Jerusalem Takes Contemporary Dance Off the Stage, and Into the Streets

Dozens of dancers flooded the streets, pubs and stalls of Mahane Yehuda market with music and movement as part of a city winter festival aimed at getting Jerusalemites out on the town despite the ongoing violence.

Women dance at the 'From Jaffa to Agripas' event in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on December 3, 2015.
Michal Fattal

A pint sized red-head is dancing barefoot on the bar: But her’s is no go-go dance. Rather, in meticulous, balanced movements – accompanied by an accordionist playing and singing original music — the dancer sways, twists, turns and then lifts one hand to draw a picture of a sun, in crayon, on the wall behind her.

Outside the bar, up the narrow street and around the bend, at a tiny restaurant famed for its pita bread sandwiches, a different slender young woman, this one in black boots and with a severe look – and chocolate dripping from her mouth – is jumping around the deck, licking her lips at the crowd that has gathered around. An orthodox Jewish couple that happen to be walking by, heaving plastic bags filled with vegetables and fish, stop, stand and gawk: “Is she drunk?” the woman asks her husband, whispering.

No, no. It’s just contemporary dance. 

“From Jaffa to Agripas,” the brainchild of choreographer and dancer Elad Schechter, saw Jerusalem’s popular outdoor food market, Mahane Yehuda, transformed Thursday evening into the set of a dance-crawl of sorts. Where there were once just dried fruit stalls, there were now topless young men with colored paint in their hair moving to Middle Eastern rhythms. What was once just a tiny pub with beer on tap, now came complete with a fog machine and a man with a black eye mask, in underwear, crawling on the floor. 

“Our mission was to figure out how to connect the Jerusalem public to new and exciting dance,” says Schechter, 36, artistic director of the Jerusalem-based c.a.t.a.m.o.n dance group. “And the first thing we thought to do is turn it all around: Instead of asking the public to come see performances – we decided to bring our dance to them, and make it free, too.”

Some 50 dancers, choreographers and musicians – a majority of them based in Jerusalem – got together to create the pieces for the event, and half a dozen vendors and bars offered up their establishments as venues. The ensuing evening was the latest in a series of events promoted by the municipality to encourage locals and tourists to brave the dropping temperatures and the continued security threats, and get out on the town.

And it worked. Bundled up in winter coats against the what-passes-for-cold in Israel’s temperate climes, hundreds ducked across the meat market clutching colored performance maps as they navigated their way through the spice and halva rows to find the music and movement.

A dancer performs at the 'Jaffa to Agripas' event in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on December 3, 2015.
Michal Fattal

Gadi Barkai, a landscape architect from Nes Tziona, heard about the event on Facebook and saw it as a good opportunity to make what is, for him, a rare visit to Jerusalem. “I like dance and this seemed like a unique idea,” he says. The recent series of stabbings in the city did not deter him – such violence, he points out, takes place everywhere in the country these days.

It’s 10 P.M. and Barkai has just stepped out of a crowded pub where he experienced a solo by Yaron Shamir — he of the underwear, eye shades and fog machine, and one of the more well-known artists taking part. Shamir, a former officer in the elite Golani infantry brigade turned Berlin-based choreographer and dancer, has shown his work around the world. In Jerusalem he presented a piece called “Dream F.H” which is about, as he explains it, fantasy and reality, and moving “like a blind clown on a thin grey line,” between them.

“My piece relates to Jerusalem,” says Shamir, 40, who grew up in the city but has been gone for over two decades – first moving to Tel Aviv, as many young, secular Jerusalemites do, and then afterwards, to Europe. “There is a Jerusalem that is part of our dreams – and then there is real everyday life here. My piece, and this whole evening, is dedicated to looking at, and bridging those differences.”

Barkai, the landscape architect, leaves the show ready to go find a good falafel and take a break. “I still have some other performances to see,” he says, gamely. “You try and try and never know what you might find. Sometimes one dance can make it all worthwhile.”

Among the dance lovers, bohemians, youngsters, orthodox Jews passing by and adventurous visitors from Nes Tziona looking for that “one dance,” was also a group of 170 international dance professionals from 31 countries – promoters, curators, festival and theater directors, journalists and others. They are in Israel as part of Suzanne Dellal’s International Exposure festival, a three-day program during which the visitors spend time in studios and theaters, watching acclaimed Israeli dance companies on the stage. “We also brought them here, to show them something different,” says Claudio Kogon, deputy director of the Suzanne Dellal Center. “We wanted to showcase site-specific dance, and Jerusalem most definitely is a special place for that.”

From Jaffa to Agripas is part of the city’s so-called “Hamshushalayim” winter festival, which will take place during December over four consecutive weekends. The made up word “Hamshushalayim,” is portmanteau composed of: “Hamshush” –  an acronym for Hamishi, Shishi, Shabbat, or Thursday, Friday, Saturday, the days of the Israeli weekend –  and “Shalayim,” the end of the Hebrew name for Jerusalem, Yerushalayim. Other events planned as part of the festival this month include a Hanukkah Blues Festival, an Ethiopian-Israeli arts festival, a celebration of Polish music, and various special concerts and exhibitions around the city.