The Israeli Legend Who Raised Generations of Dancers

Yardena Cohen, who died at the age of 100, helped aspiring Israeli dancers find their inner voice.

When Yardena Cohen was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2010, the honor came almost too late. Cohen, who was one of the pioneers of dance in the country, was 100-years-old at the time. She died on Monday in her sleep, as she had wanted.

Over the past two years, her body had betrayed her. Her dependence on a wheelchair and oxygen tanks broke the spirit of a woman who, until a few years ago, was distinctive for still walking straight and tall as she made her way through Haifa's Central Carmel neighborhood, dressed in a long earth-tone skirt adorned with Middle Eastern jewelry, her red hair blowing in the wind.

Yardena Cohen in the 1930's. Courtesy of the Israeli Dance Archive, Beit Ariela

Until her last day, she was surrounded by admiring students from all segments of society. She was interested in knowing what was happening in the world of dance, and her students loved to visit her because she had an extraordinarily powerful ability to listen. She was also a great storyteller. It's no wonder that dance figures from abroad, such as Judith Brin Ingber and Janice Ross came to visit this living legend.

Born in 1910, Cohen was a seventh generation Jewish resident of the country. She was in the first graduating class at Haifa's Reali School. She spent much of her childhood along the city's Bat Galim beach. In the late 1920s, she went to study dance in Vienna, where she spent about a year at the city's arts academy. While there, she attended a recital of the choreographer and dancer Gertrude Kraus, before Kraus immigrated to Israel.

The center of expressionist dance at the time was Dresden, in Germany, so she went to study there. She attended a recital there of the Indian dancer Uday Shankar, who wrote that he danced the history and soul of his people. This touched Cohen and shaped her own future. When she returned to pre-state Israel, she began to listen to what her body told her, and musicians from Middle Eastern Jewish background helped her shape her vision of rhythm and images. Her dance gave expression to figures from the Bible, which was the style at the time. According to dance researcher Yonat Rotman, however, she managed to make use of progressive, liberal ideas before concepts such as feminism and multiculturalism were widely invoked in academic discourse.

In a pre-state choreography competition in Tel Aviv in 1937, Cohen won first prize, with two dances inspired by the language of movement of Arab mourners and fortunetellers in whose midst she grew up. In response, the poet Lea Goldberg posed the following in the Davar newspaper: "Is that our Middle Eastern sense of excitement? Are we capable of reacting to the heat waves that we get precisely as a Bedouin woman would?"

In the 1940s, Cohen began holiday sketches for kibbutz collective farms, including the harvest festival of Shavuot at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet in 1943 and a water festival at Kibbutz Ginegar in 1947. The biblical context of these locations in the north of the country provided inspiration for renewal in the Land of Israel of holiday traditions out in the open in which all of those present participated in the skits. She wasn't the only one to engage in holiday skits like this, but everything she did was characterized by a rootedness in the land.

In her small studio, Cohen raised generations of students and not only dancers. Dance had an educational and cultural value through its connection with nature in general and the landscapes of Israel in particular. She wasn't one to teach tools of choreography or to instruct aspiring dancers in technique, but she knew how to provide encouragement and support for those trying to find their inner voice. At her studio, students danced with baskets, pitchers, branches, stalks of grain, shepherd's staffs and sheets of fabric.

For her students, Yardena Cohen was a symbol of Israeli authenticity. Among those who studied with her was the founder of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, Yehudit Arnon, dancer Roni Segal, director Rina Yerushalmi, dancer and choreographer Yaron Margolin, the poet Tahel Ran, educator Tzofia Naharin (whose son is dancer, choreographer and director Ohad Naharin ) and Raya Spivak, whose activities include work with disabled dancers.

Cohen's powers of listening and her view of dance as a way of life transformed her classes into therapy sessions. Among those who came to her studio were people whose lives had been traumatic. Cohen found ways to give them strength even before the concept of dance therapy existed. For her, teaching was a source of strength. She always said that once she stopped teaching, she would fade away. Every one of her lessons involved creative discovery. She continued to teach until about a year ago, and among her loyal students were women who themselves were 80-years-old or more.

Over the years, she became cut off from artistic developments in Tel Aviv. Generations have grown up who were not aware of her work and it seems that she had almost been forgotten, as have many women of her generation, but the persistence of her students and admirers led to her receiving the Israel Prize, which she so deserved. It gave her an inner calm to know that her life's work had been recognized.