Putting the Israel Back in the Israel Festival

This year’s rendition of the capital's annual international performing arts extravaganza focuses on local talent and finds some interesting new-old venues to delight Jerusalem audiences.

The 52nd Israel Festival will open this year with little fanfare. As part of recent efforts to distance the festival from the elitist image that has attached to it almost since its founding and to find new audiences, the organizers have sought to reinvent the annual monthlong performing arts celebration.

One result is that the festival seems to have shed some of its pretenses, along with some of the foreign stars it usually boasts, in favor of top local performers. And there is nothing like a reunion of Kaveret (known as Poogy abroad) to express the Israeli spirit. That bet has paid off: All three of the band's scheduled shows were sold out within hours.

This year's festival, which runs from May 23 to June 22, 2013, is missing some of its usual headliners - star theater directors and conductors, large opera companies, well-known orchestras and musicians and huge modern-dance companies from abroad.

The largest foreign organization will be the Geneva Ballet; most of the performances over the course of the month will be by local artists.

A performance by musician Shlomi Shaban will kick off the festival, with guest appearances by Ninet, Asaf Avidan and Berry Sakharof, among others.

The most prominent dance performance on the program is an adaptation of Sharon Eyal's "Housen" at Hansen House, on May 28.

Also look out for appearances by the Zik Group and by Emanuel Gat and his dance company. Both singer Miri Mesika and Yehezkel Lazarov, in "Igloo," will make their Israel Festival debut.

The festival's executive director, Yossi Talgan, is taking many of the shows off of conventional stages this year and into symbols of the city such as the Tower of David Museum, the Old Train Station and Hansen House, a renovated leper hospital.

"Dressed to Dance," choreographed by Carlos Chamorro and directed by Margaret Jova, will be held on May 30 at the Tower of David Museum. Described as a combined flamenco dance performance and runway fashion show, with a live orchestra, it comes to Israel from Madrid. The dancers will wear costumes designed by Dali and Picasso, among others.

Moshe Kepten, the festival’s artistic director, emphasizes that the decision to go (mainly) local was deliberate and not a result of budgetary or political constraints. Every year, he says, the organizers have focused on "bringing in big names. We decided that this year we’d do a different kind of festival that produced high-quality local events."

Jazz and traditional music: On top of Mount Avital
The American clarinetist Don Byron figures prominently in the festival’s jazz and world music program. Byron, who appeared at the festival 15 years ago, will perform with the New Gospel Quartet in a program dedicated to the relationship between jazz and gospel. It will include new interpretations of songs by gospel greats such as Thomas Dorsey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Also performing this year are Brazilian accordionist Renato Borghetti and his quartet.

The festival’s jazz and world music program will feature two Israeli performances.

The first is billed as a meeting between composer and oud and bass player Omer Avital and mandolinist Avi Avital (no relation), with Omer Klein on piano and Itamar Doari on percussion.

The second features new arrangements of Libyan piyutim, mainly-liturgical poems set to music, under the artistic direction of Yaniv Raba and Yankele Segal. Berry Sakharof will make a guest appearance.

Classical music
As usual, the Israel Festival’s classical music program this year seems to lack a strong organizing principle. The opening performance of this genre features the Israel Vocal Ensemble and the Barrocade orchestra performing Handel’s "Esther" oratorio under the baton of David Stern.

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra will perform Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" to mark the 100th anniversary of its premiere, in Paris.

The Belgian 10-member early-music ensemble Vox Luminis will present a program of 17th-century music, including Giacomo Carissimi’s wonderful "Jephte" oratorio on period instruments.

The traditional marathon performance headed by conductor Gil Shohat, the festival’s musical adviser, will be the closing event, this time a series of concerts featuring music by Beethoven, including a look at his influence on jazz and pop music. Ensembles from Latvia and Estonia will also perform a cappella and orchestral music in concert.

There will also be classical music concerts at the YMCA, the Tower of David Museum and at the walls of the Old City.

Theater
Of this year's three theater productions from abroad, only one is a drama in the classic sense but all three are in English and all three address, albeit in very different ways, the theme of alienation in the modern era.

"The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets," written and directed by Susan Andrade, is a dark fantasy for ages 12 and up by 1927, considered one of Britain's finest theater troupes. The performance, scheduled for June 8, includes animation, art and video clips, story theater and live music.

"The Bee," produced by the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre and directed by Hideki Noda, will be performed on May 31 and June 1, in English with Hebrew surtitles.

Inspired by the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, in September 2001, it tells the story of a Japanese man who comes home from work to find that his wife and son have been kidnapped and are being held as hostages.

Puppetry is the basis for "The Table," produced by Blind Summit. It will be performed on May 28 and 29, right after a run at the Edinburgh Festival.

Dance
The Geneva Ballet, founded in 1876, makes its Israel Festival debut with two programs: "Glory," by the Greek-born choreographer Andonis Foniadakis, set to the music of Handel, and "Les Noces (The Marriage)," by the Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman. The Geneva Ballet's first performance is June 7.

Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat, who works in France, makes his first appearance here since his 2007 emigration. "The Goldlandbergs," produced in cooperation with the Tel Aviv Dance festival, will be performed on May 25.

The Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company will premiere a work by Rami Be’er on May 29 and choreographer Anat Grigorio will present her solo dance, "Mr. Nice Guy," on June 6.