The dancers of the Batsheva Ensemble cluster backstage at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, knowing that this is the last time they will perform together in this theater.  They have just completed a performance of Deca Dance by Ohad Naharin, Israel's preeminent choreographer and the director of the Batsheva Dance Company, their organizational older brother and the country's premier contemporary dance troupe.

Their last meeting will take place in the Batsheva studio, across the courtyard.  This week they will perform an evening of their own choreography, entitled Mixtape, an annual event that allows the dancers to try their hand at choreography.

The ensemble, also known as “the young people’s company,” is a place where dancers, generally age 18-24 and already well-trained, learn Batsheva's complex choreography and unique movement style. They stay between one to three years, after which some are invited to join the main company and others are left to find work elsewhere in Israel or abroad.

In the past several months, the turnover in both companies went from routine to much more dramatic when Batsheva in-house choreographer Sharon Eyal announced that she was starting her own dance company. Several members of the main company chose to follow her; five ensemble members got offers as well.

“They didn’t invite me to stay here,” Olivia Ancona, an American dancer in her second year with the ensemble says of the main company. “I made a good connection with Sharon Eyal when I worked with her, so I decided to go with her.”

Ancona’s new career path has not only professional but personal ramifications – her partner, Omri Drumlevich, was chosen to join Batsheva’s adult company. “This is not an easy time," says Drumlevich.  "We're moving on into the unknown."

Asked whether he considered following Ancona to Eyal's new venture, Drumlevich says he did not. “I really, really like Ohad's choreography and I admire his work a lot. On the one hand, all these changes are a bit frightening," he says. "But on the other hand, it’s exciting to know that we’re part of the new face of Batsheva.”

The story of Ancona and Drumlevich exemplifies the atmosphere at Batsheva nowadays: it’s like a family breakup.

Lotem Regev, who joined the ensemble after three years in the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, is also leaving. At the end of July he will be going to Sweden, where he will join the Göteborg Ballet.

“They let me go,” Regev says with a smile. “Ohad made his decision and that was it. I’m fine with it. I was also thinking of staying in Israel, maybe going back to the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, but I decided that this was the time to see the world.

"It’s hard to be a dancer in Israel," he continues. "In Europe, salaries are three times higher and the cost of living isn’t as high. Though I think dance in Israel is the most interesting, when it comes to living conditions and the way we’re treated, there are things abroad that we just can’t compete with.”

The pie is very small

Salary and working conditions have been sore issues with the Batsheva Ensemble. Previously, dancers didn't receive a salary in their first year and only NIS 2,600 a month on average during their second.

Executive director of the Batsheva Dance Company, Dina Aldor, says that things are different today. “The dancers receive a stipend for living expenses, which is a little over the minimum wage, for two years,” she says.

“It’s important to understand that the ensemble is a training ground," she says. "Its members are treated as professionals in every way, and they are highly nurtured – personally, professionally and creatively. This is an extraordinary place. It’s no coincidence that people from all over the world come to audition here.”

Even if the situation has improved dramatically over the past seven years, a great deal is still asked of the ensemble dancers. For example, they perform all around the country, give morning performances and rehearse for long hours. Some of them are still in the final stage of their army service.  Most admit they have little time or ability to take on additional jobs to earn more income.

“It’s hard to be a dancer no matter where you are,” says Keren Lurie-Pardes, who joined the Ensemble this season. “There are almost no government subsidies. They don’t provide a sufficient budget and it’s hard to establish anything new here. I still feel that there’s not enough recognition for dance.”

Eduard Turull, who came to the ensemble from Spain, thinks that there is a great deal of respect for dance in Israel. “In Spain, if you say you’re an artist, people think you’re stupid," he says. "It’s not like that here.”

“Even the taxi drivers know about Batsheva,” says Bret Easterling, who joined the Ensemble after completing his studies at the Juilliard School in New York. “Even if salaries are higher in Europe or New York, dance is better known here.”

“Dancers have a good life here," agrees William (Billy) Barry, also from the Big Apple, "and that’s not just because of the weather and the beach. It’s like a convalescent home for the body.”

