Perpetual Motion

Noa Eshkol was a charismatic dancer and choreographer, the daughter of Israel's third prime minister and co-creator of a movement notation system. Some of her followers are keeping her legacy alive

Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman

Noa Eshkol - dancer, inventor, leader of an artistic school of thought, was not a woman who can be easily catalogued.

When she died, in October 2007 at the age of 83, she left behind a home in Holon, hundreds of tapestries, the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation System and a handful of people who followed her through thick and thin.

She never called herself a choreographer, refused to accept the Israel Prize when it was offered to her and did not show up for the ceremony at which she was awarded the Histadrut Prize for Lifetime Achievement, in 1992. But the movement notation method she invented together with Prof. Avraham Wachman is perhaps the finest export of Israeli dance. On this there is consensus among the leaders of the country's dance community, many of whom call Eshkol the "Israeli Merce Cunningham." Many also say she was controversial, sometimes rude and annoying but always interesting and enlightening.

Eshkol was an enigmatic figure. It is known that she was charismatic, that she lived modestly, that she inspired books (including the Haim Gouri novel "Hasefer Hameshuga" - "The Crazy Book"). But no one knows why she secluded herself at home in her final years and why she refused to accept prizes for her work, although the money attached to them could have helped promote it.

The dancers who were with her during her lifetime - Racheli Nul-Kahana, Ruth Sela and Shmuel Zaidel - are working to preserve the dances she created so that they will continue to exist after they are gone. They gathered seven students of movement notation scholar Michal Shoshani, who teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (Shoshani herself studied there with Eshkol), and taught them a selection of her early works, which are not documented on video.

In May the 10 performed works by Eshkol at the Hateiva hall in Jaffa. Another performance is in the works, for the opening of an exhibition of Eshkol's woven tapestries at the Open Museum in Tefen, scheduled for December. Nul-Kahana says that Eshkol's students are working to preserve her legacy: the movement notation system and Eshkol's books on the subject; her dances she created; and all her tapestries. Meanwhile, Prof. Baruch Nevo is collecting material for a biography of Eshkol he plans to write.

Eshkol was born in 1924 on Kibbutz Deganya Bet, to Rivka Maharshek, a Russian immigrant, and Levi Eshkol, who eventually became prime minister. Many people mistakenly believe that Noa's mother was Eshkol's second wife, Elisheva Kaplan, with whom he had three daughters: Dvora Rafaeli-Eshkol, Ofra Nevo-Eshkol and Tama Shochat. Rivka and Levi divorced soon after Noa was born, and she moved to Tel Aviv with her mother.

In the late 1940s Eshkol suffered guilt pangs over abandoning his ex-wife and his daughter, and built them a small house in Holon, as reported in Hadashot by Sarah Leibovich-Dar in 1992. A few days after moving into the new house Rivka touched a defective refrigerator and was electrocuted to death.

Noa Eshkol's role in her father's personal life is not clear. "Barniki (Gouri's name for Eshkol) seemed constantly to get lost halfway on the path between her parents," Gouri wrote about her in "The Crazy Book." Later he describes a dialogue between Barniki's father and Mrs. Reuveni, her piano teacher: "The teacher: 'Your Barniki is a talented child.' The father: 'I know, but what can I do.' The teacher: 'She's a talented and very intelligent child, and she has perfect pitch.' The father: 'I'm a very busy man, you know.'"

Gouri was a classmate of Eshkol's, who in her childhood was called Noa Maharshek. They were in Tel Aviv's School for Workers' Children together with Yaakov Rechter, who went on to become a noted architect, and Haim Ben Dor. (Ben Dor was in love with Eshkol, and Gouri's book addresses this unrequited love. Ben Dor died at the age of 24, in a January 1948 reprisal attack by the Palmach after the murder of Haifa refinery employees.)

