Culture Fop / A Brief, Fabulous History of Eurovision (And Where to Find It Every Week in Tel Aviv)

After a prolonged selection process, Israel is sending Moran Mazor to Sweden in May with hopes for pop glory. Plus: Why Israel is no country for ballet.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

From the folks who brought us ABBA and Celine Dion…

On Sunday nights, down a narrow side street off Rothschild Boulevard, you can find one of the best, and longest-running, shows in town. It’s loud, sweaty, and multi-lingual – German, Turkish, French, Hebrew and every language in between.

It’s not exactly a revue, nor is it karaoke. But it’s pretty spectacular.

Eurovision Night, the name of the event, is exactly what it claims to be: an ode to the campy European song contest that has seduced the continent for more than half a century. It’s the event (for better or for worse) that introduced the world to ABBA (the Swedish quartet whose song “Waterloo” was recently named the best song in the competition's history) and Celine Dion, our favorite French-Canadian.

It’s a celebration of the trashiest of trashy pop, the gaudiest of gaudy, the cheesiest of glitz and also perhaps Europe at its best: fun-loving and at peace.

Considering the two world wars that devastated Europe in the first half of the 20th century, Eurovision, which launched in 1956, can be seen as the ultimate olive branch.

It has also become one of the longest-running television shows in the world and, for millions of fans, whether they admit it or not – it's become an obsession.

Miki Israeli is one such fan. A Hebrew literature high school teacher by day, come Sunday nights she’s part of EuroFalsh, a 13-member troupe that performs a medley of Eurovision favorites at Evita, Tel Aviv’s oldest gay bar. Among the other members are a jewelry designer and a policeman.

EuroFalsh (“falsh” is German for fake) began casually at a small bar in 1999 with a small group of friends dancing to, and singing along with, Eurovision hits. They gained a small following and Evita eventually “adopted” them and gave them a stage.

“We saw we had an audience,” Israeli explains. “So we decided to be professional. We started rehearsing and added people with dance skills.” But, she makes clear, “We’re not dancers. We’re comedians.”

Today the show (which starts near midnight and is completely free) is an impressively choreographed and expertly lip-synced extravaganza that has been outrageously successful and gained international fame. (“Tourists plan their vacations around it,” Israeli claims.) But it all stems from a love of country and the desire to see Israel victorious. “It started as something very Zionistic,” Israeli points out.

Israel has done pretty well since it joined the competition in 1973, winning three times, including back-to-back in 1978 and 1979 (with the popular folk song “Hallelujah”), and then again in 1998 when transgender pop star Dana International won the title with her now-classic hit “Diva” (she represented the country again two years ago with no such luck).

Naturally, with nearly everything that Israel touches, politics gets involved. Many Arab countries refuse to participate because it means recognizing Israel as a country. When it was clear Israel would win in 1978, Jordan cut transmission on the broadcast and claimed that second place Belgium had actually won. And there are some who believe that, because of politics, Israel won’t win again.

But for the most part, Eurovision has been one of the most welcoming and embracive European institutions toward Israel. If anything can bring people together, pop music can.

“Music, dancing, and art is the solution to the world,” says Israeli, who attended the 2004 competition in Turkey. “It is the way to speak peace.”

Last week after a seemingly endless number of qualifying rounds, quarter and semi-final rounds, second chance rounds and audience voting rounds, Moran Mazor was selected to represent Israel at this year’s competition in Sweden in May.

So what do the experts say about Israel's chances? “I think we have a good chance,” says Israeli. “Maybe not to win but to get to the finals. She’s a great singer,” she adds of Mazor. “I trust her. I think she will stand out. I hope Europe will like her. We like her.”

Emulating the Bolshoi, unfortunately

It’s been a tough month for ballet directors. On January 17 this year, Sergei Filin, director of the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet had acid thrown in his face on the streets of Moscow. Last week, three men confessed to the crime, including a dancer for the company whose apparent motive was that his girlfriend, one of the company’s ballerinas, kept getting passed over for choice roles.

Though this story’s not quite as dramatic (thankfully), Berta Yampolsky, the director of the Israel Ballet was similarly caught off guard when she was fired last week by the company’s supervising accountant from the company she founded more than 45 years ago and has directed since.

Yampolsky has been diligently waving the banner of classical ballet for nearly half a century in a country that, frankly, doesn’t seem to care. Though it receives government funding, draws audiences and employs a few dozen dancers, its impact on Israel’s dance scene has been as soft as a sugarplum fairy.

It’s telling that the country’s national troupe is the wry, sexy Batsheva Dance Company and that its director, Ohad Naharin, has become something of a national rock star. Israeli audiences have embraced the dark humor and sensual physical extremism of Naharin and dozens of other contemporary dance companies and choreographers who seem to reflect the country’s militarism on stage with thrilling audacity.

In comparison, ballet’s preciousness doesn’t feel quite at home here. And it’s old school royal European origins and attitudes – hierarchies and corsets and stories of princes and swans – is the antithesis of the communal, socialist mentality of the early pioneers that bred an active folk dance tradition, still active today.

While dancers in Israel do train in ballet for the basics, the country doesn’t have the ingrained ballet tradition of places like Denmark or England. International dancers flock to Tel Aviv to soak up a unique Israeli movement language – but that language is Naharin’s heady and philosophical Gaga.

Like in visual art, where artists largely skipped the classical painting stage and instead embraced and flourished in film and video, so too has Israeli dance rejected ballet as simply unrepresentative of its fiery energy and become an innovator in contemporary dance instead.

So while the Israel Ballet wears the country’s name, it has never really captured the country’s heart. And though it sounds like Ms. Yampolsky got a rather rude and unceremonious boot from her lifelong project (she says she would have gladly retired with dignity if given the chance), the next chapter for the Israel Ballet is an opportunity for it to find a unique, and uniquely Israeli, voice.

Dana International won the Eurovision song contest for Israel in 1998 and represented the country again in 2011.Credit: AP
Irit Shalev sings Eurofalsh.Credit: Courtesy of Eurofalsh
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Berta Yampolski of Israel Ballet didn't see it coming. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
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Miki Israeli sings the Eurovision greats.Credit: Courtesy of EuroFalsh
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EuroFalsh. This is what it looks like.Credit: Courtesy of EuroFalsh

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