How Dance Company Batsheva Became a Symbol of Western Gentrification

A $40 million plan to build a new home for the renowned company stirs anger in a poor southern Tel Aviv neighborhood

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Members of Batsheva during rehearsals.
Members of Batsheva during rehearsals. Credit: Ascaf
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Residents of the low-income Neve Sha’anan neighborhood in south Tel Aviv have a new, somewhat surprising target for their anger: the world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company and its artistic director, Ohad Naharin. They’ve taken to calling the dance company, which is closely connected with the upscale Neve Tzedek area where it has its headquarters, “the cultural gentrification contractor in the south of the city.”

In recent years, Batsheva, the Tel Aviv municipality and the Tel Aviv Foundation have been working toward building a new culture and art campus on the site of the old central bus station in Neve Sha’anan. It’s a project that would change the face of the area and aims to heal the divide between the city’s affluent center and underprivileged south. Last week, after four years of preliminary work, the plan for the 150-million-shekel ($40 million) campus, which is also intended to house the dance company’s new headquarters, was revealed. Neighborhood residents, most of whom are from a low socioeconomic background, and many of whom are African migrant workers, fear that the project would change the neighborhood’s character beyond recognition.

A simulation of the new Neve Sha'anan campus for Batsheva Dance Company Credit: Sir David Adjaye/ OBE Adjaye Associates

Last week, the center was the subject of a raucous meeting of the local planning and building committee. Neighborhood residents focused their annoyance at both city hall and at Batsheva CEO Dina Aldor. Shula Keshet, a Neve Sha’anan native who still lives in the neighborhood, distributed flyers against the building of the center. “Ms. Dina Aldor speaks as if she is the culture commissar who gets to decide what will be,” Keshet said at the meeting, and called for a public administration to be established that would include neighborhood representatives.

The residents clearly see the Batsheva center as an invasion of “Ashkenazi” and “Western” culture into a neighborhood that is proud of its Mizrahi as well as foreign character. “I met with Dina and I told her – let’s do something that brings East and West together, that will be cooperation between the two,” says Keshet. “She spat in our faces. We don’t want culture tycoons in south Tel Aviv. What about our culture?”

The campus is being designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, in collaboration with local architect Miko Arditty and landscape architect Lital Samuk. It will be situated where the platforms for the old central bus station once stood, and will be part of a broader real estate plan, “The Shomron Project,” that is intended to include on its perimeter residential and office towers of heights ranging from 11 to 35 stories. The visualization of the project showed that both the cultural compound and the Shomron Project in general will face north toward the city center, rather than toward the south.

A simulation of the new Neve Sha'anan campus for Batsheva Dance Company Credit: Sir David Adjaye/ OBE Adjaye Associates

Adjaye is a rising star whose latest projects have been prominently featured in international architecture magazines. He designed the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, and in 2017, a year after its dedication, was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. In October 2017 he and Israeli architect Ron Arad won a competition to design the British Holocaust memorial in London.

Adjaye says he wants to build a campus that blends with its surroundings. “For me, public architecture is a social act,” he told Haaretz. “It offers an opportunity to create more than a building that fulfills a program, it is about advocating for citizens and inspiring their belief in civic life, inviting them to take part. In that sense, I never saw the Neve Sha’anan arts campus as a piece of iconic architecture removed from the neighborhood and the city. I saw this project as an opportunity to deconstruct the monument of a cultural object – into a series of inviting indoor-outdoor spaces, to create a platform that opens itself up to dance, performance and community, bringing everyone together.”

He describes the architectural concept as “a small village, with a synergy in and among the structures and the outdoor spaces, and between the campus and the Neve Shaa’nan neighborhood, Tel Aviv itself, the country, and the world. It is very visible. It is very public. It is a place in which the encounter with arts and culture is made easy.” Adjaye describes the place as democratic and open to all: “You pass through the outdoor plaza, which buzzes with social activity and adventure, and you see and experience things that will invite you in. Inside, instead of a traditional foyer, you enter a living room for the city – a cultural hub, serving both the community and the institution, with educational opportunities, a cultural library and a reading room open to all. Not just to the privileged, but to all to have access to art and culture.”

“We have no theater of our own,” Dina Aldor explains, after the committee meeting. “At Suzanne Dellal, that’s not our theater.” Architect Sharon Rothbard pointed out that the land on which the old bus station sits belongs to the city. “It’s a square with a strategic location and it looks wonderful to us, despite all the effort required. We take the responsibility very seriously in coming to put down stakes there.” Aldor said at the meeting that “It fell to us, the current administration of Batsheva, Ohad Naharin, the company staff and board, to promote this initiative that besides giving us a home of our own to suit our needs is also creating a new cultural center, this time in the south of the city.” She added, “The entire process of formulating the plan was done in close cooperation with the various municipality departments, in an authentic effort to do something that has great artistic, social and urban value.”

