A Labor of Love, Dance and Diplomacy

Against the odds, the Second Contemporary Israeli Dance Week is taking place in New York, beginning March 7.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

After debuting two years ago, the Contemporary Israeli Dance Week in New York is back for an encore, introducing American audiences to a captivating new generation (and, in one case, an important veteran) of Israeli dance makers.

The event, held once again at LaMaMa, an experimental theater club in Manhattan, overcame a number of financial obstacles to arrive at opening night. Despite the challenges, Michal Gamily, curator/producer/fundraiser/administrator of Contemporary Israeli Dance Week, is optimistic about its impact and value for Israeli cultural diplomacy.

Israel’s dance ambassadors include Dana Ruttenberg and Oren Shkedi presenting their film “Private I’s,” an evocative male duet that Gamily says is “very rich”; Noa Mashaal-Golan and Jacky Serero with the film “Alive Presence,” in which Mashaal-Golan dances her battle with cancer (“so elegant,” says Gamily); Noa Zuk, a former Batsheva dancer-cum-choreographer; Dana Katz, presenting “Prospect Minds,” and Gil C. Harush, who is making his New York debut with “White Wash” and who Gamily calls “very fresh and raw.”

“It's a great challenge to bring art here to the USA,” Harush says. “I am excited about presenting a world premiere in New York City.” The three dancers he’s bringing is half the group he usually works with but he says, “I understand production and the necessity to adapt.”

Giving a bit of historic weight and refinement to the program is the Noa Eshkol Chamber Dance Group, whose performance is presented in collaboration with the Jewish Museum. Eshkol, who died in 2007, is known for creating a system of movement notation, a rare and special thing in the world of dance. A recent exhibition at the Israel Museum, which toured internationally, including to the Jewish Museum, documented her contributions to the field.

The company will perform a 60-year-old work, danced only to the sounds of a metronome. Gamily calls it “very unique, very analytic” and marvels at how the dancers approach the choreography “as if it was created yesterday.”

Overall, the artists present a picture of Israel that is “vibrant and alive,” according to Gamily, and a dance scene that “rocks,” says Harush, which is all part of the intention.

“Art is the way to show the other side of Israel,” says Gamily. “It’s so important to bring this type of Israel to the world these days. We have to show Israel isn’t so right-wing and militant.”

The view of Israel as reactionary, while not necessarily a new thing, has become a liability for Israeli artists performing abroad. Pretty much any time the Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s premier contemporary dance troupe, performs in Europe or North America, it is met with protests and calls for boycotts, which was the case for the first Contemporary Israeli Dance Week as well.

“It’s very difficult to sell anything with the name Israel in it,” says Gamily. “If we can’t show art from Israel, we’re heading to the end. This is the only thing to give a different view.”

While perhaps not any easy sell, Israel does attract interest. Gamily says that, despite a modest publicity campaign, the event is “starting to get a little buzz.” She expects to get more coverage this year from local newspapers than the event got in 2011 and happily reports that the New York Times is coming to review the show.

The financial challenge of mounting a four-day celebration of contemporary dance from Israel is one of the first things Gamily mentions about the event and a theme she continuously returns to throughout the conversation.

“No one cares,” she says. “There is no support. I’ll be in debt at the end.” Though she received in-kind support from a graphic designer, video editor, several volunteers and LaMaMa, which promoted the event, Gamily says, "Basically I’m on my own. I’ve been working seven months for free.”

She keeps talking about it, she says, to underscore the crisis that Israeli arts are facing abroad. With ministry budgets slashed at home (and temporarily cut even further until a new government is in place) and American Jewish organizations, often a lifeline for Israeli artists, still licking their wounds from the global financial meltdown, there’s simply nowhere to turn.

A fundraising gala didn’t help, nor did the new go-to mint for DIY artists, Kickstarter.

“We launched two days before [Hurricane] Sandy,” Gamily says of the Kickstarter campaign. “No one had internet. Then, two weeks later, we had the war with Gaza in Israel.”

Even the Israeli Consulate in New York, which has long been a savvy and supportive partner for Israeli artists traveling to the United States, couldn’t step up as much as it did two years ago.

"The Israeli cultural scene in the United States is more vibrant than ever and the consulates play an important role in supporting and promoting this upward movement,” Anat Gilead, U.S. Consul for Cultural Affairs writes in an email to Haaretz. “However, at this time, due to budgetary cuts, Israel had to scale back its financial support for a variety of wonderful projects, albeit this does not preclude the consulates' support in many other non-financial means.”

Those means include a good deal of networking, marketing and valuable free publicity. But that doesn’t pay artist fees. As a result, one live performance was dropped from the schedule and replaced with a film while other dances were adapted for smaller casts.

Whether this will be the last such gathering of contemporary Israeli dance in New York for a while will depend on whether the funding can be scraped together for another round a few years hence. At the moment, an exhausted Gamily says, “I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.”

But, she says with not a small amount of pride, “We did it, despite the odds.”


The 'Prospect Minds' dance performance. Credit: Dana Katz
An image from 'Alive.'Credit: Noa Golan and Jacky Serero

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