Jewish Journal


August 10, 2010

Bridging Cultural Gaps Through Dance


Israeli American choreographer Barak Marshall leads dancers as part of a cultural exchange between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.  (Photo by Meredith Price)

Israeli American choreographer Barak Marshall leads dancers as part of a cultural exchange between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. (Photo by Meredith Price)

“I don’t care about mistakes,” Israeli American choreographer Barak Marshall told a studio teeming with sweaty dancers at Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Dance Center last week. “They’re beautiful things, because they mean you’re trying. Now, let’s take it from the top one more time.”

The dancers exchanged nervous smiles as Marshall restarted Wayne Newton’s upbeat classic “Danke Schoen,” featured in his acclaimed dance piece “Rooster.” “Five, six, seven, eight” cried Shani Badihi, Marshall’s assistant and one of his dancers. Full of rapid turns and precise hand movements, the piece demands attention to detail and strong flexibility, and despite grueling August heat, most of the dancers were determined to get it exactly right.

“It’s critical for dancers to be open to learning new things,” Badihi, a dancer in two of Marshall’s productions, “Rooster” and “Monger,” said during a pause in the action. “I have a lot of experience, but I can still learn from everyone, even dancers who are younger than me.”

This sentiment, Marshall pointed out, was the basis for creating “Bridge: Choreographic Dialogues,” a cultural exchange between dancers and choreographers based in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv and initiated in 2007 by Miki Yerushalmi, who invited Marshall to be artistic director. This year, the program runs Aug. 1-13 in Tel Aviv with more than 100 participants, including five students from the dance department of the prestigious California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia and professional dancers from Holland, Spain, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland.

“This is a breakthrough year,” said Yair Vardi, director of the Suzanne Dellal Center, which is credited with the renaissance in distinct Israeli styles of dance and won the coveted Israel Prize this year for dance and theater. “We are offering more subjects, and we invited more international choreographers and opened the doors to international students for the first time.”

Some of the international choreographers teaching workshops this year include Stephan Koplowitz (dean of the CalArts dance program), best known for creating large-scale multimedia works; Damien Jalet (Belgium), co-director of “East-Man,” who is also involved with Les Ballets C de la B, which The Guardian recently defined as “a mix of surrealism, slapstick and semiotics”; Bruno Bouché (France), dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet and artistic director of the Incidence Choréagraphique group; Lisi Estaras (Belgium), a former Batsheva Ensemble dancer and member of the collective Les Ballets C de la B; Chuck Park (South Korea), founder of movement method Mulchanjaebi, which deepens dancers’ understanding of the body’s physiology and maximizes physical training and performance; Michal Mualem (Israel), of Sasha Waltz & Guests; Naomi Perlov (Israel/France), the former co-artistic director of the Batsheva Ensemble and the director of a Tel Aviv-based dance training program; Jay Augen (Israel/Holland), a former professional ballet dancer and ballet master who teaches classical ballet; and Maria Sachs (Venezuela), founder of the Caracas Ballet.

For Marshall, attracting such a prestigious cast represents a huge step toward his ambitious goal of turning the program into a premier global choreography workshop. Aside from being a springboard for potential job placements in dance companies, the program also provides a chance to work with a wide variety of choreographers and hone skills by learning new techniques and genres.

“I’ve been to workshops in the United States, but this one is unique because it’s a departure from traditional dance,” said Allison Jones, a professional dancer and choreographer in New York and a former member of the Los Angeles-based company BodyTraffic. Reut Aviran, whose father, Opher Aviran, will soon be Israel’s consul general in Atlanta, explained that attending the program was a chance to return to her Israeli roots after dancing abroad in Holland for the last five years. “It’s a way to experience what’s going on now in Israeli dance,” she said. “There’s something very raw and strong about the energy and dance here, and it’s nice to be a part of that.”

Marshall was born and raised in Los Angeles, but when it comes to choreography, he defines himself as purely Israeli. And despite being the son of acclaimed Yemenite Israeli dancer, choreographer and musician Margalit Oved, he was not attracted to movement from an early age.

“I enjoyed watching dance, and I toured with my mother as a kid, so I was around dance a lot, but it never crossed my mind to do it, too. That was what my mother did. It wasn’t what I did.” Thus, his debut as a choreographer at the relatively late age of 25 came as a complete surprise — especially to him.

In 1994, he moved to Israel with his mother to help her out as she revitalized the Inbal Dance Company. Within six months of his arrival, a beloved aunt died suddenly at the age of 68. In his grief, Marshall started going to the dance studio, turning the music on and moving. One of the Inbal dancers secretly watching from a balcony began working with him. “Aunt Leah,” a prize-winning piece of choreography dedicated to his aunt, emerged from their collaboration.

But what started as an accident quickly gained momentum as Marshall established himself as one of Israel’s leading choreographers with two more successful pieces — “Emma Goldman’s Wedding” (1997) and “Shoshana’s Balcony” (1999). Exhausted from years of touring with his own dance company, when Ohad Naharin invited him to become the first ever in-house choreographer for the Batsheva Dance Company in 1999, he seized the opportunity.

After breaking a leg in 2001, he took another long hiatus from dance and choreography. Putting together the “Bridge” program was the impetus for his second debut. “Monger,” a cynical piece that examines the divisions of class and power. It was commissioned by Vardi for the Suzanne Dellal Center after snippets of it emerged in the “Bridge” workshops.

“I’d been banging on doors, but I couldn’t buy a job even though my choreography was well received, so this was a great opportunity for me,” Marshall said.

In 2009, “Rooster,” which also started in the “Bridge” program, debuted at the Tel Aviv Opera House. Both pieces will be touring throughout the United States and Europe next year. “Monger” is part of the UCLA Live 2010-11 season, with performances scheduled for April 15-16 at Royce Hall. Marshall’s work-in-progress, “Wonderland,” is a social commentary on Israel. Currently seeking funds and co-producers, he hopes to create the piece in Israel with Israeli dancers. Like all of his pieces, “Wonderland” will rely on a strong narrative arc with clear Jewish and Middle Eastern influences.

Not a fan of abstract dance, Marshall is passionate about creating a real dialogue between the performers and the audience. “Every word, syllable and consonant has to be connected, for me,” he explained. “The movement needs to form words and paragraphs and conversations, and they all have to connect to the story. In terms of the music, it’s what I start from. I have to finish creating the score before I see the piece because that gives me the arc.”

Marshall insists that dance is the country’s greatest cultural export.

“Israel is a real model for the rest of the world in dance,” he said, tucking a long black curl behind one ear. “The Israeli national budget [for dance] is larger than the American national budget, and the United States can learn a lot from Israel about how to form collaborations between various public and private bodies in order to get funding that is desperately needed.”

He hopes that the “Bridge” program will help foster the much-needed dialogue between nations and create opportunities for more partnerships. “We are really crossing cultural bridges through this program,” Marshall commented. “It’s a wonderful example of the possibilities that emerge when a clear vision is presented about how to open new territories.”

“Bridge: Choreographic Dialogues” is sponsored by The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles partnership in collaboration with the Suzanne Dellal Center, the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance, the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, California Institute of the Arts and the American Embassy.

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