The social justice protest that began here last summer got many artists out into the streets to increase support for culture in Israel. Despite poor employment conditions and minimal state support, dancers for the most part kept a low profile during the protests.

“Maybe something in our profession has already accepted this lifestyle,” says Regev. “We’re a quiet art as far as words go, and anyone who chooses to be a dancer usually knows that he’s chosen a lower standard of living. Everybody lives with it.”

Ohad Naharin believes that more could be done to promote dance. “I’d like it if the Tel Aviv municipality, for example, realized the importance of providing budgets using a different standard,” he says. “In Israel, there’s a problem with budgets in the whole field of dance. Although we receive a respectable piece of the pie, the pie itself is very small.”

A natural move

Batsheva has been the leading dance company in Israel for more than 20 years. The list of top Israeli choreographers worldwide contains quite a few graduates of Batsheva, including Inbal Pinto, Yossi Yungman and Hofesh Shechter. In 2009, four of the company’s most prominent dancers, including Talia Landa and Yaara Moses, decided to strike out on their own and establish the Maria Kong Dancers Company, an ensemble still performing today. But by any criterion, it's hard to find a serious competitor for Batsheva’s status as a company.

“Ohad brought something really unique to Batsheva,” says Tamir Eting, who will be joining the Ensemble soon. “Dance in Israel is very affected by what happens in Batsheva, and it's very much in Naharin’s style. Besides, from a political standpoint, Batsheva is the company with the most funding.”

In addition to Naharin, Sharon Eyal was also mentioned again and again during interviews as huge influence on the young dancers. “When you get to know Sharon and realize how special she is and how intensely she works, you know she’s going to succeed," says Regev. "I think leaving is the right thing for her.”  Eyal, along with Guy Bachar, her partner in work and life, will travel soon to Göteburg to begin a new project.

Eyal had been identified as Naharin's obvious replacement whenever he retires. Even though she has chosen a new path, she can still return as artistic director one day, says executive director Aldor.

“We supported her decision and congratulate her,” Aldor says. “It’s a natural move. She has powerful creative momentum, and we’re very proud that we were her training ground. Of course, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that she’ll succeed Ohad one day, but the moment is not now. It would actually be odd if she didn’t make this move.”

Aldor insists that Batsheva didn't try to persuade dancers to stay with the company instead of following Eyal.

“We'd never do that,” she says. “Dancers choose to leave, each for his or her own reasons. Some of them have been with us for a long time. We’ll stay in touch with all of them.”

Stretching boundaries

An average day for dancers in the Batsheva Ensemble begins at around 9:00 a.m., when they arrive to warm up before their Gaga movement class, a unique physical language developed by Naharin that provides the foundation for Batsheva's training in both companies.

After class and a short break, they begin rehearsals which go into the late afternoon. Often the morning begins with an out-of-town performance, mainly for students in school auditoriums, which requires a pre-dawn bus ride.

“Batsheva definitely stretches our boundaries,” Ancona says with a laugh. “One time, we performed in Jerusalem during the winter. It was cold and rainy, the windows were open, there were no bathrooms, and they brought us wool blankets so we could do our Gaga class at 8:00 a.m. But it always works out in the end, and we look at each other and say, ‘We thought it couldn’t be done, but we did it.’”

“My experiences with the performances on the periphery were actually better,” says Drumlevich. “Everywhere we went the children were so warm and friendly. It’s true that they didn’t always know what to make of us, but they welcomed us with a lot of warmth and honesty. In comparison, we got a bit of a snobbish feeling from the children in the center of the country."

For the non-Israeli dancers, meeting Israeli kids can be a bit traumatic, but they've learned to enjoy it. “We had a performance in Tel Aviv,” says Barry, a native New Yorker. “The audience was a group of excited kids dressed in yellow who just burst into the gym full of joy. Usually, at the end of the performance, we put on music and everybody dances. In this case, I saw a rave of fourth-graders at 11:00 a.m. It was pretty wild – definitely one of my favorite memories.”

From Wednesday through Saturday, July 4 to July 7, the Batsheva Ensemble will perform Mixtape, 10 works by young choreographers, at Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center.