Not the Last Dance: Preserving an Israeli Cultural Jewel in Times of Coronavirus

The two new directors of Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center reveal their plans for a post-pandemic future

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CEO Anat Fischer Leventon, left, and Artistic Director Naomi Perlov at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, August 2020.
CEO Anat Fischer Leventon, left, and Artistic Director Naomi Perlov at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, August 2020.
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

For a moment, you could become confused and think everything was normal.

Those invited to the press conference for the opening of the Tel Aviv Dance festival streamed into the stone lobby of the Suzanne Dellal Center’s Yaron Yerushalmi Hall, and after months of silence the familiar buzz of a crowd gathering could be heard. Dancers were warming up behind the scenes and the excitement was evident on the faces of the center’s two new directors: CEO Anat Fischer Leventon and Artistic Director Naomi Perlov. After all, this was the first event being organized totally under their leadership, one they initiated and developed – a firstborn to be proud of.

But very soon even the optimists in attendance – everyone wearing masks and sitting a cautious distance from each other – were forced to remember the unique circumstances under which cultural events are happening nowadays, if they’re happening at all.

Until the very last moment, the two directors said, they were hoping the festival would be staged in front of a live audience. But permission to open cultural institutions is still lagging, so they decided the show must go on but structured around the new normal. This year, Tel Aviv Dance – which showcases nine new dance works that were created and developed by the center – will be a digital festival, broadcast online between September 8-16.

There will be a special platform developed on which ticket buyers can watch works that were prerecorded by several cameras from different angles and edited to resemble a complex independent viewing. A new work will be posted each night. The participants are Ella Rothschild, Orly Portal, Roy Assaf, Adi Boutrous, Shlomit Fundminsky, the Kaiser Antonino Ensemble, the Shaden Abu Elasal dance troupe, the Rina Schenfeld Dance Theater and Annabelle Dvir.

Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center seen from the air.

A dance festival at a time when cultural activities are frozen may be good news, but it also embodies the complexity, disappointment and helplessness of artists in the face of the tough government guidelines. This is certainly true when the management and artistic decision is an experimental one being made by two managers who, while very experienced, are still new in their jobs. They are required not just to take a cultural center in a new direction, but to figure out how to do so in a reality that no one could ever have imagined.

“It seems to me that our response to the coronavirus crisis is the festival,” says Fischer Leventon, previously a vice president for customer relations at the Adler Chomski ad agency and a former member of the center’s board. “Toward the end of the month, there’s another event planned: An open day of connection between choreographers and dancers, getting-to-know-you workshops and planning for the future. We’re doing what we can. The festival will be trial and error. It could be an incredible success – a good experience and a wide audience – and it could also be the opposite. No one has any experience in holding a festival the way we’ll hold it.

“In the future, when we go back to the halls, we’ll still need to learn from this how the digital world will accompany us,” she continues. “I hope that it won’t replace anything, but will allow us to bridge the large and unbearable gap that has developed – as among all the industries that have gone back to work, the world of culture is still paralyzed.

“When we opened the plaza outside for two days of performances of Vertigo [of the work ‘The Birth of the Phoenix’], we saw the thirst of the public to attend. The feedback we’ll get from the audience will give us indications about the delivery of the content,” Fischer Leventon says.

It seems as if the coronavirus is imposing change on dance. To properly present the works in Tel Aviv Dance, you’ll need a film director to direct the cameras. This has artistic significance: the works turn into a kind of video-dance, even if it’s not what you want.

Perlov: “I grew up in a home of cinema [her father was the late documentary filmmaker David Perlov] and I grew up with the cinematic frame; I know there’s a conflict between movement and the rectangle, the frame. To deliver an hour of dance, choreography for the stage, using a cinematic frame is an attempt that requires a lot of thought. I’m not sure multiple cameras will necessarily contribute anything. I’m not sure cameras and drones will convey the sensory experience we [normally] get when we watch what’s happening on a stage – but I’m in favor of trying. I want us to understand how the choreography transfers to the cinematic frame, how the time dimension works when watching a dance work. Will [the viewer] get up to make coffee in the middle because a certain part didn’t go well? And the implementation, how will it look within the frame? We have to try to check all these things.”

