Dance Me to the End of the War

How did it come about that the major dance piece created about the 1973 war was choreographed by an African-American choreographer?

Shir Hacham
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Shir Hacham

“And After,” a work by the African-American choreographer Gene Hill Sagan, was performed in Israel in 1974. The backdrop onstage was an intimating topographical map of the Golan Heights, designed by the artist and sculptor Dani Karavan. A recording of a powerful crescendo of breaking waves added to the effect. A few dancers were seen reclining on the stage, like monuments, like broken machines of war, like victims of violence.

A year after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the whole set of this production by the Bat-Dor Company projected a political message, a warning about what violence begets. But the dancing itself was utterly divorced from the set; it bespoke lamentation, but of a personal and private nature. This was Sagan’s eulogy for a beloved dancer, Yair Shapira, who had been killed in the war on the Heights.

The Yom Kippur War, which generated a first tectonic shift in Israeli society, hardly entered the realm of dance. It gave rise to the disappointed generation of 1973, which included dancers such as Ohad Naharin, Yair Vardi, David Dvir and others, most of whom served in the army during the war. Yet the war itself made its way into only a few dance works, most of which lack a political character.

By the mid-1960s, Israeli dance had detached itself from its roots in German Expressionism and existed as a kind of enclave, with a nod toward America. It was probably not until the end of that decade, when the fringe scene in local dance emerged − and even more acutely after the establishment of Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, in 1989 − that contemporary Israeli reality began to penetrate local pieces created in the country. Thus it came about that the most outstanding of the dance works that dealt with the war was created by Sagan, a choreographer who was not even Israeli and was not out to address the political or social here-and-now.

Sagan, whose style can be termed modern-abstract, arrived in Israel in the wake of his ties with Yehudit Arnon, the founder of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. He was one of a number of promising international dancers and choreographers whom Arnon − who died last month at the age of 87 − lured here. An exile from his American homeland, Sagan led a nomadic existence in Europe, where he danced in several companies before finding a home in Israel for 12 years.

He met Yair Shapira on Kibbutz Ga’aton, which was also Arnon’s home. Shapira was a young dancer in the studio founded by Arnon on the kibbutz, at the time. It is a matter of record in the annals of the local dance world that Sagan influenced Shapira as an artist and as a human being. The two are said to have been romantically involved; in any event, the relations between them were complex.

Shapira was admired in the local world of dance for his physical attractiveness, and he himself was well aware of the power that allure had in paving his way professionally. Sagan, even with all of his apparent love of Shapira, knew that without meticulous instruction, tough work and plenty of perspiration, the young dancer would never achieve true artistry. The choreographer insisted on seriousness and persistence from Shapira. The latter understood and accepted this burden.

In time, Shapira became a member of the troupe that was the forerunner of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. In the early ‘70s, he joined the Batsheva Dance Company and appeared with it in a series of performances in the United States, before being drafted in February 1973. Afterward, because he qualified for combat duty, he was unable to serve close to the company’s studio and thus to continue his training. A few days before the war broke out, Shapira, who was on furlough, appeared in a performance by Batsheva at the regional auditorium of Kibbutz Megiddo, and met his friends and colleagues there. He was killed a few days later on the slopes of Mount Hermon.

About a year after Shapira’s death, Pinchas Postel, at the time Batsheva’s managing director, conceived the idea of establishing a fund in his memory, which would award annual prizes to dancers. The discussions and fundraising went on for more than a year, until in the end the necessary amount was donated by Kibbutz Givat Oz and Kibbutz Ramot Menashe, where Shapira’s father lived, together with Batsheva and Bat-Dor.

For many years now, the annual gathering on Kibbutz Nir David of students from the kibbutz movement’s various dance studios has borne his name. However, in 1974, at the first such ceremony held in his memory, in the hall at Kibbutz Megiddo, an unforeseen difficulty arose. Batsheva, Shapira’s troupe, was set to perform Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies,” but Shapira’s parents requested that “And After,” which Sagan had created for Bat-Dor in their son’s memory, be added to the program.

The parents, dance critic Giora Manor wrote at the time, were unaware of the rivalry that existed between the two dance companies since Batsheva de Rothschild had decided to transfer her financial support from Batsheva to Bat-Dor.

“It was in 1973 that the problematic situation with the Baroness de Rothschild reached its peak,” Postel relates today. “She did not want to fund the [Batsheva] company any longer, and we launched an international struggle [to convince her not to stop her funding].”

Dance of grief

That campaign was at its height as the preparations for the memorial ceremony got underway. According to Manor, who organized the event’s program, considerable efforts were needed to persuade Bat-Dor to share a stage with its rival. “In the end,” he noted, “the Bat-Dor management realized that from a public point of view they could not allow themselves to refuse to take part in a memorial ceremony for a dancer who fell in the war.”

