Divinely Inspired

While the indomitable Rina Schenfeld's latest work, 'Angels,' embodies the universal themes of love and religion, it is also very personal.

When Rina Schenfeld huddles with her dancers behind the scenes during her new show, "Angels," she suddenly seems to be 40 years younger. Dressed like the youthful members of her eponymous dance theater, the 71-year-old dancer-choreographer also performs with them, exchanging sympathetic smiles whenever possible.

Asked if she misses her days as the prima ballerina of the Batsheva Dance Company (1963-1979), she replies without hesitation: "Not a bit. I remember that time with a smile, because I really was a big star and enjoyed international success, but the effort was enormous and the atmosphere was problematic." The veteran dancer and choreographer goes on to explain that "being the principal of such a company then meant being exposed to a lot of jealousy, even hatred. I'm very happy with what I am doing at the moment, here and now."

With that era relegated to the past, Schenfeld now steers clear of any professional machinations. In her new show she is one of nine dancer/artists. Her goal: To be close to the audience - or, as she puts it, "to open the heart and touch people." This tendency was already evident in her last work, "Dance Me to the End of Love," and is manifested in more personal, accessible content and in the effort to make the audience an active participant in the show, even when the dancers are taking their bows.

"I underwent a personal process," says Schenfeld. "People always looked at me from a distance, as though I were some kind of religious figure like the Madonna. I want them to see the person, the woman, the femininity."

The new direction has proved successful: "Even 'Threads,' which was staged all over the world [in 1979], was not seen by as many people as 'Dance Me to the End of Love,' which was inspired by Leonard Cohen songs," she says. Indeed, all 12 performances of the latter were sold out in advance.

"Angels," which will premiere at the Hot Dance festival at Tel Aviv's Suzanne Dellal Center on August 12, was also inspired by contemporary music - in this case, by Laurie Anderson - and is about love, heaven and religion. Despite its universal themes it is a very personal show, even more so than "Dance Me": It includes a video installation featuring photos of Schenfeld's childhood.

"I believe there are angels," she says, referring to her new work, "not only up there, but down here. They emerge for a moment, put on their wings when they need them, and then take them off and give them to someone else."

Love is an old-new theme for Schenfeld: "It's the first time in a long while that I've dealt with love. I see that all of the duets today are about the battle of the sexes - pushing, hating. I speak about it today from a different perspective, because I've experienced a lot in this life - marriage, childbirth, being a grandmother, an aunt. During the Batsheva period of Martha Graham, everything was 'him and her,' and I played the role of seducer. It was wonderful, but I'd really had enough of it, and when I formed my own theater company, I worked like an autistic person with objects in order to shatter that convention. There has always been drama in my work - I'm still a Graham dancer, after all - but in the last two projects, because Hemi [Goldin, with whom Schenfeld performs her pas de deux] is around, I am once again dealing with love. It really is the important subject in life."

Rena and Rina

Rina Schenfeld was born in Tel Aviv in 1938 and began studying classical ballet with Mia Arbatova at age 12. After seeing a Martha Graham performance in Israel, she switched to modern dance and studied with Rena Gluck. After high school Schenfeld won a scholarship to the Julliard School in New York, where she studied choreography, movement notation, music and so on. Immediately upon returning to Israel, she was hired by Anna Sokolow's Lyric Theater. Still captivated by Graham, the high priestess of modern dance, Schenfeld made another foray to New York to work with her, returning to Israel in 1964, to a career as principal dancer for the nascent Batsheva Company.

"You could say I founded the company for Rena [Gluck] and Rina [Schenfeld]," dance patron Batsheva de Rothschild wrote in 1997. And, indeed, the two were Batsheva's leading dancers for years. During the company's many tours abroad, Schenfeld won international acclaim, and The New York Times even went so far as to call her "one of the important dancers of our generation." The dances she choreographed for the company were also well received.

