of passengers on a bus. Though she received funding from Mifal HaPayis (Israel’s national lottery), the piece was technically complex, and between her day job in TV production and her various teaching gigs it took more than three years to complete. It was performed only in 2008, both in the Dellal Centre and in the Act Festival in Bilbao, Spain.

Though she had received broad recognition in and outside of Israel as an independent choreographer, Katz says she was losing faith in the possibility of making a living from her craft. There simply weren’t enough resources to go round. “Within Israel, dance is a very small and crowded scene, made even smaller by monopolies,” she notes. “Though it’s now booming, there are still many more artists than there are opportunities, venues, or audiences willing to watch.”

In 2009 Katz was invited for a two-month residency at The Yard in Martha’s Vineyard. There she produced a small, gem-like piece set in a barn, called “Old Cherry Blossom Road,” which was immediately signed for a festival in Dumbo, and later a festival in the West Village. Then came an invitation to perform in the SoloDuo Dance Festival in Budapest, followed by an invitation to recreate “BoomBox” in Canada, followed by yet another invitation to another residency. One thing sprang from another naturally, almost effortlessly. Later that year she moved to the New York.

“This is what I think is happening right now in the world: this generation of Israeli artists, all doing amazing work individually, has matured and come into its own. I’m not sure what the term Israeli Dance means, but I’m definitely happy and proud that it exists, that we’re being noticed.”

Katz’s latest piece, “Thousand Plateaus,” is an inversion of her first: it’s an arena turned inside out, with the audience huddled in the center of the space and the dancers moving around them, along the walls. At the work’s 92nd Street Y premiere, and in every interview after, Katz was careful to note that the showing was just a draft, an initial test drive. With this disclaimer in mind, The New York Times gave it a somewhat lukewarm review.

No harm done, says Katz. “It’s so big here [in America] that I can afford to do something like that. It’s easier to be myself here; I’m less scared to make mistakes. Here there’s always another venue, another opportunity. … There’s always more room to grow.”

Orli Santo is a correspondent for the New York-based weekly Yediot America. Her column appears monthly.

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