Homespun Verve

Just in time for her 100th birthday, Hebrew-dance pioneer Yardena Cohen, whose works have been inspired by biblical themes and personae, is to receive the Israel Prize tomorrow

"One day when I was little, I saw a large urn on the balcony and crawled inside. I already knew how to talk, and suddenly I heard the voice of Zalman Shazar [a family friend, and later Israel's third president], asking: Where has Yardena gone? And suddenly he said: I see two hands emerging from the urn and dancing toward the sun. And then he said: In a few years, she'll be a dancer. And when I received the prize in the first National Dance Competition in 1937, who was standing backstage with flowers? Zalman Shazar."

This story is told by Yardena Cohen, one of the pioneers of Hebrew dance, who was born in Haifa and will be celebrating her 100th birthday this summer. Tomorrow, on Independence Day, she will receive the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. In explaining the reasons for giving her this honor, the jury wrote that, "Cohen, who based her work on the heritage of Eretz Israel in general and on its biblical heritage in particular, and was also influenced by the great cultural diversity of its citizens, has been involved all her life in promoting and developing dance. She contributed a great deal in her books and provided a personal example in promoting institutions that nurture and teach dance. Cohen taught generations of educators in the field of dance and continues with her work to this very day."

Among her many students are the founder of the Kibbutz Dance Company, Yehudit Arnon; the author of "Hazmana Lemahol" ("Invitation to Dance"), Tzofia Naharin; dance therapist and educator Shoshana Hirsch; and Naomi Bahat Ratzon, head of the dance department at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College. Cohen's first book, "Betof Uvemahol" ("With Drums and Dancing") was published in 1963; her second, "Hatof Vehayam" ("The Drum and the Sea"), an autobiography, was published in 1975.

"The first national competition of dance artists in the country, held last night in the Mugrabi Hall in Tel Aviv, ended with a complete surprise," announced the daily paper Haboker in October 1937. "The first prize, according to the choice of the audience, was given to Haifa dancer Yardena Cohen, a dancer whom the Tel Aviv audience had never seen before and whose name they barely knew."

As Cohen puts it, "Dance makes everything happen" - birth and death, beauty and ugliness, happiness and sadness. Everything bustles, is played and danced in endless circles.

She was born in Bat Galim, Haifa, at the foot of Mount Carmel and something of the murmur of the sea and its waves remained with her. She began dancing as a child. "It was clear to me that I was speaking the language of movement," she says. Her parents, she adds, accepted her decision submissively.

From her youth she studied the basics of Middle Eastern movement in dance, and thus focused on the wellsprings of Middle Eastern song, creating her dances to the accompaniment of local instruments, incorporating first the drum and afterward the violin, the qanun (Arab zither) and the flute.

Finding herself

In her book "With Drums and Dancing," Cohen describes her years studying at the dance academy in Vienna, and with choreographer Gret Palucca (the student of German dance giant Mary Wigman) in pre-war Dresden, and her return to Palestine with the clear knowledge that she would be able to find herself here as a dancer. The turning point in her search was spurred by her introduction to the darbuka, a Middle Eastern drum. She began to choreograph works that were inspired by her attraction to the roots of Hebrew dance, the soil of the Holy Land and biblical stories, and especially by female figures in the Bible such as Hagar, Timna, Hannah of Shilo, and so on.

After she won the dance competition in Tel Aviv, she began to produce festivals and special events in kibbutzim all over the country: for religious and agricultural holidays, events celebrating success in drilling for water or of a good crop of grapes, kibbutz birthdays - all were excuses for dance performances. Indeed, she was the first one in the country to take dance out of the theater and into the open air, and a significant proportion of the works belonging to the canon of Israeli folk dances are hers.

In the 1960s, Cohen began to teach dance in a small studio in Haifa's Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood, but she did not teach the solos she created for herself.

"I sometimes thought that, with respect to the dances I performed, only I could dance them," she says today. "You can convey the character but not the profound experience of the soul, and I was scared by the possibility that it wouldn't have the right flow."

Cohen also developed a method of movement therapy that she calls "Dance makes us whole." Yehudit Arnon, for example, often says that Cohen was able to help heal her soul after she survived the Holocaust.

