dance - Abdullah Shama - February 1 2011
Rabeah Murkus teaching dance. “In every framework I was always the only Arab woman,” she says. Photo by Abdullah Shama
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On the pale parquet floor of the Rabeah Murkus Dance Studio in Kfar Yassif a few students are warming up to a backdrop of purple walls and a decorated Christmas tree. After Murkus hustles the last of the lingerers in the dressing room, samba music starts coming through the loudspeakers and the lesson in modern dance begins. Couple by couple, the youngsters bound along the length and breadth of the space, energetically carving the air.

To the onlooker it seems like this is just another dance lesson. To Murkus, however, it is the realization of a pioneering vision she has nurtured for a long time: the establishment of a dance study track for secondary school students from the Arab sector.

Ever since she opened her studio three years ago, Murkus, 38, tried to receive Education Ministry authorization to open the track. This year she succeeded and the track began to operate with the cooperation of the Notre Dame School in Mi'ilya, a local council in the north of Israel inhabited by Christian Arabs.

"In Israel there were 45 dance study tracks until now and I'm the 46th," she smiles with satisfaction mingled with criticism. "Imagine, only in 2010 did we manage to open the first high school dance study track in the Arab sector."

The track serves students in grades 10 through 12 from several Arab communities in the north of the country. In the afternoon hours they study classical ballet, modern dance, composition and dance history at the studio. Classes on anatomy and music are taught at the school in Mi'ilya, so the students can take the matriculation (bagrut ) exam in dance, but Murkus expects this to expand in the coming years.

Rabeah is the daughter of a former head of the Kfar Yassif local council, Nimr Murkus, one of the leaders of the Communist Party in Israel (Maki, a component of Hadash ) in which she too has been active for many years. She is the youngest of his six daughters, a sister of singer Amal Murkus. She owes her first acquaintance with the world of dance to her father, who was smitten with the charms of classical ballet when he was a student in the Soviet Union. "He would bring me pictures of ballerinas when I was little," she recalls, "and I would copy their movements."

Until a few years ago Murkus lived in Paris and danced with Haim Adri's Sisyphe Hereux company. Her father, who missed her, offered to set up a dance studio for her. To this was added a marriage proposal, and she moved to Acre to live with her husband and opened the studio.

"Our life in Israel is politics. We breathe and eat politics and our situation changes from day to day according to the political situation," she says in reply to the question of whether the studio's opening is also a political act as far as she is concerned. "But opening the studio came from a deeper place, from within the love of dance and the desire to answer to the need of the Arab sector."

Racheli Shapira, a teacher of the Martha Graham method who taught Murkus in her youth and is now teaching at her studio, compares the students at the studio in Kfar Yassif, who come without solidified expectations, to a blank page. "There's a big difference between them and the students I teach at other schools," she says, "and there's a lot of pleasure in the encounter with them and their desire. This isn't simple; a dance education is a long-term education - there's no hocus-pocus here. You need a lot of patience for the people in front of you, for their emotional difficulties and also in this case apparently for cultural differences."

The new dance study track is supported by the Galileo Foundation, which has initiated a long-term project to bring together the students in the Kfar Yassif dance study track and students in the Mateh Asher track (who study at Kibbutz Ga'aton ). According to Murkus, "The two tracks have composition lessons and movement meetings together and the students create joint works." The encounters take place alternately in Kfar Yassif and Ga'aton.

Completely different

It is hard not to wonder whether Murkus was motivated to create a study framework at least in part by the difficulties she herself encountered as an Arab dance student. When she was in first grade, even though she did not know Hebrew at all, she was sent to study ballet in Acre with a Jewish teacher. There the other girls taught her the first Hebrew word she ever learned: "move."

Today she finds it hard to comprehend how she managed to learn despite the language gaps: "Sometimes I would arrive at the studio and it would be closed and I didn't understand why. And then I would discover there were holidays but no one had informed my parents. My father and mother supported my dance studies as long as it wasn't a matter of a profession."

She persisted in her ballet studies until the age of 14, but then her teacher stopped teaching. Out of a lack of familiarity with the field and in the absence of a suitable educational institution, she stopped studying dance, and instead redirected her stage bug to acting. First she acted in a movie by Palestinian director Hanna Elias and subsequently she integrated into productions of the Acre Theater.

Two years later Murkus heard that at Kibbutz Ga'aton, only a 10-minute drive from Kfar Yassif, there is a professional center for training dancers. She started taking private lessons there and quickly caught the eye of Yehudit Arnon, the founder of the dance center at Ga'aton. Thereafter she joined the studio's regular program for high school students.

"I don't know how I did it," she says in retrospect of the decision to study there. "My parents didn't drive me, because my father didn't drive. I would hitch-hike or take the kibbutz shuttle. It was something completely crazy."

When she was 18 she was accepted to the dance training workshop at Ga'aton, moved to the kibbutz to live and studied dance every day, from morning till night. "She saw my talent and nurtured me," says Murkus of Arnon, "but she really didn't make my life easy and treated me like all the students. She opened me to a world that I alone knew in the Arab sector. No one knew what I was doing and why I was going to the kibbutz."

Shapira, who was one of Murkus' teachers at that time, relates that it was hard to ignore her presence and her strong personality. "Rabeah blazed the trail for more students from the Arab sector," she says. "She's a trailblazer."

