Starting on the Right Foot: The New Generation of Batsheva Dancers

Two new young dancers at the Batsheva Dance Company personify the range of dance education available in Israel, and the frustrations that accompany trying to mix army service with dance.

Above center stage during the performances of “The Hole” − Ohad Naharin’s new work for the Batsheva Dance Company − a sort of octagonal grate extending over 10 meters in diameter is suspended. From it emerge the male dancers. This metal structure filled the troupe’s main studio during the days preceding the world premiere of the work, early last month. Performances are continuing this month as well.

For Nitzan Ressler and Maayan Sheinfeld − the two youngest dancers in Batsheva, who at the beginning of the season, last August, moved from the junior company, the Batsheva Ensemble, into the permanent troupe − the process of creating and participating in “The Hole” was their first experience creating a work with Naharin.

“The Hole” shares a common denominator with Naharin’s previous work, “Sadeh21,” because of its dramatic flare and because both culminate in a childish, optimistic and naive scene: In “Sadeh21,” the dancers jump onto a mattress; in “The Hole,” hundreds of firecrackers are thrown onto stage, and swings sweep up the dancers.

Naivete, youthfulness and optimism have always gone well with Naharin, it seems. For their part, Ressler and Sheinfeld, both 21, speak with gratitude toward and respect for him, his philosophy and his world of imagery, which they say have all contributed in a marked way to their own artistic development.

“When you look at Ohad in a morning class, you see his attentiveness and how his body is available − how he lets things happen,” says Ressler, who along with Sheinfeld, joined the Batsheva Ensemble in 2010. “I love the fact that the language of Gaga [the movement technique that Naharin developed] doesn’t stay at the theoretical level; rather, you can see it happening physically. When Ohad criticizes, you have to remember that it’s for your benefit, because he has the willingness and generosity to show you something that turns something on in him. He was very patient with us in the process of creating ‘The Hole.’ We were given a lot of freedom to create.”

Ressler, who has a long black braid hanging down her back, adds that sometimes it was hard to “deal with all this freedom, which you don’t have as a dancer in the young company, where we perform mainly works from the repertoire, roles others have created, and do daytime performances. I am a perfectionist. The freedom to create new things hasn’t always been easy for me; I have had a lot of moments of frustration. I didn’t always think that what I was doing was good enough.”

Sheinfeld, slender and blonde, adds: “When you are learning a new work you take on someone else’s materials, but when you are creating and arranging your own materials, it’s like taking something out of your own gut − you become more critical. I was also very critical of my own materials and kept asking myself if they were good enough.”

When the two young women were accepted into the ensemble, immediately after high school, they were thrown into cold water: Without any prior familiarity with house choreographer Sharon Eyal’s language of movement, their first day included coming up with ideas for Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” which was performed in collaboration with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; on their second day they were already participating in a press conference in advance of the premiere.

“It was a shock,” recalls Sheinfeld ‏(who is no relation to choreographers Rina Schenfeld or Niv Sheinfeld‏), because it was the first thing we did at work. We came into the ensemble and started doing Sharon’s materials.”

Ressler adds: “I love Sharon. At the personal level, too, she is someone with whom it’s easy to connect. I very much admire her as a creative person and as a dancer. Just looking at her in a lesson is enough.”

Sheinfeld: “What’s different between Sharon and Ohad is their fantasy − they have completely different worlds of imagery.”

Ressler: “She thinks, but also lets herself experience things all the way.”

Sheinfeld, who gives the impression of being practical and to the point, says, “I came to Batsheva with an open mind, to experience what the place has to offer. I didn’t know I would want to go on ahead to the company.”

“I saw a work by Naharin for the first time when I was 12 − ‘Zachacha.’ I was enchanted,” says Ressler. “That world was new to me and I was captivated by the magic of the work, and especially by the way the dancers were present in it. They also radiated a kind of freedom; they were kind of primal and instinctive.”

Is that because, in your opinion, there is a cult of admiration surrounding Naharin?

“Less so among those who move up into the adult company. Ohad gave me Albert Camus’ book ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ at some point, because he spoke a lot to us about the absurd. I mainly listened and he talked about how you choose to live your life. Camus talks about living in the moment, and Ohad talks about similar things: about dancing as though there were no tomorrow, about being totally in the moment.”

Sheinfeld: “Ohad always has partners to his ideas for a work. [Dancers ] Bobbi Smith, Hagay Elazara, Shahar Binyamini. Naharin is always asking our opinion, and goes with the flow with other dancers’ ideas.”

Dance and induction

Ressler and Sheinfeld come from the most esteemed dance education institutions in Israel: Sheinfeld from the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, and Ressler from the Jerusalem Academy High School for Music and Dance in Jerusalem. In a certain sense, they encompass the current situation of dance education in the country: Many believe the Thelma Yellin program risks becoming irrelevant as a result of its emphasis on classical ballet, public rejection of Naharin’s language of Gaga, and a dogmatic modern-dance program that includes technique classes in the style of Martha Graham only. The dance program at the academy in Jerusalem, however, frames itself as a productive training ground for dancers suitable for all troupes in Israel.

For Sheinfeld, who grew up in Or Yehuda to parents of Russian origin, Batsheva was not a childhood dream. She says that at Thelma Yellin, “they don’t think much of Batsheva as a framework. The attempt to bring in Gaga lessons was dropped because no one came to the class.”

She decided she was interested in Batsheva only after high school, and also after having been accepted to, but eventually turning down, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company.

“At Thelma Yellin, I was less accustomed to think about what I was feeling when I danced,” she relates, “because the direction there is more formal and classical. I always wanted more than what I got there − I wanted to taste, try and see more things, whether in summer courses or by keeping up with what was happening at Suzanne Dellal [the center for dance in Tel Aviv]. Ohad has now given me a real boost in the most positive sense of the word.”