In his book Gouri described the first signs of Eshkol's unusual personality: "She was apparently a queen. Her friends would bow down before her and carry her in an improvised palanquin made from their thin arms... The teachers were afraid of her. During classes they would glance at her as though waiting for approval. When she nodded her small head as a signal they gathered courage and continued. But when, on the other hand, she furrowed her delicate forehead and her blue eyes held the gray of the coming storm, as she readied for battle, they often experienced a sort of slight earthquake. When she raised her little finger as a sign that she wanted to ask or say something, the room would fall into a silence of electricity and attention. She was very talented, read a lot, played the piano, never did homework but was the best in the class."

She later changed her last name to Eshkol. "From a girl with braids she became a charismatic, attractive, unique, charming young woman," continues Gouri in the book. "She was before her time, open occasionally, like a radio station, hungry, roaming, knowledgeable, combative.. Only a few thought her beautiful, but they belonged to the nobility, a small circle of people of refined taste, of people who understood, of those who were crazy about anything unique and rare."

Amnon Dankner wrote about her in his biography of Dahn Ben Amotz: "She was always reading books that had just been published abroad and that received recognition in Israel only years later. She discovered Kafka at a time when few people in Israel knew about him, and she would urge her friends to read his stories. She had free sexual habits during a puritanical era."

When she was 18 she joined the British army and served as a driver. During her leaves she led a wild life. Gouri writes: "If she wore her black dress and her Yemenite jewelry, and pulled back her braids and took her gold purse, she was attending a concert or play and from there would go to the Kankan or Cassit clubs and wouldn't return home before midnight. If she wore her white dress and sandals, she was probably going to a lecture or a literary evening... If she wore her red dress and let her hair stream down on her back and shoulders it was a sign that she was going to some party. She would return in the morning, if she returned."

When World War II ended Eshkol returned to Tel Aviv and became closer to writer Dahn Ben Amotz, who fell hopelessly in love with her. Eshkol treated him and Ben Dor with the same degree of cruelty, and cheated on both of them. In the late 1940s she took the advice of her dance teacher Tehilla Roessler and traveled to London to study movement notation. "Noa studied piano with music teacher Frank Peleg," says Nul-Kahana. "She understood something about composition as only musicians understand it. After studying with Tehilla Roessler she understood that dance had no future without written notation. Roessler told her about the Laban system, and so Noa traveled to London in the late 1940s. In the end she found herself in Sigurd Leeder's school, studying the system he had invented."

Toward the end of the 1948 War of Independence she returned to Israel and began teaching dance at the Seminar Hakibbutzim teachers' college and the Cameri Theater's drama studio, both in Tel Aviv. Ben Amotz, who had despaired of wooing her, had married in the meantime. "[Ellen] is the closest I have ever found to the feminine ideal - to you" he wrote in a letter to Eshkol about his bride, and he named his daughter Noa.

In the early 1950s Eshkol met Abraham Wachman (who later become a professor of architecture at the Haifa Technion), and together they developed their trailblazing movement notation method. While other notation systems sought to preserve choreographies, theirs was to be a tool for creating them.

In a rare press interview, given to Dalia Lamdani in 1968 and published in Haaretz, Eshkol described their notation system: "We relate in all seriousness and conclusively to the fact that one limb in the body is incapable of creating anything except a circular route around its joint. The entire notation is based on that. It is impossible to denote in writing the emotion that is expressed in dance, just as it is impossible to express it in musical notation. The notation provides you with a tool that not only diagnoses habits of thought, but also enables you to deviate from them and to create new and significant patterns. I don't work in a style. If I have characteristics of my own, I must also have a style of my own. But I don't know what it is."

When asked by Lamdani whether there was no emotion in her dances based on the movement notation, she replied: "That's nonsense, because I am clearly expressing my emotion. I don't have to tell in words which emotion I expressed. I'll do that when I'm a writer." To the question of why her face does not express anything in her dances she replied: "The thinking in my use of movement is not mainly in the face, but mainly an instrument of movement, and therefore a change in its relationship to the other limbs interests me more than theatrical facial expressions. Besides, personally, I don't like the representation of ecstasies that dancers usually add to movement." This was a reference to the most influential group of dance teachers in Israel, who came from Germany and were followers of Impressionism.