"Inside every person there is some small madness," says Cohen, recalling an encounter years ago with "Barbara," a mentally ill girl who was hospitalized in an institution where she had been invited to lecture. "I asked to see the patients, and the doctors agreed on the condition that there was one patient whom I wouldn't visit without a security guard, but I insisted: only by myself.

"I entered the room, and in front of me stood a beautiful girl, with long hair and a murderous expression in her blue eyes; had she had a sword or a rifle in her hand, she might have killed me. I stood in front of her and suddenly she began to undress, opening the buttons of her sweater and tossing it aside. Without knowing why, I did the same thing ... We stood almost naked opposite one another and suddenly I saw that she was taking a step toward me, there were tears in her eyes. I said to her: Barbara, you'll dance, you'll have a family, you'll be well. And that's what happened. I emerged happy, the guard almost fainted. And it all came to pass: She returned to her home in the United States, danced for many years and raised a family. I'll always remember her."

How did you go to Europe to study dance?

Cohen: "When I was at Geula High School in Tel Aviv, the main ideal was to work. I went to Hadera with 10 friends and we worked, drying out swamps and picking oranges. Suddenly a kibbutznik came up and said to me: 'Yardena, you seem to dance day and night in all the corners of Hadera, in the alleyways, among the trees - we only see you dancing. Another kibbutznik named Shemarya sent me to tell you that he gets a lot of money from his parents in Los Angeles and it will be allocated to you for studying. You will return it some day.' It's all thanks to Shemarya; there never was or will be anyone like him."

What do you remember about the founding generation of Israeli dance?

"I had no connection with [the late dancer, choreographer and professor] Noa Eshkol, but I knew who she was. I saw Baruch Agadati [the late Romanian Jewish dancer who introduced the hora to Israel] perform in Vienna, and he made a tremendous impression on me; dance burst forth from him. Sara Levi-Tanai [pioneering founder of the ethnic Inbal Dance Theater] was my friend. I was very impressed by her works, they were genuine, full of emotion and dealt with the biblical narrative.

"There are an endless number of people in the world, and sometimes there are people with the same soul - only in a different color - doing the same thing without knowing each other. I created one dance called 'The Witch of Endor,' and there was an article written about it, saying I had imitated Martha Graham. I didn't even know her and hadn't seen her materials; it was an incident that occurs when people are born with a similar soul."

One of Cohen's performances helped saved a kibbutz from the British. "We were once having rehearsals outdoors, next to the Balfour Forest," she recalls. "Suddenly I hear marching, as though a large brigade was coming, and I see the kalaniyot [or 'poppies' - the pre-state nickname for red-bereted Mandatory soldiers]. I said to them: 'You're a Bible-loving nation. Sit and watch, this is a biblical dance.' They sat down, and I sang out, to the beat of the oud, to the kibbutz members: 'Run to the kibbutz, hide the weapons!' To the British soldiers, I said, 'This is a kind of choreography - they're circling the forest and they'll be right back.' Then, I had a thought: Who was going to save me? Suddenly someone came by with a motorcycle and took me away. One day, when I told the story somewhere, an elderly man with white hair got up and said to me: 'Yardena, it was me on that motorcycle.'"

What do you think of contemporary Israeli dance?

"You can't really use that term, contemporary, because there are all kinds of dance today. I know that Ohad [Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva company] is very gifted and talented, and I really like Rami Be'er [artistic director of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company], too."

Who are your favorite creators of dance?

"At one time I really liked Udai Shanker's Indian troupe, and I was also influenced by the story of Isadora Duncan, because my sister always wrote that, 'Yardena is the Isadora Duncan of the East.' My mother had the privilege of seeing Duncan dance. She said she was full of emotion and light on her feet. Perhaps she lacked the kind of technique that is in use today, but sometimes the expression and emotion are more important. Technique can come later."

What does the future hold for a troupe like the Inbal Dance Theater, for example?

"I have no permission or right to say whether anyone has a future or not, the future will reveal itself, and every person who really believes in his path will follow it. After all, art and faith [omanut and emuna, in Hebrew] come from the same root."