Members of the Clipa Theater ensemble participating in a cultural demonstration outside the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, August 11, 2020.

Anticipation and curiosity

Their double appointment last December was greeted with anticipation and curiosity in the dance world. After 30 years, the center’s longtime director, Yair Vardi, retired and his role was split. Perlov has a wide range of dance experience in both Israel and abroad, including co-director of the dancer’s training program, rehearsal director and co-artistic director of the Batsheva ensemble, and rehearsal director and assistant to the French-Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj.

Fischer Leventon’s appointment raised her family connection to London’s Dellal family – the founders of the center and one of its financers to this day (along with the Culture Ministry and Tel Aviv Municipality). “I would have managed this institution like any institution, brand or product that I’ve managed,” says the woman who has years of management experience and responsibility for budgets in the millions of shekels under her belt. Her appointment was approved by the center’s executive committee, which includes representatives of the family, the municipality and the public.

Both women spoke about their desire to encourage locally produced works – words that were welcomed after the Vardi era, which was characterized by intensive investment in the center’s international programming without making the center a home for local artists.

The health crisis, though, has piled on a series of additional difficulties: What will become of future projects? What should the center focus on? What will happen to the international programming and upcoming performance seasons?

The public has managed for a long time without viewing live works and have been conditioned to believe that other people, certainly in a closed space, are a health risk. How do you reeducate the public to be culture consumers?

Fischer Leventon: “The audience isn’t afraid and we’re also prepared to stage the performances responsibly. We can disperse the audience and separate people, and know exactly who is sitting next to whom. Ultimately, the audience will vote with its feet and I’ve no doubt that when we reopen, there’ll be an audience. Our responsibility is to bring it excellent things. With or without the coronavirus, we’ll be measured by the works that will appear here and the curatorship of what comes from abroad. Culture wasn’t stopped by any war.”

Do you understand the government’s considerations?

Perlov: “Let’s just tell it like it is. It’s very political. Culture is not in an important place and I protest this. Culture is important to the Israeli public, it’s important to the entire population, and this was just a political decision. There’s no reason not to open. There are thousands of artists without wages and there’s no budgetary solution for supporting them.”

A performance of a work by Ohad Naharin. His Batsheva Dance Company will be competing against the Suzanne Dellal Center when its own space opens in south Tel Aviv.

This week, the Culture Ministry said that cultural venues can reopen on September 1.

Fischer Leventon: “There’s no significance to that declaration; it’s just a suggestion that has yet to be approved. Aside from that, we don’t know what the guidelines will be for opening – and until then I can’t prepare at all. What will the guidelines say? Can I fill the halls to 50 percent capacity? Twenty percent? How many ushers will be required? I can’t prepare for anything now.

“Even if we were to say that we’re going back on September 1, I have to bring back people from unpaid leave,” Fischer Leventon says. “But now they’re also talking about a lockdown during the High Holy Days. Am I supposed to bring people back from furlough and then send them home again after three weeks? And what are the economic ramifications of reopening? What if I can’t admit enough people to cover our expenses? I’m very doubtful that theaters will open on September 1. Tel Aviv Dance will have to take place online in any case.”

They speak of projects they tried to implement in recent months that were struck down for financial reasons, including setting up an open-air stage – or at least a platform of sponge and linoleum – and a plan already on the municipality’s desk to stage works in public areas without a stage.

“There are currently five people working in this center,” Fischer Leventon says. “We have technicians, sound people, lighting people – all of them are on furlough. There’s no proof anywhere of mass coronavirus infections among people who came to consume culture. If they’d allow us to open the halls carefully and conscientiously, we’ll make sure that the audience will get there in the best and safest way possible. But we’re not getting that chance.”

Yair Vardi, who ran the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv for some 30 years before retiring in 2019.

This chance “has been given in other places in the world. In other fields in Israel, it has been given. The more time passes, the more time it will take to get things back on an even keel; there will damage that will take years to fix. Suzanne Dellal is Israel’s dance center, both domestically and globally. Just let us do it.”

