The Woman Who Was Inbal

In 1951, the American choreographer Jerome Robbins visited Israel on behalf of the Norman Fund (now known as the America-Israel Culture Foundation). Robbins was sent here to check on the state of dance in Israel and to ascertain whether there was a dance troupe that would be suitable to tour the United States.

During his visit, Robbins met with the Orenstein sisters, Maya Arbatova, Tehila Ressler, Gertrude Kraus and Gurit Kadman, who invited him to her Dalia Festival of Israeli Dance, which included the Inbal Dance Theater, founded two years earlier by Sara Levi-Tanai.

"I remember well the first meeting between Jerome Robbins and Sara and the troupe," wrote Gila Toledano," Levi-Tanai's right-hand woman for 26 years, in her book, "Sipura Shel Lehaka" (Story of a Company), which was published in 2005 by Resling. She recalled sitting on the side and watching a rehearsal. "On a little hill next to us I saw a young man trying to copy the troupe's steps. At a certain point, he came up to me and asked in English if I was part of the group, and I said yes. He then asked who created the dance steps? I pointed to Sara and said 'the little woman in the middle.' 'And who did this choreography?' I said: 'She did.' 'And whose music is it?' I answered: 'Hers.' The man held his head and cried, 'She's a genius!' And to that I answered innocently 'perhaps.'"

What happened next is declaimed by Inbal's founders and associates by heart: Robbins warmly recommended Inbal in the report he presented to the fund's management when he left Israel: "Inbal is the most important thing we have in the dance world in Israel, and it is incumbent on the fund to take it under its wing, support it and help it develop and prepare it for a performance tour abroad. This is now the most important task of the fund that justifies its existence".

Robbins became an enthusiastic advocate for the troupe and for Levi-Tanai. Inbal's first tour abroad, in late 1957, was a dazzling success, including rave reviews in the New York Times.

The troupe started out in 1949, when Sara Levi-Tanai, a native-born kindergarten teacher of Yemenite descent, decided to explore her cultural roots. She gathered together a group of young people, most of them new immigrants from Yemen, and starting working with them several nights a week. The youngsters, who lacked any professional training in dance, brought with them steps they knew from home.

At a certain point, Levi-Tanai managed to get the dancers together for three months of work. Those three months, during which the ensemble changed its name from Sara Levi's Eastern Troupe to Inbal, stretched to 60 years. This September, the troupe will celebrate its 60th anniversary. The youthful amateurs, Margalit Oved, Racheli Ovadia, Rachel Tzai'ri, Chana Minezli, Yehuda Cohen, Yaakov Barzilai and Meir Ovadia, turned into professional dancers and cultural heroes.

Not everyone welcomed the Inbal troupe with open arms. The melting pot needed to forge Israeli society was the troupe's first Achilles' heel. Many people did not look kindly on Levi-Tanai's clinging to her roots, all the more so because she was a sabra. Some accused her of "Arabization," a serious charge in those days.

Another problem, which has persisted since the troupe's early days, is that many still mistakenly see Inbal as a folklore troupe, i.e., a traditional folk dance troupe, while it is an artistic company whose unique style is a result of the merging various Mediterranean traditions.

To maintain the troupe, which many times faced closure for financial reasons, Levi-Tanai had to agree to numerous foreign tours, which did indeed bring in the money but also made it harder for it to work on new choreography and establish the troupe among the Israeli audience. Furthermore, Toledano notes in her book, the creative forces did not bubble over within Levi-Tanai as they had when she created her signature pieces, "A Wedding in Yemen" (1956), "The Song of Deborah" (1953), "The Queen of Sheba" (1952), and "Women" (1959).

Inbal's troubles worsened in 1964, when Batsheva and the Israel Ballet were created. Their diverse repertoire further emphasized Inbal's Middle Eastern character. In the late 1960s, there were frequent changes in directors from Gila Toledano to Haim Shiran, who served for less than two years. Few lasted more than a year in the post, primarily due to friction with Levi-Tanai, who refused to give up the post of artistic director and did not allow a new generation of choreographers to sprout from within.

In 1991, the newspaper Davar published the following advertisement: "Inbal is looking for a new artistic director to replace Sara Levi-Tanai, who completed her job yesterday and was appointed president of the theater." This happened against her will. "The job requirements: a background in ethnic dance." This is how Levi-Tanai learned of her dismissal.

Her break with the company she worked so hard to establish grew until her death in 2005. She was survived by a daughter, Michal Degani, and by a son, Yaakov Tanai.

Over the years, there were attempts to perform works by Inbal veterans alongside works from Levi-Tanai's repertoire, and in 1995, Margalit Oved, Inbal's big star in its early years, was appointed its artistic director but that lasted just one year, and leadership changes continued until the appointment of Dr. Razi Amitai, a former artistic director of the Holon Meditech, as director general and artistic director.

How do you celebrate the 60th anniversary of a dance troupe? A gala fund-raiser is scheduled for September in Tel Aviv at the Dan Panorama Hotel in the presence of the minister of culture, and the company will perform and announce the formation of a fund named after Sara Levi-Tanai to support choreographers who create ethnic-style dance. "It's part of the business of flourishing anew," explains Amitai. "The mere fact they will mention Sara's name, that it will be associated with a new work, and also the very public nature of the whole matter is of very great importance."

In addition, Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College has been working for the last year on a broad project in the context of Inbal at the initiative of Gila Toledano. The objectives of the project, says Dr. Henya Rothenberg, are pedagogic, research-related and artistic. "This project looks at Sara Levi-Tanai's artistic language as something that is wholly unique," she says. "On the basis of this respect, we are doing this project. We are becoming aware of Levi-Tanai's works not out of nostalgia, but out of recognition."

What would Levi-Tanai have thought of the troupe's evolution in recent years?

"Very bad," says Toledano and immediately refines her comment: "Actually, I can't say because in her last years she did not remember much any more; you can't ask a 95-year-old women about her life's work."

Barak Marshall, who applied for the post of Inbal's artistic director and lost out to Amitai, believes Inbal's future lies in its transformation into a repertory troupe. "I know the problematic nature of Inbal," he says in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, "but this is one of the few Israeli troupes that is open to working with young choreographers, and I really like what Razi is trying to do. He is so full of inspiration and open to experimenting with artistic direction."

The company's downfall largely reflects a stigma, he said, that it was not affiliated with Western culture in Israel, adding: "I believe it certainly can rise, if they let Razi have the space to do what he is trying to do. My work, 'Monger,' is an ethnic work, and is very successful in Israel and abroad."

Amitai is working on his plans for the coming year, but so far without a dance performance on the horizon. He says he would be happy to see "Monger" performed as an audience draw.