Dvora Bertonov, a world-famous dancer, choreographer, teacher, scholar and Israel Prize laureate, died April 19 in Tel Aviv at the age of 95.
Unlike many dancers of her generation, whose style included broad gestures and sweeping movements in the spirit of European expressionism, Bertonov chose to define herself as a mimic. Her dances were brief narrative scenes sketched in movement - a style that derived from the rediscovery of pantomime in the 1920s and '30s. She was influenced by Etienne Decroux, who developed a lexicon of physical movements for expression through "bodily mimicry," which sought to deliver an abstract message with the help of pantomime.
Bertonov's husband, Emanuel Ben-Gurion, son of the author Micah Joseph Berdichevsky, wrote that her approach to art was "as to a religious cult whose members lived according to commandments engraved on stone tablets. They struggled with the ideal and made an effort to reach it with very hard work."
Bertonov, born in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia, in 1915, immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1928 with her father, the actor Yehoshua Bertonov, at the age of 13, after four years at the Bolshoi in Moscow. At a party in honor of the Habima Theater, she performed "The Beggars' Dance" from "The Dybbuk."
As there were no professional dance schools here at the time, Bertonov left for Berlin in 1929. Germany was at that time the center of avant-garde modern dance - an expressionist genre from the school of theorist Rudolf Laban, choreographer Kurt Jooss and the dancer Mary Wigman. In addition to modern dance, Bertonov studied music with modernist composer Carl Orff, who acquainted her with the percussion instruments that were to accompany her entire artistic career.
Upon her return to Tel Aviv in 1932, she gave a performance under her father's direction that concentrated on Diaspora themes: "Characters at a Jewish Wedding" (with music by Karel Salmon); "Two Jewish Messiahs" (Joel Engel); and "The Juggler." The choices were surprising in light of the fact that most artists of the period were engaged in the nationalist project.
In the early 1930s, Thelma Yellin and Emil Hauser invited Bertonov to teach modern dance at the academy they had established in Jerusalem. After a year, she traveled abroad again to study, this time in England with artists who had fled Nazi Germany. She studied at the well-known school of Kurt Jooss and Sigurd Leeder and broadened her repertoire under their influence.
Her dances told stories and focused on the characters in them; she revealed their emotional upheavals with movement. "The Peddlers," for example, features a man who is confident he can sell his wares easily, until he realizes that no one wants them. The dance is built on the peddler's gradual passage from joy to sorrow.
Bertonov won her first international competition in Paris in 1936, performing "Characters at a Jewish Wedding" and "The First Ball." That same year she toured the Baltics, where she was received with interest by Jewish audiences. In 1944 she opened her own teaching studio here, while continuing to perform solo shows, and shaping what she called her "vision," which she defined as work combining solo dances and readings of texts on biblical and national topics.
She switched her emphasis from events to the ideas behind them, and sought suitable styles of movement, doing serious research that included articles on anthropology on ancient dance styles.
In 1946 she created the first of her "visions" - "Exodus from Egypt," based on an idea by poet Aharon Ze'ev, with music by Josef Tal. The narrator was her brother, Shlomo Bertonov. The show was reworked and retitled "Aliyah to Jerusalem" in 1952 and later to "Memories of a Nation" in 1957.
Author Yeshurun Keshet wrote that "Bertonov's concentrated portrayals are based on a minimum of means. There is always restraint in her movements, and an unceasing relevance to the main idea. She embodies her themes more with the intensity of movements than the amount of variations and repetitions."
Bertonov was a friend of Valentina Grossman, my ballet teacher at a time when hostility between ballet and modern dance was at its height. We were forbidden to see performances by such talents as Gertrude Kraus or Maya Arbatova, but we all went to watch Bertonov dance in Haifa, with our teacher in the lead.
In the 1950s, expressionist dance was pushed aside in favor of the American style of Martha Graham. Bertonov found an alternative in writing and research. She wrote a column for the daily Davar newspaper, and toured Ghana and India to gather material for her research, after which she wrote books on ritual and popular dance.
From 1975 to 1977, she taught a course at the University of Haifa, "Dance as human and national expression, and dance as art," which led to a book, "Journey to the Land of Dance" (1982).
Unlike her colleagues from the early period of Jewish settlement, who have been almost completely forgotten, Bertonov was a member of many artistic organizations. She found it hard to digest the experimental dance of the 1970s, and was considered conservative. She continued to teach in her studio in Holon, but gradually disappeared from the stage.
In 1985, at the age of 74 she returned to the stage following an invitation to an international theater conference, where she performed "The Beggars' Dance." This moving performance encouraged her to return to the stage with pieces of her mimicry repertoire from the 1930s and '40s.
Bertonov, who was an enthusiastic student of Moshe Feldenkrais and his method of developing self-awareness through movement, maintained her physical vigor. Before she returned to the stage, she began to re-train, "to wake up buried seeds," she said. The comeback gave her renewed energy. She continued dancing until 2002, when she retired after falling and breaking a bone.
At one of her shows, she stood, self-confident, in a black dress and shining white hair, and moved with amazing suppleness.