Dancer in the Dark Bureaucracy

Foreign workers are an integral part of the Israeli dance scene, yet the state chases overseas-born dancers away.

Shir Hacham
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Shir Hacham

“Foreign workers” is not usually a term associated with Israeli art, but over the past 20 years the influx of foreign workers into the local dance community has been such that by now they can be seen as a significant part of the local cultural scene. Nearly every Israeli dance ensemble or project includes at least one foreign dancer. Israeli dance, home to some of the world’s top choreographers, has come to attract dancers from all over the world.

The Fresco, L-E-V (Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar) and Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company each have two foreign dancers; Maria Kong has three, Vertigo one, and the Kamia ensemble and Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company have four each. The Batsheva Dance Company takes the prize though: Out of 36 dancers in the main and youth companies, 13 are foreigners. Foreign dancers also work with independent choreographers who produce works in co-productions: Yasmeen Godder’s latest project included an American dancer, while Yossi Berg & Oded Graf’s projects now primarily include foreign dancers, mostly from northern Europe.

Unlike most migrant laborers who come from poor countries, the foreign dancers hail mainly from Europe and English-speaking countries like the United States and Australia. The majority, who obtain a visa via the dance companies, are classified as experts, but Israel’s rigid immigration policy is also affecting some foreign dancers. The Interior Ministry, which oversees the processes of obtaining work permits, permanent residence and citizenship, does not make life easy for foreigners.

In the dance world, the most severely impacted is the Batsheva Dance Company under the artistic direction of Ohad Naharin, since dancers from abroad who join its ranks often stay for many years. Some even say they can’t imagine ever dancing in another company. Time − the most crucial element in the process of obtaining visas from the Interior Ministry − is piling up the obstacles for the Batsheva dancers. From Naharin’s point of view, these dancers are not just skilled but replaceable performers, but unique assets shaped in his image and personally embodying his work, which is taught in dance companies and dance schools throughout the world.

Love is another key matter when it comes to visas: For someone in this position, permanent residency is normally granted after seven years; for the married, after five years. An ordinary work visa, received through a single employer each time, does not advance the dancer toward obtaining permanent status. The law allows the state to demand that he leave immediately after five years. Foreign dancers who do not find love, or who end a relationship, are in danger of being expelled from cultural work that not only contributes to their own lives and careers, but to original Israeli art.

When the state expels cultural migrants it undermines the attempt to forge a positive image on the international cultural scene, something achieved with the help of companies like Batsheva. On its website, the Culture and Sports Ministry even touts Israel as “a dance empire.”

Representing Israel but unable to live here

Australian Rachael Osborne danced with Batsheva for 12 years but left the group a year ago and is now reluctantly back in Australia, while all her friends and colleagues live in Israel. She had resided in Israel on a work visa from Batsheva and then on a visa she received as the spouse of a dancer, but the two separated when she was in the midst of the process of obtaining permanent residence. Her last request for residency was rejected last summer, with no reason being cited, she says. Naharin often sends her to different countries on projects, and now they are considering submitting another request to have her declared a Gaga dance teacher (Gaga is the movement language developed by Naharin).

She feels that she contributed to the cultural scene in Israel and when she travels the world as a dancer and teacher, she doesn’t identify as an Australian but rather as a product of Batsheva and of Naharin − and therefore as an Israeli. She says that she has a reason and the right to live in Israel, adding that the attorney who assisted with her recent application told her that under Israeli law only three things give your case a chance are: Are you Jewish? Can you make a significant monetary contribution to the state? And are you married to an Israeli?

Since it’s important for Naharin that she stays up to date, she does come to Israel periodically but has to enter the country as a tourist − and there is no guarantee whatsoever that she will be able to enter. Although she and her husband split, she says she still has a good relationship with his parents and grandmother − who even proposed the idea of adopting her. “We feel like family,” she says.

The work visa for Belgian Luc Jacobs, a rehearsal director (and former dancer) for the past decade for Batsheva, expired in April last year. For nine months he’s been in Israel without a work permit. Soon he is leaving on trip abroad and he has no idea if he’ll be allowed back into Israel. A few years ago, Batsheva implored him not to take a vacation abroad, because it couldn’t guarantee his return.

“You feel like a prisoner of the state,” he says, explaining that he has nowhere else to live since he left Belgium 25 years ago. “I don’t have a life or friends anywhere else. People joke that I have to get myself a Jewish wife, but hunting Israeli women on the street is a little unethical. The other option is to change my religion, but I’m a Buddhist.”

Despite the extreme uncertainty surrounding his status in Israel, his wealth of experience as a migrant worker informs his answer when it comes to the question of where to live: “I complain about Israel sometimes but this is obviously my home, or the closest thing to a home that I have,” says Jacobs.

“Dancers are at the bottom of the food chain of Israeli artists. I know how hopeless it is if you’re not in a relationship,” says Sascha Engel, a German dancer and video editor who has been living with an Israeli partner in Tel Aviv for many years and is in the process of obtaining citizenship. “I know an Israeli dancer in Berlin who in her fourth year there went to renew her German visa and they granted her permanent residence. Just like that, because she’d been working there enough time.

“I think the situation in Israel is one of the most extreme in the world. It all comes down to the fact that people here live in a panic and there’s this feeling that the whole world is against us and we have to ensure our survival. It’s this irrational nationalist feeling that’s combined with religion, which makes it all the more dangerous. This country perceives itself as a land of Jews and not of citizens, and that’s its worst problem.”

Batsheva, Israel's leading dance company, features several overseas dancers.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Australian dancer Rachael Osborne spent 12 years with Batsheva, but then had to leave Israel.Credit: David Bachar
Foreign dancers are an integral part of the Batsheva troupe.Credit: Gadi Dagon

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