During a recent rehearsal at Purchase College-SUNY, about 20 student dancers moved deliberately across the stage as their teacher, Tom Weinberger, observed them closely.
“Be as clear as you can,” Weinberger said. “Where is the focus? It’s not about maintaining a position. Make the physicality clear. There’s no rush. Beautiful work. Just keep going.”
Purchase dance students often study with visiting instructors as part of their training. What’s distinctive about Weinberger, an Israeli dancer and choreographer, is that he’s on campus as a Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artist through a program offered by the Israel Institute.
“The idea is to show another side of Israel that’s underexposed,” said Marge Goldwater, director of arts and cultural programs at the Israel Institute. A Washington, D.C.,-based independent organization, the Institute was founded to enhance knowledge and study of contemporary Israel.
Goldwater added, “It’s most successful when we bring in younger artists. Contemporary dance in Israel is one of the liveliest contemporary dance scenes. When I call the chairmen of dance departments, the answer is always ‘Yes.’”
The program, which also places musicians, composers, actors, authors, poets, visual artists and filmmakers in colleges and universities throughout the United States, focuses on campuses where there are “large Jewish populations and have decision makers of the future,” said Goldwater, even though “the majority of students” in the classes are usually not Jewish. The Israel Institute underwrites most of the program, although the host institution also provides some funding. Some of the schools participating during this academic year include Columbia, UCLA, Reed, the University of Virginia, Caltech and Emory.
Having Weinberger, a member of the celebrated Batsheva Dance Company and one of the leading practitioners of gaga, a style of dance movement developed by Ohad Naharin, the company’s artistic director, was an easy choice for the college.
“Israel is a world hub for contemporary dance,” said Nelly van Bommel, interim director of the dance department at Purchase College-SUNY. “As a world-leading training institution, we bring artists who are the best. I’ve seen Tom dance, he’s an incredible teacher and this was a very easy match.”
The kind of campus political pushback that sometimes targets Israel, and Israelis, hasn’t materialized here.
“The students at Purchase have been completely focused on the art form itself, and to this point, I have yet to be confronted with issues or resistance in regards to politics,” Weinberger said.
For Weinberger, his role offers an opportunity to “better understand the environment I am in, while at the same time share my personal views through my experience as an artist coming from a place as complex as Israel. It is my hope that through working with the students, I am able to provide them with varied perspectives to the art which is cultivated in Israel and through that of Israel itself.”
Beyond teaching classes, Weinberger also has created a new work that students will perform.
“I’ve always wanted to work with someone from Batsheva, so this was a really big opportunity,” said sophomore Noelle Hauptmann-Anderson. “I think the best part about working with Tom is that he is open to endless possibilities in the process.”
For senior Jessica Alexander, the prospect of learning gaga with Weinberger was especially attractive. “The gaga movement language requires a continuous layering of knowledge and physical awareness,” she said. “Gaga classes and Tom’s teaching constantly push me to become a more aware and a more fearless dancer.”
She added, “Studying gaga with Tom has confirmed my admiration, respect and desire to continue learning about dance in Israel, and its connection to broader Israeli culture. It has given me a chance to bring together my love of dance and my Jewish and Israeli heritage in a meaningful way.”
Tom Weinberger’s new work, “Familiar Foreign Bodies,” will be performed as part of the Conservatory of Dance Fall 2016 season: Friday, Dec. 9, with an artist talk at 7:15 p.m. and concert at 8; Saturday, Dec. 10, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 11, 3 p.m. Tickets, $20, are available at The Performing Arts Center box office, (914) 251-6200.