The reviews of the first performances by the chamber dance group, which in addition to Eshkol included Naomi Polani, Miriam Sharon and John Harris, were negative and occasionally harsh. The critics found it difficult to deal with pure movement, devoid of music (except for the clicking of a metronome), scenery or costumes.

"There is no need for an excess of imagination to compare this troupe with ultrasonic flights, flying saucers, the melodies of space and even visitors from Mars," wrote Malka Raimist in the newspaper Davar in 1954. "Perhaps there is something exalted about them, and perhaps only the next generation will be able to enjoy this type of dance. But when I left the theater I thought: 'If that is the lot of the next generation, I'm glad that I was born in a period when Beethoven and Mozart are still played, and very old-fashioned ballets like 'Swan Lake' and 'Giselle' are still performed.' I left the theater feeling dizzy and not particularly happy."

Movement notation scholar Michal Shoshani explains Eshkol's uniqueness in the world dance scene. "[Merce] Cunningham, for example, has music, scenery and costumes. Although they are created arbitrarily, separately, they do exist. Even his method of composition, his use of chance, is fundamentally different - it is based on a classical technique with additional accretions that create something new and uniquely his, but not something totally original. With Noa it's all her own work, that's a unique phenomenon in the dance world."

As though to add fuel to the fire, Eshkol's dancers did not bow at the end of their performances. "Noa Eshkel's troupe did not thank the enthusiastic audience with a bow of thanks," wrote Amichai Marod in the army magazine Bamahane in 1956. "There is something disrespectful and uncultured about that. The dancers would get onstage and then leave, as though they had come to the rehearsal room and nobody else existed. And because the audience did exist, and they knew that, this was a kind of pretense, dishonesty. And dishonesty is the total opposite of art."

What was the source of Noa Eshkol's profound disdain for the establishment? "She strongly objected to permanence," says Ruth Sela. Nul-Kahana elaborates: "She spoke about human nature that wants something permanent, that wants to stop asking questions, and there was something in her nature that was inquisitive and philosophical, even in the small things. She forced us to speak about the meaning of the most ordinary word. She examined everything to death, for herself and for us too. It's a kind of thinking that puts everything to the test. Anyone who knows doesn't learn. Technically you had to stand on your foot, but she refused to call that the Noa Eshkol technique. It was part of what she demanded of herself, to reexamine everything herself each time."

"Toward the end she decided to create a new notation system," says Sela, surprisingly. "The marks disgusted her, she couldn't stand them anymore."

"Yes, she did hate the establishment," Shoshani says. "She thought it was deadening, full of things that weren't important, full of politics. And she was political. Being antiestablishment was her politics. She was a professor at Tel Aviv University so that she could do her thing, but she attached conditions to accepting professorship. She sat [in the academy] with her people rather than in the university, and didn't follow the rules. She agreed to become a professor, for them to give her money and not interfere in her affairs. Not to give her any prize. She considered that undignified."

In 1958 Noa Eshkol's first book, "Movement Notation," was published. It is being reissued.

Sela, Nul-Kahana and Zaidel joined the group in the 1960s. Their performances quickly became the bon ton among the cognoscenti, and the troupe was often invited abroad. They could not always accept the invitations due to Eshkol's financial incapacity, a result of her refusal to be supported by the establishment. Later on she did receive some assistance, but only for a limited period.

The minimalism that characterized Eshkol's choreography gradually took over her life, and her social life diminished. "She often had spells of melancholy," Dankner wrote. "What would happen to her? She would be alone, childless. In her despair she turned to Dahn and asked him to have a child with her. Not for the sex, she emphasized, not for the fun of it, a technical matter, in and out and nine months later there'd be a baby. But she had one condition: That everything be with Ellen's consent. Dahn talked to his wife, and she didn't consent."

In 1978 she suddenly emerged into the light when she exhibited about 100 tapestries composed of small pieces of fabric (out of a total of 500 that she created) at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. She began making them during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and for five years her devoted dancers brought her bags of fabric scraps; they called themselves the "rag commandos."