A simulation of the new Neve Sha'anan campus for Batsheva Dance Company.Credit: Sir David Adjaye/ OBE Adjaye Associates

The black box

The new culture center will cover nearly 12,000 square meters of space, more than a quarter of that underground. It will be divided into four main sections as part of the planning concept for several of the buildings in the square. The first of these is to be a 5,500-square-meter theater building, to be erected adjacent to the site of the old bus platforms, with a 500-seat auditorium. The ground floor will have be a foyer that will serve as an urban reading room. Arditty, the local partner in the project, says that many outside spaces have been planned for the project, and that they will have multiple uses and free access. For example, the roof will serve as an open-air cinema during summers. “You’ll be able to reach it by the external stairs without having to enter the building.” The roof will also house a small café, he says. Halfway up to the roof there will be a terrace overlooking the square, where small shows can also be held.

In the center of the compound there will be a public square, and on the opposite side of the lot, by Salomon Street, will be the third section: The Batsheva dance center, with 3,400 square meters of space. The center is to include a multipurpose community studio, three studio halls, administrative offices, a treatment center for dancers, a communal roof garden and a restaurant. Beneath the square, also on the underground level, will be section four: a building called the “black box” with a multipurpose hall that can seat 250, a café and snack bars.

Cultural exclusion

The old central bus station, designed by Nahum Zelkind and Werner Joseph Wittkower in 1940, isn’t earmarked for preservation in the city’s plan, but it won’t be destroyed. According to the presentation given at the meeting, two kindergartens in the building that serve children of asylum seekers will be able to remain in place and continuing using the courtyards and bomb shelters until construction of the two subterranean spaces is completed and work on construction of the studio building starts.

It’s not only neighborhood residents who are furious at the plan, which is now moving forward. City council members were outraged that the plan was considered before the city council had even discussed the issue of allotting public land to Batsheva.

Dina Aldor, Batsheva CEO.Credit: Gali Eytan

“We’re giving first dibs to Batsheva, but we haven’t approved this,” said veteran city councilman Aharon Meduel. He particularly blamed Harela Avraham-Ouzan, legal advisor to the local planning and building committee, saying, “I don’t accept her legal opinion.”

Avraham-Ouzan said the cultural complex could be planned even before the land allocation to Batsheva was approved.

Meduel also argued that a larger hall might be needed in south Tel Aviv. “We shouldn’t cut the hall to fit Batsheva’s suit,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Meital Lehavi said, “This has been going on for four years, in a place that’s undergoing gentrification, and now there’s cultural exclusion here. We all know this is a process of informing rather than involving the public. If everything in the design plan is already decided, we won’t be able to touch it and alter the process.”

The municipality said the process of allocating the land to Batsheva is no different than the process undergone by other plots earmarked for public buildings. It also said that to approve the allocation, it’s first necessary to know what the land will be used for, and to raise money, a design plan is needed.

In any case, it added, city council members can oppose both the plan and the land allocation.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai attended the meeting and decided not to hold a vote on the plan, but instead to postpone a decision on it until after municipal elections this fall. But he charged that some city council members were making erroneous statements for political reasons.

The old central bus station in Neve Sha’anan. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Huldai told Keshet that he didn’t agree with a single word she said, adding that there’s no such thing as “neighborhood cultural facilities.”

“I don’t accept the term ‘neighborhood cultural centers,’” he said. “Heichal Hatarbut [home of the Israel Philharmonic] and Habima Theater don’t have ‘northern’ culture” – a reference to north Tel Aviv, which is often used as a metaphor for wealthy, Ashkenazi Jews. “It’s just culture, and it’s for everyone. And in general, 80 percent of the people who come to cultural facilities in Tel Aviv aren’t from Tel Aviv.”

Aldor said that now is the time to involve the public and denied that everything was already planned and settled.

“I think it’s important to have a formal process in which we hear what the fantasies are,” she said. “After all, it’s not as if instead of a theater, there would be a swimming pool there. That’s why they planned many empty spaces in the compound, and facilities that could serve the public.

“It will be the neighborhood’s ‘forum,’” she continued. “It will be possible to hold demonstrations, food fairs or a ‘My Heart Is in the East’ festival in the square. We’ll conduct a discussion about the artistic plan with the neighborhood.”

Some people fear that a flagship project of this kind, combined with the towers around it, will create an accelerated process of gentrification and destroy the neighborhood. How can it be modified so that Neveh Sha’anan doesn’t turn into a replica of Neveh Tzedek?

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Aldor answered. “I don’t think our project will destroy the neighborhood. Gentrification processes include a great many steps, and this is something cities are dealing with worldwide. Our way of coping with these processes is to create a democratic space, a space that’s for everyone. Therefore, I’m glad that a process of involving the public will now begin, as this will give the residents a feeling that the place is theirs.”

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