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Flash Review 3, 2-12: Voyagers
Inbal Brings Tradition into Modern Times

By Nicole Pope
Copyright 2002 Nicole Pope

NEW YORK -- My own 20 years have not yet afforded me the luxury of global travels and my interests, sadly, have not yet directed me towards the study of the development of Israel, so my experience of Inbal Dance Theater's performance at La Mama etc. Sunday was very naive as to the history of the Yemenite Jewish culture, the folklore and dance of Middle Eastern Jews, and the Israeli experience. Nevertheless, Inbal gave me insight into these things and their progression into modern times. One of the company's main intentions is to tend to the widening gap between tradition and modernization.

Sara Levi-Tavai, Israel Prize Laureate, has certainly directed the work of the company she founded towards a middle ground that is somehow uncompromising. In her choreography of "The Story of Ruth," Levi-Tavai does not have to adjust the tradition of the narrative, which describes a widowed and devoted daughter-in-law. The piece touches on the main points of the story: Ruth's extreme loyalty to her mother-in-law, Naomi; the celebration of harvest; the meeting of Ruth and Boaz; and finally, Naomi's encouragement of their marriage. Israeli folk dance is full of energetic spinning leaps with flexed feet, joyous faces, praising, waving arms, and backs undulating in homage. I felt suspended between two points in time, or at a place where they exist at once. Dancing with round sifters during the harvesting of wheat and barley and creating a feeling of love between each of the characters on stage, it did not feel as though the dancers were reenacting the past, but demonstrating that those feelings related in the Bible stories can exist today as well. By the end of the piece I was actually inspired to read the Biblical story of Ruth on my own time. Would this, in Sara Levi-Tavai's mind, signify a success of her piece?

"Sajarra," which takes its title from the Arabic word for trees, is a more literal exploration of the tension between tradition and what the program notes called "the rapidly changing lifestyle of the younger generation." Ilana Cohen's choreography and collaboration with composer Shlomo Bar presents two women, embodiments of tradition and the roots of Jewish culture, with bundles of twigs bound on top of their heads. With waving fingers, and voices that sound of power and wisdom they pace around the stage speaking Hebrew. A large chorus of men and women, bundles of twigs tied to their backs, enter the stage in a long procession of exaggerated stepping with hands cupped under their chins in thought. The line zig-zags around the stage, creating a meditative image of unison. But . . . as the dance progresses, one by one, the twigs come off backs, a fight between two men ends in near death, and pain, terror, and chaos run riot on stage as the women of tradition try to restore the dropped bundles of the youth's roots, only to watch them yet again be disregarded. Bare-backed men huddle around a pile of bundles, hands again cupped under chins, contemplating. A hand reaches out for the twigs and the man is tossed out of the group. More hands reach, and they too are cast away.

As opposed to the previous two pieces, "Ruah Kadim" has little to no spatial movement, though I only realized this half way through the piece because the fixed shape with thoughtful arm gestures, movements using drums, tambourines, and large silver bowls full of grain, and the incorporated elements of Sephardic Jewish prayer created a hypnotizing image. The entire cast breathes -- "Cooo, psss, ahh, doodoodoo, tsh, emm, ha, ga, ma, sha, ba, ba, hallelujah," clapping hands, chests and thighs, creating a "musical tapestry" of musical and moving rhythm.

I had to watch this weekend's performance with a perspective that is different from the way I watch most modern dance and through this choice, I was able to appreciate the giant leaps Inbal Dance Theater has made for the dance world of Israel. Founded in 1950, it is Israel's oldest dance company. The likes of Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins took notice of the company's unique contribution to yet another facet of what modern dance can be. To Inbal, it is "the translation and development of the rich heritage and culture of ethnic minorities -- their traditions, songs, stories and history...." into a universal language.


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