"There are things that developed over the years, and Noa was also the target of many insults," Nul-Kahana explains. "As often happens with adults or old people who slowly withdraw, she shut herself into her home. Every venture outside was a big deal for her. She couldn't talk to people outside. At first she would still take taxis by herself, go to [popular Tel Aviv cafes] Cassit or California by herself. In the end it came to a point where she wouldn't leave the house alone. She didn't answer the phone and she boycotted reporters. The woman who had been friends with Uri Zohar, Dahn Ben Amotz, Haim Gouri, Amos Keinan - they dedicated works to her and named their daughters after her - wouldn't even answer phone calls at the end of her life. Answering her phone was a profession, and she was angry with us for not answering to her liking. At that point I rebelled. Everywhere she was an attraction, a personage, but not for us," Nul-Kahana said.

"When Shmulik [Shmuel Zaidel] and I were abroad with her before we began to perform, she was the prime minister's daughter," Nul-Kahana continued. "She came to the U.S. and in the 1960s she was the closest thing possible to the 'flower children'; she had waist-length hair and wore bell bottoms. They didn't believe she was the prime minister's daughter. Female teachers and professors had to wear heels and stockings, and suddenly Noa Eshkol appeared, a relatively old hippie with long hair. She was followed by a detective and investigated a thousand times, they called the Foreign Ministry to verify that she really was the prime minister's daughter. Of course she would send me to represent her at dinners with the Jewish community. She was both aware and unaware of her tremendous influence, she both wanted and didn't want it."

"She didn't know how to make small talk," adds Shoshani. "She always brought up some lofty political subject, and it always turned into an argument in the end. She would be provocative, otherwise she was bored. She was a shy person who liked being in the center... She would come to her performances and cover her face with her hands."

Eshkol, as noted, became world-famous thanks to the movement notation system that she and Wachman devised. At one point she was received by Romola Nijinsky, the widow of Vaslav Nijinsky, who asked her to try to decipher the notation system he had invented. Eshkol accepted the challenge in order to reconstruct his dances, and reached the conclusion that the notation was an improvement on the famous Russian notation named after its creator, Vladimir Stepanov. When she presented her conclusions to Romola Nijinsky, the latter was furious, and wrote in reply: "Forget Stepanov." Years later it turned out that the notation really was based on Stepanov.

"There was a very prominent difference between Noa's persona as a teacher and her persona in the group," Shoshani emphasizes. As a teacher she was much more easygoing, and anyone who arrived here received a shock, trial by fire. They had to contend with her difficult personality. It was her home, and she was consumed. Noa came out of music, one could see the musical context, so with regard to composition, too, her charisma was not empty or hollow, she was intellectual, relentlessly inquisitive. In fact there was something terribly childish about her, she was very experienced and at the same time a small child. She had an inexhaustible need for clarity and didn't rest until what had not been clear to her became clear. That was reflected both in her work and her relationships. It was something beyond charisma. She was profound, she was stimulating and challenging in the sensual, intellectual, practical sense. It was interesting to be with her. That was part of her magnetism, because anyone who was interested in something and wanted to do it seriously knew that this was the place," Shoshani says.

When Eshkol died in late 2007, at the age of 83,she was buried in her birthplace, Kibbutz Deganya Bet. She left a detailed will. "She requested the establishment of a foundation in her name that would perpetuate her notation system," Shoshani explains. "She left her house in Holon to the foundation and to the Movement Notation Society. She asked that the society and the archive go on for as long as we wanted, and gave permission for her tapestries to be sold and exhibited. She made personnel decisions and set out areas of responsibility. She arranged an ideal retirement for us. We are happy. We are realizing our love, continuing our lives, in joy, happiness and love," Shoshani says. W



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.

He's From a Small Village in the West Bank, One of Three at His School Who Went to College

From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Prime Minister

Lake Kinneret. The high water level created lagoons at the northern end of the lake.

Lake Kinneret as You’ve Never Experienced It Before

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States