Ballet Under a Blood Red (Desert) Sky

Giant production planned for Timna Park, near Eilat.

Noon on Friday, deep into August, at 4 Har Nevo Street in the center-north of Tel Aviv – the studio of the Israel Ballet. About 20 dancers sit on the floor in rapt attention, waiting for the corrections of the company’s artistic director, Ido Tadmor. In mid-September they will take the stage in Timna Park, near Eilat, to perform in the Isrotel Phaza Morgana festival, even though they’ve just returned from vacation. Tadmor looks worried. The production, “Game On,” which the company will perform together with the multidisciplinary Mayumana group, is large and complex, and the dancers don’t give the impression of being ready. “I’ll let you off today,” he tells them, “but as of Sunday we have to start working attentively. There are too many things that aren’t in place.”

After the pep talk, the corrections session gets underway, under the joint management of Tadmor and Claire Bayliss Nagar, a former dancer in the Israel Ballet and for the past 13 years the rehearsal director of the Batsheva Dance Company. When it’s time for comments about the soloist Ludwig Ispirian, Tadmor discovers that the dancer has disappeared. Finally Ispirian strides into the studio and argues with the 
choreographer in front of the whole 
company. “It was harder for us at the beginning,” Tadmor admits later. “He comes from a very rigid training regime and finds it difficult to take criticism. Over time, that tension slowly faded. In fact, the first thing it was important for me to do when I came here was to heal the battered place I found, to create mutual trust, introduce plenty of love and create a space to think and live in.”

At the age of 50, and a year and a half after taking over as the Israel Ballet’s artistic director, Tadmor is still trying to rehabilitate the company, which almost collapsed under a debilitating budget deficit of 6.5 million shekels ($1,825,000) at the beginning of 2012. No few 
difficulties attended his arrival, caused primarily by the drama that accompanied the departure of the company’s founders: the artistic director and choreographer Berta Yampolsky and her husband, Hillel Markman, who was general director until he was replaced by Lea Lavie in 2011. Yampolsky and Markman, who had run the dance company since its establishment in 1967, filed a 2.5 million shekel suit (about $700,000) against their dismissal, which the Labor Court will 
begin to hear in November.

Tadmor has expressed esteem for Yampolsky and says he suggested that a scholarship fund in her name be created with the company’s cooperation. “I found a great deal of sadness and weariness here,” he says. “The company worked in a very particular style for many years, and mainly with one choreographer. The classes were given in one style, not necessarily good or bad, but simply one. My feeling was that the company needed to follow the same path as other great companies internationally. They opened up their repertoire, while preserving and cultivating classical ballet.”

How can you work with such a large deficit hanging over you?

“That’s the niche of Lea Lavie, the general manager. She knows where to cut and how to stick to the rules that govern a not-for-profit association. And, of course, we have chosen to mount productions that will interest new audiences. The show we did with the [rock] band HaYehudim opened the gate to a young, lively audience, and a young public snapped up the tickets to those concerts like hotcakes. Nowadays, art, for good and for ill, goes hand in hand with public relations and marketing, and that’s a field in which I have years of experience. We’ve been able to generate a buzz around the company, something that hardly existed before.”

“Tadmor gets up around 5:30 every morning, has a bite to eat and works out in a gym. He then goes to the studio to do a morning class with the company and spends the rest of the day in the rehearsal room. “I’m usually here all day, until 8 or 9 in the evening, and then I go home and answer emails. Unlike other artistic directors, who position themselves at a great distance from the dancers, it’s important for me to ensure that the experience is constantly shared. I do the morning class, create and illustrate everything for them and accompany them to almost every performance in the bus. It really is a family.”

How is the veteran audience responding to the changes?

“Very well. We didn’t deprive them of the great classical productions, but improved them in terms of sets and 
costumes. More goes into the productions than before, and I think the current crop of dancers is also at a higher level. We didn’t try to turn classical dancers into moderns, and we kept the familiar classical techniques and lines, so that the veteran audience can also connect.”

For you, it’s a change as a choreographer – you didn’t create classical works before, did you?

“I think I’m in an in-between niche, because my technique is saliently classical. My first works were filled with big jumps and classic pirouettes. My mother was a classical dancer, so it’s in my DNA,” he says, laughing. “It’s not a place I felt was alien to me, and to a certain degree I found a niche that’s comfortable and good for me, that interests and challenges me. I also hope that the school we’ve established here at the Israel Ballet will over time become a quality institution, the way I remember Bat Dor [a now defunct dance company and school].”