After Sheinfeld refused the offer from the kibbutz company, they called Ressler and offered her the place, but she too turned it down. “I believe this happens a lot,” Ressler says. “I know what the situation is at the kibbutz company only from rumors, but it seems to me that at Batsheva there is a more organized framework: both from the economic standpoint and from the perspective of the status of the dancer and the attitude toward him. I went to Batsheva both because they work in the center of the country, and becaue I was serving in the army at the same time in the Kirya [defense compound in Tel Aviv].

“I always knew about Batsheva, so I was very open and curious. At the academy, the emphasis is less on the classical side because there is an understanding that not everyone is built for it. I, for one, have crooked knees and the hyperextension of a soccer player. There is less emphasis there on one’s body; they will never comment there about nutrition and if they do, then it won’t be about how you look. Everyone is obliged to take workshops in modern dance and the women who run the program are educators.”

Ressler, who lives in Jaffa with three other Batsheva dancers − not a rare situation in a company that seems to act like a sort of commune − completed her military service last June. “There is scope for reevaluating the [induction] criteria and the military regulations,” she complains. “It’s inhuman for a dancer in a framework like Batsheva, Inbal Pinto, the kibbutz company or the Israel Ballet to go to the army for six hours a day. People who read what I am saying might say I have nothing to complain about, but I feel I contributed a lot more in daytime performances when I was in the ensemble than I did in the army.

“Commanders who wanted to help me out in the Israel Defense Forces were in conflict, because on the one hand there are clear directives − six hours a day plus stints on guard duty − and on the other hand, they don’t want to undermine the authority of their superiors. Outstanding athletes [a status designated by the army that allows for a shorter and more convenient service], for example, can set the hours of their training in accordance with the hours they are serving, and also get 120 days of special vacation a year − not 90, which is what outstanding dancers are given.

“And even if [unlike with the dancers] the athletes do use their whole allotment of vacation days, their demobilization is not deferred, plus army service ends the moment someone in sports makes it to the Olympics. That involves representing the country, and it’s right, but I think Batsheva represents the country just as much.

“I fought with my commanders about the hours,” Ressler continues. “At the beginning of the work with the ensemble, I would get up at 5:45 every morning, go to the army for two hours, go to Batsheva to work and then go back to the army until 9 P.M. and it wasn’t good for my health.”

Broken foot

For her part, Maayan Sheinfeld, during the period when auditions were held for qualification as an army ‘outstanding dancer’ in 2010, broke a foot in a rehearsal and was unable to audition, but the IDF did not make any concessions.

“It’s absurd,” she says, “that you’ve been accepted to the Batsheva Ensemble and you don’t get ‘outstanding dancer’ status. I very much wanted to be in the army. I had support from people in the troupe, who tried to help me get that status without an audition, but they [the army] slammed the door in my face. Due to that reality I got myself released from the IDF − I wasn’t prepared to give up my career and the amazing opportunity I had at Batsheva. Watching Nitzan going to do her army service after a workday when everyone was finished was simply incomprehensible.”

Dina Aldor, executive director of Batsheva, also has a message for the IDF: “We sometimes feel that the military establishment has difficulty dealing with outstanding dancers and not enough is done to make their service easier, so that they can participate in rehearsals and performances and the daily routine of a dancer. In the case of Sheinfeld, who was injured at the time of the examinations for outstanding dancer, we felt that despite her desire to contribute and do military service, the army pushed her out. We hope that together with the Ministry of Culture and the army, we will in the future succeed in advancing the status of the outstanding dancers in a way that will benefit all sides.”

When Ressler and Sheinfeld are asked about their plans for the future, Ressler expresses a desire to stay in Batsheva, but adds, “I’ve only just started.” However, she also says she’s considering enrolling in philosophy and architecture studies.

Sheinfeld, who lives in north Tel Aviv with her parents and has a boyfriend who is also a dancer, seems more practical: “Open a studio, get married and have children. I am interested in the business aspect of teaching dance, and I want to transmit my knowledge to the next generation.”

Ohad Naharin says of these two young dancers: “Maayan and Nitzan − each of them is a whole world unto herself, and therefore they bring something different to the processes and dynamics of the troupe. What they have in common is a tremendous talent for giving interpretations to my works, one that always does well by them.”

Luc Jacobs, senior rehearsal director at Batsheva, says: “In Maayan I see dedication, accessibility and uncompromising energy. She has an explosive quality and she is more hard-core than Nitzan, who has a softer energy. But in Nitzan it simply never ends − what her body is capable of reaching. She does this so easily that you don’t notice it’s impossible for a person to do what she is doing.”

As for Ressler’s intensive military service parallel to the work in the company, Jacobs adds: “I’d salute her every time I saw her in uniform. I think she looked beautiful in uniform.”

Asked how their first steps in the adult company looked, he replies: “I assume it was intense for them because there are lots of hours, and you are expected to bring everything you have to the creative process and therefore are in the spotlight. I can say that both are very critical about their own performance and achievements. They are hard on themselves and demanding. Sometimes young people take things like a poor performance or the mistakes they make in a very personal way.

“I have heard a lot of criticism about dance companies that hire people who are too young,” he adds, “and I also hear this about Batsheva. Colleagues say, for example, ‘But they’re so young − with them it’s just movement without content.’ This may be a valid point, but then I remind some of them of their own ages when they joined a troupe.”

Photo by Ilya Melnikov, makeup by Ya'arit Sabinir; leotards by Dance Shop
Gadi Dagon
Daniel Bar-On