Israeli Expats Dance to the Top of New York’s Heap

After a decade of struggle, choreographers Lee Sher and Saar Harari are on the verge of a breakthrough.

BROOKLYN – On a Thursday afternoon in late January, with the sky deceptively bright and the temperatures in the single-digits, a pack of fierce, leggy women and one unshaven guy occupy the basement gym of Congregation Beth Elohim, just around the corner from a snow-capped Prospect Park.

A rehearsal for LeeSaar The Company is underway in preparation for the company’s premiere at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, February 8 and 9. After a decade in New York, the show at the Joyce – one of the city’s most prestigious dance venues – is a sign that Lee Sher and Saar Harari, who founded the company in Israel in 2000, are on the verge of a breakthrough.

The choreographers, partners in life and parents of two, came to New York in 2004 partially to escape an Israel still quaking from the second intifada and partially in search of a new artistic frontier.

“It was a pioneering thing,” says Harari, the aforementioned lone male, of their bold move, adding that in New York, “you have to find who you are.”

Naturally, it wasn’t easy. Sher says she barely spoke English when they arrived. They had two friends, about $2,000 and no professional contacts. But fear and uncertainty are potent tools for creation.

“In Israel, in our experience, you can… have coffee with your friends, go to the beach, life can pass,” says Sher. “Here, if you don’t find what you want to say today, you’re going to drown.” She speaks with an urgency that characterizes much of their work. “You have to find your heart, your soul, go against your fears. Or just go back to Israel. And we didn’t want to go back.”

Hate the snow, love the snowball

Quickly, LeeSaar began to get noticed. A year after their arrival, they forged a relationship with the respected alternative theater space P.S. 122, which lasted a few years. Invitations to the renowned American Dance Festival and the Jacob's Pillow Dance festival followed. Now the company has an agent who builds tours and books them into venues like the Joyce. Sher hates winter but this kind of snowball isn’t a bad thing.

During its Joyce performances, LeeSaar The Company will present “Grass and Jackals,” which combines their signature mix of danger and sensuality. The piece, says Harari, is about “being an animal and being a person.” Sher jumps in to add that it’s also about “being afraid and being brave.”

A press release suggests that the piece was at least partially inspired by their service in the Israeli Defense Forces, but the two merely shrug.

“Yeah, we were soldiers but it’s not about the army,” says Sher. “We’re 40 now.” But the two acknowledge that, because they’re from Israel, audiences tend to look for that association. And their harsh, often violent movement and tightly synchronized phrases do have a whiff of military precision about them.

But they have a soft side, too. “We’re able to explode and we’re able to caress in gentle ways,” says Harari.

They credit Gaga with providing that balance, referring to the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s premier contemporary dance troupe. (Harari oversees Gaga USA, which organizes classes and intensive workshops across the country.)

Though neither Sher nor Harari danced in Batsheva, they describe an artistic kinship with Naharin, who has become an important champion of their work. It was a phone call from Naharin to Martin Wechsler, the Joyce’s director of programming, which led to their forthcoming appearance at the theater.

“I thought they had a unique style,” says Wechsler. “They seemed to be doing something uniquely their own.”

Strength of a woman

One of those unique features is that LeeSaar is an all-female company – a happy accident, according to the choreographers. They say they searched for men at the beginning but none fit. Eventually they stopped looking and made it a statement.

“Most of the time in the media, you see weak women with big boobs and I’m tired of it,” says Sher. “When you come to the show and see these women, you come out thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’re so strong.'”

They’re also loyal. Many of the dancers have been with the company for six or seven years. The cohesion and trust shows. Sher and Harari have invested a lot in nurturing them, and this family is one of the main reasons they’re not going back to Israel anytime soon. “We won’t leave them,” says Sher. “They are part of our body.”

That doesn’t mean that, with two small children and no grandparents around, they don’t think about moving back. Six times a day, admits Sher.

But after a decade of struggle, they’re starting to see the payoff. Following the performances at the Joyce, LeeSaar takes off for a tour to Washington, D.C. After that, they can be seen at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the eponymous arts lab and performance space of the famous ballet dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, a connection for which the choreographers can also thank Naharin.

If anything, they’ve learned the art of getting people in high places on their side. But of course those people only pay attention when they spot something special.

Christopher Duggan
Christopher Duggan
Christopher Duggan