In 1979 she left Batsheva and founded the Rina Schenfeld Dance Theater. Since then she has choreographed numerous works in her inimitable style, which give prominence to such elements as music, video, song and text, as well as props. Famous works include "Threads" (1978), "Tins and Hair Dance" (1980), "Silk Sticks and Balloons" (1982), "Waves" (1986) and "Bubbles" (1992). The first three won her the David's Harp award.

While many hold her in high esteem, some critics claim her work is archaic. In any event, Schenfeld has the distinction of being one of Israel's premiere, native-born dancers, and is also unique in continuing to perform even at a relatively advanced age. She has a son, a daughter and several grandchildren, and lives in Tel Aviv with her partner, Uri Feigenblat.

The eight dancers currently appearing with Schenfeld - Goldin, Gali Aizenman, Tamar Weisman, Gdalit Neuman, Joanna Offer, Lilach Raz, Shimrit Sha'ar and Aviv Chalfon - are credited as both dancers and creators in the program for "Angels."

Schenfeld: "The dancers working with me today were a great help in their openness and their truth. I have a very honest group, and that helps me."

What is it like to lean up against the chest of a dancer who just turned 25? "It's amazing," she smiles. "I have no words to describe Hemi's chest, and Hemi himself, and what's inside that chest: a great heart, a great artist, a [great] person ... I've never met anyone like him in dance, maybe because he is a man of faith. He also brings something of himself to the work. I don't feel that it's a matter of an older person dancing with a younger one, rather of a person dancing with another person, also because it is not necessarily about the love of a man for a woman, but rather about the need we all have to be loved by those around us. It's a bit autobiographical. Age has nothing to do with it, and from the responses I've gotten, I don't think the audience is interested in that."

As a former Batsheva dancer, Schenfeld follows the company and has much respect for choreographer Ohad Naharin's work. She does not want to name other local choreographers she likes ("I don't know them all, so it's not fair to say 'This one yes, and this one no'"), but under slight pressure, makes favorable mention of Yasmeen Godder, Renana Raz, Niv Sheinfeld and Rami Be'er.

Money matters

In this realm, her greatest source of inspiration was and remains Martha Graham. "Tomorrow I'm teaching Graham roles at a summer workshop in Or Yehuda," she says. "It's odd: Wake me up in the middle of the night, put the music on and I'll dance. My greatest role, after all, was Ariadne in 'Errand into the Maze.' My relationship with Martha was like that of a mother and daughter. She was my spiritual mother.

"Every time I give a workshop I go over all the materials again, and [before this next workshop] I watched a lot of films before deciding what to screen, including one about her personal life, which describes her relationships with [musician] Louis Horst and [choreographer] Erick Hawkins. Suddenly I looked at it differently. After all, I knew these people in real time. Personally, I didn't much like Martha Graham as a person, I didn't understand her. I was a 20-year-old girl. But she was a great artist."

Schenfeld's opinion of reality television programs that involve dance is unequivocal: "To me it's a kind of abuse, an attempt to make money and ratings off people's backs."

Speaking of money, it turns out that even someone of Schenfeld's stature has to contend with meager budgets and red tape. The Rina Schenfeld Dance Theater is a public organization that receives annual fundings of between NIS 160,000 and NIS 200,000 from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Culture Administration and Tel Aviv Municipality.

"It's very hard to create art in Israel," Schenfeld declares. "People don't get just how hard it is. Every time I tell myself that maybe this is the last project ... To put together a performance, you need NIS 120,000, which goes to lighting design, stage hands, dancers and the rest. I work as a volunteer and also give the theater money I make from my work outside, workshops and so on. It's not easy.

"But it's not just that. There are hours of administrative work, twice or three times what I spend on the art, because I can't afford to hire people to do it. It's very sad: Every year the sword hangs over your head, cuts or no cuts, but each time an angel turns up. Last year the performances brought in a bundle. Now I'm very worried about whether the new show will be as profitable as 'Dance Me.' And I tell myself: Rina, even if it's not sold out, you did a great job."