Israel Festival, Stuck in Its Ways

Is there an extra, added value to this annual showcase, which purports to merge the worlds of Israeli and international culture?

Gadi Dagon

In May 1994, members of the Batsheva Dance Company took the stage at the Israel Festival, in Jerusalem. They were dressed all in black and sat in a huge circle. The beating of drums was heard, followed by a new version of the Passover song “Who Knows One?” by the band Nikmat Hatraktor (the Tractor’s Revenge).

This opening segment of Ohad Naharin’s masterwork “Anaphase” became one of the troupe’s signature pieces. It signified something new and unusual, and went on to intrigue audiences far beyond the borders of Israel in the coming years.
Earlier this month, the full program for the upcoming Israel Festival, which opens on May 25 and will run for three weeks, was presented. Yehoram Gaon, Chani Dinur, Gerard Depardieu, Asaf Avidan – these are just a few of the names that will be gracing the stages of various venues in Jerusalem.

As usual, the festival schedule is confusing. On the one hand, it showcases a vast abundance of productions, including outdoor events, shows for children, dance and theater, and performances of classical music and world music. But at the same time, this abundance is somewhat deceptive, masking the weakness of this longtime cultural institution as an artistic agenda-setter.

The dance performances by troupes from Israel and abroad, for example, do not feature any exciting new discoveries, aside from Hofesh Shechter, an Israeli choreographer who has been active for many years abroad. Considering all the dance groups that are brought to Israel throughout the year – including the excellent Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, which performed a work by Shechter just two months ago – we’re left with what seems like quite a random assortment for the upcoming festival.

In the last few years, Jerusalem has become a real center of culture. Mayor Nir Barkat’s determination to attract “secular” tourism to the city has led to many exciting projects in this realm. As part of this vision, the Jerusalem Season of Culture will return with its varied performances again this summer, the Khan Theater continues to show great artistic courage, and the Israel Museum is drawing hundreds of thousands of all ages and backgrounds to the city.

But while the Jerusalem Season of Culture tries each year to say something a little different about art and culture – the Israel Festival remains stuck in its stately ways. How is an Asaf Avidan performance at this event going to be any different from the performance he gave last month at Heichal Hatarbut?

Is there an extra, added value to this annual showcase, which purports to merge the worlds of Israeli and international culture? Perhaps the money would be better spent creating activities throughout the year that will break through familiar boundaries and once a year bring something that can’t be seen anywhere else.