Long-term picture

Under the present circumstances, the word “vision” is a bit of a stretch. We’re in Fischer Leventon’s office, where a large window is open due to the health guidelines. The office is in a renovated wing that’s supposed to be bustling with life at this time. If we could speak freely about vision, it would probably make people in the local dance community ecstatic. Israeli dance is perhaps the country’s most prestigious and successful cultural export, but it’s hard to say that it enjoys many domestic opportunities or generous funding.

“There’s one significant thing, and that’s to create programs that will touch the local Israeli oeuvre,” Perlov says. “I have a great desire to expand local productions and take them abroad, to link them with the help of the connections I have to the places and dancers that are there. For this to happen, we need programs here that will support Israeli artists across the spectrum. Not just one work by one artist. It has to be a great lever that we organize and export.”

When they discuss their plans, it’s possible to see a long-term picture of investing in young artists, particularly those ages 20 to 30 who are still searching for a creative place. They would be able to grow through long-term residency programs at the center, they will give master classes and workshops, they will meet other international artists and troupes, and be sent to prestigious foreign institutions through organized programs.

One such program – a cooperative venture with the Mart Festival for Contemporary Russian Culture – has already been approved. As part of this, two Russian choreographers will be brought to Israel to create dance works, while two Israelis will be sent to do the same at the Bolshoi and Stanislavsky ballets.

Perlov: “I want to develop new artists here. There’s a gap between the existing artists and the new ones. I want to find the 20- and 30-year-olds and nurture them. There’s a plan, and we want to start implementing it soon.”

There’s a need to make sure there will also be a new, youthful audience.

Fischer Leventon: “Works from 20- and 30-year-olds makes the audience younger as well. That’s our mission: to get to younger audiences. The second thing is how to integrate dance with other arts. There are plans in advanced stages that are currently shelved because of the coronavirus, because there’s no budget and no feasibility.”

Your predecessor turned “Suzanne Dellal” into a global brand, primarily with an attractive international program and less of an emphasis on local, young creativity.

Dancers rehearsing at the Suzanne Dellal Center.

Fischer Leventon: Yair Vardi did amazing work here for 30 years, it’s important that this be said. International programs that come here will continue to come the moment it’s possible. The existing dance activity will continue to exist – performances by Batsheva, the Kibbutz troupe, Vertigo – there’s incredible dance activity going on and this venue will continue to be a home and performance hall for them. Performances will come from abroad, but right now there’s no way to commit to them because there’s no clue as to when the skies will fully open and things get back on track. Our goal is to make another connection: between the artists that work here, local artists, and the artists who’ll visit here, to foster growth.”

Perlov also stresses that the center will continue to be a home for veteran artists and dance troupes. “But now we have to start working from the foundation, to give the feeling of a home and organization,” she explains. “Within three to four years, I hope to develop artists here for whom this will be their home. I can’t ignore the dominance of Batsheva and Ohad Naharin, but nor can I say that because they’re here, the place will remain empty. No way.”

Apropos the Batsheva Dance Company, which is the most dominant and successful Israeli troupe both at home and abroad, its own future will require the Suzanne Dellal Center to adjust. A permanent home for the company, including a dance school and large performance hall, is going to be built over the next few years in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. When it’s finished, Batsheva – a significant asset to the center (which also houses the Inbal Dance Theater Company) – will be leaving.

So what’s going to happen when Batsheva leaves?

“Batsheva is an amazing asset to Suzanne Dellal, but there’s room to develop new artists, there’s so much more that we can do to make this place lively,” Fischer Leventon says. “Even after Batsheva, the place will continue to be busy and our ties with Batsheva will continue forever. Perhaps we will separate from them physically in the future, but we’ll know how to plan the future.”

Perlov: “I look at Suzanne Dellal as the national dance center. I’m not ignoring the Inbal company or Batsheva, but it’s clear that the center has to bring additional local works and develop them. That’s one of the main tasks.”

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