Filling Jerusalem's Artistic Vacuum

Launching its 10th festival, the feisty Machol Shalem Dance House is instrumental in helping Jerusalem compete against Tel Aviv, the country's cultural capital.

About a year ago, Jerusalem's Machol Shalem Dance House joined the five dance centers already supported by the Culture and Sports Ministry. "It's impossible that there will be only one pipeline in Israel to the international dance scene," say Machol Shalem's artistic codirectors-choreographers Ruby Edelman and Ofra Idel. "With all due respect to Suzanne Dellal, the airport is located between two cities," they add, referring to Israel's best-known dance center, Tel Aviv's Suzanne Dellal, which receives ministry support along with the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv, Hazira in Jerusalem, Adama in Mitzpeh Ramon, Vertigo Dance Company of Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh - and now Machol Shalem.

Machol Shalem started 10 years ago with a series of events in Jerusalem, and since 2010 has had a permanent home in the heart of the Musrara neighborhood. It distinguishes itself from other dance centers in that its goal is to focus solely on dance and become an international incubator for artists without the dominating voice of a choreographer.

Because of its insistence on retaining its Jerusalemite character, Machol Shalem suffers financially from a well-known political paradox: Everyone agrees that the cultural capital is Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem is not defined as an outlying area, and therefore is not entitled to earmarked subsidies. Machol Shalem is part of the cultural flourishing of the city, and that includes the ambitious Jerusalem Season of Culture project supported by the Schusterman Foundation (although various Jerusalem organizations criticize it for being an expression of cultural colonialism ).

Edelman and Idel benefit from the support of foundations, including some financed by Canadian Jews. Their activities also benefited from the fact that the Jerusalem municipal budget for culture doubled during Mayor Nir Barkat's term. Among the people involved in Machol Shalem's 10-year fight to obtain recognition and support were Nava Dissentshik, the head of the Jerusalem municipality's culture department; Eyal Sher, head of the Jerusalem Foundation's cultural affairs section, and Nili Cohen, who recently left her position as head of the dance division in the Culture and Sports Ministry's Culture Administration.

Culture in the community

Edelman, 42, and Idel, 37, are a couple and have two children. Tonight, they will launch the 10th Machol Shalem festival, which will run for four days at the Gerard Bechar Center in Jerusalem. They will share artistic direction one evening with choreographer Yasmeen Godder and her partner, the dramaturge Itzik Guili, who selected four original works by four young artists.

The festival will also feature premieres of works by Idel, Sascha Engel, Gil Kerer and Aharon Manor. In addition, it will include a panel discussion with directors of international dance centers and theaters - a Jerusalem version of sorts of Tel Aviv's International Exposure event. The festival will also launch a coproduction with Theater Freiburg, whose director, Graham Smith, will arrive to select young Israelis to work together with young Germans on the Percival Project, which will be performed next year in Freiburg and Jerusalem.

Nurturing culture in the community is one of the primary goals of Machol Shalem's directors. In 2010, they converted the basement of the Morasha Community Center in the Musrara neighborhood into a state-of-the-art dance studio, complete with showers, a kitchen and an office, and basically relocated all of the dance house's activities there. With the help of donations, they also established a 120-seat auditorium, known as the Rhinoceros Hall.

"We focus on the artists, and the [Morasha Community Center] focuses on the neighborhood, but this is a normal tension that exists between a community center and a cultural organization," says Idel. "We gave them a lot: We subsidized tickets for the entire neighborhood, had performances for the children and arranged classes for teenage girls. We came with the goal of developing a reasonable financial turnover and helping people. The vision is to provide for all the basic needs of the artists and to bring over artists from abroad, and then afterward to export the works in coproductions. It's happening in small and modest steps."

Idel adds: "We are constantly playing this game of [being located in] a distressed neighborhood, but one in the city center, in the capital city, but with the characteristics of an outlying city. Our emphasis therefore became very socially oriented. Every shekel that comes in, we want to give back to the community, to invite more at-risk youth and, of course, to fully subsidize the spaces for artists' use."