Shapira’s death thus brought about an historic encounter between Batsheva and Bat-Dor. Still, Bat-Dor rejected Sagan’s request to have the program state that his piece was dedicated to a Batsheva dancer who was killed in the war. ‏(There was tension between the troupes because Ordman had a falling-out with Batsheva; she ended up creating her own company with Rothschild money. Bat-Dor was closed in 2006.‏)

Gene Sagan began work on “And After” shortly after Shapira’s death. He had returned to Israel a few months after the war from one of his trips to the United States. Manor met him on Ibn Gabirol Street in Tel Aviv, where Bat-Dor was based. “He found it hard to speak,” Manor wrote. “Gene stirred his espresso and tears fell from his eyes into the cup. He poured his grief into the dance he created for Bat-Dor.”

“And After” is structured like a musical suite, consisting of a male duet, a male quartet, a female trio and a male-female duet, the latter of which was performed by Bat-Dor’s co-founder, Jeannette Ordman, and Yehuda Maor. Of the opening duet, Irit Robert wrote in Haaretz, “This beautiful love dance was not marred by an iota of vulgarity. The [dancers’] bodies expressed richness and great sadness.”

“Sagan’s work is a dance about beauty, restrained grief and lost youth. Gene probably got the idea for it from a very deep place of appreciation and love for the young man,” Ruth Eshel, Haaretz’s longtime dance critic, says today.

As such, the piece had a universal character, in the spirit of the Israeli dance world of that time. Karavan’s set, however, which conveyed a blatant political message, looked almost out of place. “Dance was divorced from Israeli reality in that period,” Eshel notes. “There was a kind of passion, hunger and powerful trend to be the last word of the world. Being connected to reality, to the present, was considered uninteresting and not universal.”

To which Postel adds, “When I think about it today, it seems awful to me. We looked for the best in the world’s choreographers, and there was very little desire to do original work.”

The theme of bereavement does not necessarily forge a connection with the realm of politics, either. True, it is not absent from dance performances, Eshel says, citing a work that Oshra Elkayam created for the Inbal troupe after her husband was killed in the War of Attrition. However, Eshel adds, “there was a fear that an occupation with dramatic subjects would turn into kitsch and that the work would not be abstract enough.”

“I always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that people were taking an artistic ride on a subject like war or killing. It gives the impression of being inspired by something that is not artistic,” says Barry Swersky, Bat-Dor’s general manager at the time. “I felt especially uncomfortable when Gene suggested the idea of the Yom Kippur War, and I said so to him, Jeannette [Ordman] and Dani Karavan. In the end, I was brought around. The final result was a masterpiece.

“The audience response was enthusiastic,” Postel continues. “’And After’ became one of the company’s most successful works. I saw it performed in different countries, and it absolutely worked. In some countries, such as the United States, war was an extremely important subject. It was less important in Africa and Europe. Jeannette liked to make the work part of the evening’s program, because she stood out in it. It was still part of the repertoire when she left the company in 1988.”

In addition to Ordman and Maor, the original troupe that performed the work consisted of David Dvir, Dahlia Dvir, David Rappaport, Miri Zamir and others. But in later years, especially when the piece was performed abroad, the media focused their attention on a dancer who joined the company in the early 1980s: Reda Sheta, an Egyptian.

“The only piece seen here [in New York] previously had the added interest now of a leading male role performed by an Egyptian dancer, Reda Sheta. It was, incidentally, a work inspired by the 1973 war and created by Gene Hill Sagan, a black choreographer from Philadelphia, in memory of an Israeli friend killed in that war,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times in September 1983.

‘Airtight balloon’

Sheta, who is currently the director of the Cairo Opera House, remembers Sagan fondly. He also takes the opportunity of a phone conversation from Cairo to talk about the cultural situation in the Egyptian capital, in the face of the possible outbreak of a civil war. “Art has nothing in common with politics,” he says. “A year ago, when [now-ousted President Mohammed] Morsi came to power, ballet and opera were eliminated. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood take a religious view of culture: No women on the stage, and presentations of Islamist ideas. A new minister of culture was appointed on July 30, and she takes an interest in opera and ballet. I plan to add ‘And After’ to the new repertoire of the Cairo Opera House.

“Before I came to Bat-Dor,” Sheta recalls, “I was a guest in the Berlin Opera Ballet, and we appeared in Tel Aviv. That was the first time I performed in Israel. Jeannette and Batsheva [de Rothschild] invited me to dance with Bat-Dor, and I came to Israel and lived there for about seven years. Many people, mainly Egyptians and Arabs, asked me what I was doing in an Israeli company, and in a piece about the Yom Kippur War. I always replied that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. I myself love that piece, because, as its title suggests, it seeks to understand what comes after, how we build the future.”

Sheta left Israel to return to Egypt, while for his part, dancer Yehuda Maor immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and became a revered ballet teacher there.

“We lived in something like an airtight balloon in Bat-Dor,” Maor says in a conversation from New Delhi, recalling the atmosphere that then prevailed in the troupe. “We spoke in English. We worked very hard in rehearsals. We were dancers who received respectable salaries − we even had a private plane. We lived in a state of isolation, not really in touch with reality. We went on huge tours. We were constantly all over the world.