Nonetheless, the period Murkus lived at the kibbutz was accompanied by a certain sense of alienation. On the one hand, the Arab laborers who worked there regarded the Arab girl who ate in the kibbutz dining hall with suspicion and labeled her in various ways.

On the other hand, her fellow students didn't really accept her enthusiastically. "I was alone there all the time, completely alone," she says. "I didn't connect with people - and not because I didn't want to. To this day I have a copy of an item they did about me then on Channel 1, and in it you can see the [other students'] racism in the way they spoke. When the reporter asked them about me they replied, 'She's nice, but strange. She isn't like us, she's completely different.' He also asked whether they were interested in being friends with me and they replied in the negative. So I didn't connect. And you know what? Not everyone interested me. All I wanted to do was dance, and that's what I did. I would finish the workshop and then take extra lessons in the afternoon."

In her second year in the program Murkus was accepted to the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. "What I loved there was that Yehudit Arnon opened her studio to lots of choreographers from abroad," relates Murkus. "Jiri Kylian came and Daniel Ezralow from the United States put on 'Read my Hips' here. This gave me the strength to continue to dance."

As part of her activity in the company she was cast in performances for children (and also helped adapt them into Arabic ), but she was consistently kept out of the repertory performances and performances put on by choreographers from abroad, although she took an active part in rehearsals. After a while it became clear to her that the privilege of performing was being kept from her for reasons of modesty, so as not to make problems for her with Arab society. "I was furious," she recalls.

After two years in the company she decided to leave. "Yehudit tried to tell me I still had what to learn but I explained to her that in order to learn I had to dance in performances. You learn to be a dancer on the stage, not in the studio."

After an audition for the Batsheva Ensemble ("I passed all three phases but I was 23 and they said I was 'old'" ), Murkus decided to return to the Acre Theater and acted in productions of director Dudi Maayan (among them "Arbeit Macht Frei" ), until he left for Austria.

Her activity in theater continues to this day. She and her husband Firas Rubi are active both in the Acre Theater and in the Al Laz Theater, which was established in Acre six years ago. In the 1990s, in addition to forays into various fields of movement (butoh, tai chi, Sufi dance and "sacred dances" originating in the Sufi and Tibetan traditions ), Murkus also participated in the Metatron theater group, which consisted mostly of performers who had returned from India.

"In Metatron I was the only Arab woman. In every framework I was always the only Arab woman."

One of the difficulties in managing the studio is dealing with the budget. Murkus is now in the initial processes for getting government support. She says the fees for the lessons at her studio are lower than what is customary in Israel, and accepts all students who are interested in studying with her, even those who aren't able to pay. In order to deal with the financial difficulties she has developed a variety of strategies.

Between Tel Aviv and Bahrain

Murkus is also nurturing a company called Rimaz, consisting of nine young dancers, all of them her former students. Knowing how a company can be a depressing framework, she makes sure there is a free atmosphere. "I give them a lot of freedom to create," she says, "and also to go beyond the limits of my company."

Thus far she has created four works for the company: "Love is my Religion," influenced by Sufi dance and based on a love song by the poet Ibn Arabi; "Assira and Almassira," a work for nine dancers accompanied by her sister singer Amal Murkus, which depicts the Palestinian narrative through stories about a pair of lovers, one of whom perished in 1948; "Basket," based on a childhood memory of hers, which deals with women's struggle over three generations; and a duet called "Here and Now," created recently with her husband and based on the last poem Mahmoud Darwish wrote before his death, "I Don't Want this Poem to End."

Among the dancers in the ensemble is Ayman Safia, a gifted dancer of 21 who also grew up in Kfar Yassif. Murkus, who discovered his talent when he was 15 years old, has been nurturing him since then and helped him integrate into the dance workshop at Kibbutz Ga'aton. Now he is living in London and studying at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, but when he visits Israel he makes a point of participating in the ensemble's performances. The company appears mainly in the north and before Arab audiences, but Murkus does not reject the idea of also going to Tel Aviv in the future: "I very much want us to begin to perform in all kinds of places in this country. In the [Arab] sector it difficult to perform because people aren't used to going to see dance."

Recently the ensemble has collaborated with Jewish artists: At the beginning of last year there was a joint evening with choreographer Arkadi Zeides at Kibbutz Kabri and recently Murkus, together with Ilanit Tadmor, initiated a joint workshop with members of the Vertigo dance troupe.

Murkus is also trying to promote the ensemble's activity by means of performances abroad, mainly at festivals. In the past they have performed in Jordan and she says there has also been interest in the ensemble from other countries, among them the United States.

For the most part she finds it difficult to afford the expenses of these trips (which are not always completely subsidized by the hosts ), but sometimes difficulties arise for other reasons. "We were invited to Bahrain," she says, "where there is an amazing festival - they bring companies from all over the world - but I didn't agree to go because I was afraid. I didn't know how you travel there with an Israeli passport. Even if I did manage to get there, I didn't know what I could expect here when I returned."

What are your plans for the future?

"I want to build a dance workshop for the Arab sector like the one in Ga'aton, a workshop with certification. I want my company to grow, to have a budget for salaries for all the dancers, for them to be able to work with me from morning till night, and for choreographers to come and work here. This is my dream. I want a whole generation of dancers to grow from my studio."