Over the past three years, Edelman and Idel experienced financial difficulties - partly because of red tape. In order to organize this year's festival they therefore appealed to Internet surfers on the Headstart fund-raising website and were able to raise NIS 66,830. In 2011, they began operating under the auspices of the Israeli Choreographers Association, but this also caused difficulties: Because the association is registered in Tel Aviv, the dance house was unable to obtain funding under the Jerusalem Regulation - a municipal bylaw that provides NIS 35,000 in funding and rescue funds for a Jerusalem institution experiencing financial difficulties. Edelman and Idel are now in the process of setting up an independent organization that will be eligible for Jerusalem municipal funding.

Renovating the Rhinoceros

Edelman and Idel met in Jerusalem's Kolben Dance troupe in 2002, when she was married with a daughter. In 2006, they fell in love and married, and three years later their son Boaz was born. Idel is the daughter of renowned kabbala scholar Prof. Moshe Idel and a product of prestigious Jerusalem schools with a pluralistic approach. She is a dancer and dance teacher with an undergraduate degree from the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem. She has created dozens of works that have been performed on Israeli stages - among them, the Intimadance and Curtain Up festivals - as well as in international venues.

Edelman grew up in Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, and was raised by a single mother who died of a lung ailment during his army service. A meaningful encounter with the artist Yaron Margolin prompted him to study at the Kibbutz Dance Workshop in Ga'aton. After that he did an undergraduate degree in choreography at the Rotterdam Dance Academy in the Netherlands. In 1998, he created a piece called "Moderate Physical Pressure," which was inspired by the so-called Bus 300 affair, over the 1984 killing of two Palestinian terrorists who had been captured alive. He created 25 works in the Netherlands, most of them with an element of political criticism. In 2001, Edelman returned to Israel out of a "need for the social code and history," as he puts it.

In March 2010, Edelman and Idel benefited from the cultural vacuum in Jerusalem. After the initial renovation of the dance house was completed, the Rhinoceros Hall was the most in-demand auditorium in the capital - an indication of its huge potential after it undergoes a complete renovation that is due to be completed in May next year.

"During that period, three theater groups were waiting for the Mazeh Center to open, and the opening was delayed. Hama'abada [performing arts venue] closed, and the Gerard Bechar Center was being renovated," explains Idel.

Another reason that the artistic directors were able to obtain funding for the dance center in Jerusalem is the presence of a dance and choreography academy in the city. "The many graduates had no dedicated hall for dance. There was no home for creative work," says Idel. The Hazira performance art arena does organize an annual dance festival, but focuses on theater for most of the year, while the Gerard Bechar Center is a municipal theater available to "the highest bidder," in the directors' words, with no disciplinary differentiation. And the Jerusalem-based Kolben Dance company is busy with the work of choreographer Amir Kolben.

Machol Shalem is inclined toward coproductions, primarily with European bodies. This year the dance house collaborated with Talia Paz and invited British choreographer Nigel Charnock to create a piece for Paz and a male dancer. Charnock was also due to collaborate with the dance house on another project, before his death from cancer in August. In 2009, Idel and Edelman did a coproduction with Tanzhaus Zurich, for which Edelman created the work "Less Mess" with choreographers from Switzerland and Germany. A year later Machol Shalem collaborated with Swiss theater troupe PENG! Palast on a mockumentary about a theater troupe that discovers that one of its members has a Nazi past. Edelman and Idel also arranged dozens of original productions of works by Israeli artists, among them Einat Even and Nadar Rosano.

As for the future, "the Percival Project starts in January," says Idel, "we're preparing to collaborate with the municipality to set up a choreography program, there is talk of collaboration with Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe on workshops for at-risk children to be given by artists from around the world over three weeks, and of course regular performances at the Rhinoceros, which will open in May after the renovations are completed."

Zohar Cohen
Emil Salman