“We were in New York when the Yom Kippur War broke out, and we were flown back to Israel. The army took me straight from the airport to Tzrifin [base] so I could fulfill my duty as a combat paramedic in the Armored Corps. I was sent to the Golan Heights. Personally, the war really disrupted my life. I started to hate Israel and wanted to escape from the country. And in 1980 I left, for what was almost 30 years.”

Did Sagan want to express similar feelings in his piece?

“Gene didn’t share his thoughts with us. He was an expressive individual, very emotional and a bit odd. The dancers loved him. He wasn’t a selfish choreographer and he tried to give everyone a role that would express himself. I don’t believe it was the war that guided him in that piece − it was more Yair and what he felt for him.”

Sagan died in 1991 in Philadelphia, from AIDS. His ashes are preserved in an earthenware jar at the entrance to the dance studio in Kibbutz Ga’aton. Leah Manor, who succeeded Dahlia Dvir in “And After,” has similar feelings for Sagan.

“I very much loved Gene’s movements. He insisted on teaching me the part himself. He didn’t want me to learn it from a video clip, which was then customary,” Manor relates. “He didn’t talk about the work and didn’t speak personally about Yair. The troupe didn’t talk about politics or the war, either. All we talked about was dancing, technique and Jeannette. There were quarrels. That’s how it was in Bat-Dor.”

Around this same time, within months of the war, Yehudah Maor created a work for the troupe dealing with the war, titled “Shrapnel.” “That piece was my private war with Israel,” he says today. “It was related to my direct experience in the Six-Day War, in which I treated many wounded soldiers. I was a paramedic, and I did the job well, but I saw too much of war’s violence. In the Yom Kippur War, I was in the reserves and not so much on the front line. In the Six-Day War, I was thrown into the front.”

“Politics did not penetrate the world of Israeli dance until after the 1990s,” Ha’ir dance critic Gabi Eldor sums up. “In Gene’s time they didn’t know what to do with it and they were occupied with nonsense. Possibly it was connected with the beauty of the body, because at that time they still danced with beauty ... Still, Gene introduced a new note here: He was very real and authentic, which was quite rare in the dance world of the time. His works were suffused with melancholy. So, in the end, the major work of Israeli dance about the Yom Kippur War is by an African-American choreographer.”

Also inspired by ‘73

Besides “And After,” several other Israeli dance pieces also reference the Yom Kippur War. Most of them are of a personal, melancholy nature, and the majority date from 1974: “Taltela,” by Mirali Sharon, created for the Batsheva company; “Lu Yehi,” by Nurit Cohen, for the Haifa Dance Stage; Maor’s “Shrapnel”; and Flora Cushman’s “And the Earth Wept” for the Kibbutz Dance Company.

For the music for “Taltela,” her third work for Batsheva, Mirali Sharon drew on the contemporary composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Bernd Alois Zimmermann; the stage design was by David Sharir. The set consisted of two huge triangles made of shiny aluminum foil, held in place by cables and scorched in a way that created holes that evoked an association with bombing. In the first part of the work’s three sections, the triangles are at the front of the stage, and the dancers open them and create an empty stage space.

Nurit Cohen’s work, which was created within the framework of Lia Schubert and Kaj Lotman’s Dance Center School, is a chamber piece set to iconic Israeli songs, such as “Ballad to the Medic,” “Where Are All the Flowers” and “Lu Yehi” itself ‏(which evokes The Beatles’ “Let It Be”‏). Ruth Eshel, who was one of the dancers who performed the work, recalls that “Nurit chose those songs because of the war.” Writing in the newspaper Davar in 1974, critic Giora Manor commented, “Without the kitsch of the lyrics, the style of the movement with which Nurit Cohen created her dances is quite abstract. There is no thrust toward realism that deals with details of life as it is, and there is a contradiction here which prevented me from enjoying large parts of the evening.”

Yehuda Maor’s “Shrapnel,” which premiered in February 1974, deals with dejection and meanness. The costumes give the dancers a burned look, the segments go by in quick succession, propelled by a collage of murmurs and noises, calls and groans, set to electronic music. The piece expresses a kind of collective anxiety about the unsettled, dark days of the war.

Flora Cushman, who headed well-known dance schools in Europe, such as Maurice Bejart’s Mudra in Brussels and The Place in London, came to Israel in the wake of her ties with Yehudit Arnon. She created four works for the Kibbutz Dance Company, of which the most outstanding, “And the Earth Wept” ‏(1975‏), deals with bereavement in a style that integrates the influence of Martha Graham and classical ballet.

"And After" (1974). "Gene was an expressive individual, very emotional, says Sheta. "I don't believe it was the war that guided him - it was more Yair and what he eflt for him."Credit: Mula Eshet
Gene Hill Sagan.
Yair Shapira. His death brought about a historic encounter between Batsheva and Bat-Dor. Photo Reproduction: Rami Chelouche

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