Culture Fop / A Swaggering New Stranger Comes to Town

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

No dance scene is really worth its salt until it has two competing festivals. Tel Aviv Dance, the month-long smorgasbord of Israeli and international dance currently playing at the Suzanne Dellal Center, may be the long-time sheriff in town but there’s a swaggering new stranger showing up this week, guns drawn.

The Diver Festival takes aim on May 16 and continues for four consecutive weekends until June 8. The alternative sampling of Israeli dance is the feisty baby of Ido Feder and Moshe Schecter Avshalom, two dancer/choreographers who got tired of the same artists being hosted by the same theaters and decided to launch a new model. But whatever you do, don’t call it “fringe.”

“It’s not ‘off-Broadway’, it’s not ‘other’,” says Feder. “It’s not any of those adjectives used to make you outcast.” Hence the name, which rejects those clichéd qualifiers and instead suggests an opportunity to, well, dive into something new.

Diver is a spicy blend of dance names you know, if you’re into such things, and names you don’t in places you’ve been and places you haven’t. So, for example, the opening night act is Yasmeen Godder, who’s not exactly the young rebel on the Israeli dance scene she once was (she’s been an acclaimed international representative of contemporary Israeli dance for a good decade now). But Feder says this is part of the point.

“It’s a statement for us,” he says. “We’re opening a big fest with a big name. This is who we see as epitomizing a certain change.” Though Godder performs regularly at Suzanne Dellal (as recently as a few weeks ago), her attitude is a Diver attitude; her rawness is what that festival wants to embody.

Like much of her work, Godder’s new piece, “See Her Change” is a schizophrenic rollercoaster that careens through playful sensuality and something vaguely nightmarish. A trio of ferocious women, Godder among them, is possessed by strange inner demons but seem to be having fun. That fun doesn’t really transfer to the audience, unfortunately, but the ride – jolting though it is – satisfies in a weird, unconscious way.

After the opening night, Godder will be on hand to talk about her work, another thing that distinguishes the fest: There’s a big focus on discourse and ample opportunities to chat about dance built into the schedule. “It’s important for us to have discursive events,” Feder says.

The risk with such things, though, like many of the program notes accompanying contemporary dance these days, is that they quickly sink into academic/psychoanalytic-speak and serve to further isolate the curious newbie by boasting a lingo that only insiders can decipher; here’s hoping the talks of Diver Fest will engage, rather than confuse, the average and accidental dancegoers.

Diver Fest is also in conversation with the city, proudly unassociated with any one place. It’s a free spirit, a floating gypsy of performances, setting up shop everywhere from Jaffa Port to the Tmuna Theater to a little place called Shop 31 (HaHanut) on HaAliya Street, a dirty, bustling thoroughfare for buses that marks the border between the hipster Florentine neighborhood and Tel Aviv’s foreign worker and asylum-seeking population.

Shop 31, which Feder says has a “different state of mind,” is little more than a storefront, easy to hurry past and unremarkable unless you glance at the window displays, which usually house a piece of beguiling art or installation. Inside you’ll find an unexpected performance or exhibition. Needless to say, it’s worth ducking in.

Among those paying a visit for Diver Fest is Gilad Ben Ari, an Israeli dancer who served his time with the Batsheva Ensemble, then escaped to Europe to create dance of a decidedly political focus exploring, for example, the contentious borders between the United States and Mexico and Israel and the Palestinian territories. On May 25 at Shop 31, in collaboration with a sound artist, Ben Ari examines HaAliya Street as a border itself, interviewing people on both sides of the street which does, in fact, seem to separate two worlds.

Ben Ari is one of many new voices that Feder and Schecter Avshalom are championing and bringing into the larger dance conversation in Israel.

“We want to reclaim the center, not let Tel Aviv Dance be the center,” Feder says. “We need a more egalitarian representation.”

But he makes clear that their effort isn’t against Suzanne Dellal, per se, explaining that the overlapping dates were an accident: Initially Suzanne Dellal’s dance marathon was supposed to end earlier and Diver would ride in on its heels. But when Tel Aviv Dance stretched to fill all of May, the two were suddenly head-to-head competitors.

“It’s not a revolution,” Feder insists. “It’s a response. This is how we believe change happens.”

Yasmeen Godder's "See Her Change"Credit: Tamar Lamm