Just before they all go their separate ways, Tadmor tells one of the female dancers, “I’m reminding you to eat, and also that to eat means to put food in your mouth and swallow it.” The dancer responds with an embarrassed smile. “I’ve worked with nutritionists for years, and what I learned is that you have to eat – properly and healthfully – but to eat every few hours, because that’s our fuel,” he explains. “My experience as the company’s artistic director has also taught me that when a dancer doesn’t eat, he gets hurt in the end – the body is weakened. It’s true that we have to be aware of what we put in our mouth, but we have to eat.”

Ballet schools and classical dance companies are known as places where there a lot of eating disorders.

“We hardly encounter cases of 
anorexia, because we are very much in touch with the parents. We constantly check to see if anyone is losing too much weight. It was the same when female dancers in the company put on weight, and I felt I needed to instruct them to scale back. It’s always done very gently, usually in the first instance by my assistant, who is a woman. If that doesn’t do it, I call in the dancer for a talk, again very gently. I usually refer them to my nutritionist, so they will get a proper diet that they can live with. One of the reasons I’m still dancing at the age of 50 and a half is that I was able to preserve my body. I want to pass that on to my dancers, too.”

Five years ago, you said in an interview that you were eager to have a child. Is that still on the agenda?

“I suffered a serious blow this past year. Exactly a year ago, my partner in the pregnancy delivered dead twins in the seventh month, in a regular birth. Something was blocked inside me after that. The pain of losing a baby – because at that stage it’s already a baby. I saw them on the ultrasound and there were already names and I saw myself as a father – pain like that is like nothing else. I’ve gone through partings, I’ve lost people, I had friends who were killed in war, I’ve experienced every other type of pain, but nothing compares to the knife plunge when you lose a baby. Now, a year on, I feel that something is again starting to be liberated. I am very much a father to my dancers, to my friends, but I need to go through a process.”

Do you miss being in the forefront of the stage?

“I’m often asked why I don’t appear with the company. The truth is that I don’t miss it in the least. I want to give the company the glory it deserves, give the soloists their place. I was blessed with a long and interesting career, and I also achieved artistic and media celebrity. That’s all so remote from me today. When I was doing television I also attended highly publicized events, but today I keep my distance from that; it’s the last thing on my mind. What really gives me pleasure is the grinding work in the studio. The more the company succeeds, the more it reflects on me.”

Phaza Morgana festival, September 18-20, Timna Park; the Israel Ballet-Mayumana production of “Game On” will be performed on September 19 at 7 P.M.

Ten questions on ballet

1. What is your favorite ballet step?

“The renversé. It’s a movement with flow and perfection that’s hard to find in any other step.”

2. Ballet shoes or socks?

“Socks.”

3. What has been your worst injury?

“Seventeen years ago, I had a rupture on the left side of my lower stomach, which kept me sidelined for about 10 months. I thought it was the end of my career, but in retrospect I understand that it was one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received. It made me examine the way I was working, learn a lot more, investigate my body differently, and also gave me time to sit and think – and to realize that I want to create dances.”

4. Which choreographer did you most like to work with?

“Lar Lubovitch, who was the director of a company I danced with for three years in New York and was considered one of the most important in the world in the field of modern dance. Through him I appeared at Lincoln Center and worked with Baryshnikov, and got a taste of the big leagues as a young Israeli dancer who suddenly gets to New York and the whole dance world is suddenly revealed to him. He was very tough, very pedantic about every step, but his talent lay in a place of genius, and that afforded inspiration and satisfaction.”

5. Which dancer do you most admire?

“Vladimir Vasiliev. Life somehow worked out so that he became one of my closest friends. He had, and still has – he will soon turn 75 – a boy’s energy, astonishing curiosity for someone his age and someone who grew up in a closed and very strict place. That was obvious in his dancing – infinite energy. He is also one of the geniuses.”

6. What’s the biggest embarrassment you suffered onstage?

“We were with Batsheva in a very large hall in Montreal, and I opened the evening with a solo. The stage was so big, and the audience so far away – and the technical crew forgot to turn on the red light that actually guides you to the front, so for the first three minutes I danced with my back to the audience, before turning around. The audience didn’t notice, but for me it was a real snafu.”

7. Which classical role do you like best?

“‘Giselle,’ because, over and beyond the choreographic beauty in the different versions, there is something very human about it, which links and belongs to all periods.”

8. If you were a woman, you would be happy to dance …

“‘Giselle,’ but like Ana Laguna in the Mats Ek version.”

9. What is the secret of a perfect pirouette?

“The rotation. Most people forget that a pirouette is really just a rotation, and they get into issues of balance, how the back is held, etc. I’ve seen people who were completely not located properly but still turned six pirouettes. There’s something in the fear of whirling around that inhibits us.”

10. What’s the most insulting thing you’ve ever said to a student?

“I am not from the school of insulters, and I don’t think there’s any reason to take that approach. If it’s insulting it becomes personal and stops being professional.”

Tomer Appelbaum