December 9, 2010
Some months ago an Israeli official said to me "culture is our window to the world to make people understand we are not just what appears about us in the news." The power of those words of course resonates for any artist who travels the way we do. I think all governments give lip service to the idea of using their culture, their art and artists as their ambassadors. I think none do it with the power, vision, determination and focus of the Israelis.
The proof of that is all around me on a 75 degree December afternoon in the courtyard of the Suzanne Dellal Center here in TA. Surrounded by languages from 39 different countries, in the mix of 200 different presenters who have come from, it seems, every time zone on the planet where there is land, electricity and theater, I am reminded of the sheer power of art if and when there is the weight of a country's will behind it. Dance in Israel is unique. There is, as we say, "something in the water," here that generates a volume of talent and breadth of work you find nowhere else in such concentration -- not in New York or London or Berlin. The closest I can think of is Rio, or perhaps, in a completely different way, Tokyo. But each of those cities are cultural capitals of enormous countries. Israel -- its tiny. Until you've been here there's no way to understand how tiny. Postage stamp tiny. But in dance, its enormous.
And here, instead of doing as we so often do in the States, and see that talent as something independent, the Israelis embrace it. Its no accident that the Festival of Dance which brings me here, "International Exposure," is under the umbrella, not of the Ministry of Culture, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Think about that for a moment. Dance as a part of an entire country's engagement with the world. A tool and technique of foreign policy. A statement of national identity.
The sheer cost of International Exposure is hard to take in. Five days of dance, featuring a custom selected, curated list of artists who are seen to be the best in the nation, under the roof of one of the truly great centers of dance I have ever seen, the Suzanne Dellal Center. When I think about what Washington needs, what I wish our home at Strathmore could find its way to being if it grew beyond its current campus, is this Center. I imagine Dance Place, under Carla Perlo and Deborah Riley, morphing into the Dellal Center. A campus, a place where people are drawn to spend not a few minutes before and after class or performance, but the entire day. Fountains and water coursing throughout the campus in a way which soothes and settles. And energy. That part is hard to describe -- its one of those "see it to believe it," things. You just feel the vibrance of the art, in the bodies of countless dancers, in the crackle of the day.
An Israeli friend and colleague, Rachel Erdos, who staged her dance "Alma" for us last year, speaks of the push of excellence here. Of the seemingly endless amount of talent driving each artist to be better because in the "sink or swim" of any art you have to find the new idea and the strength to push it through if you are to succeed here. In this way its difference from Washington its startling. We measure ourselves against ourselves in DC, and with rare exceptions the simple reality is we don't measure up. The challenge is to see yourself in an international context -- as a Capital City -- and to say "how do we do in DC what they have done in Tel Aviv?" I refuse to believe its impossible.
Last night the Second Company of Batsheva, the Dance Ensemble, opened International Exposure with two classic Ohad Naharin works. Would that most companies had a first company which danced as well as Batsheva's second company.
The afternoon is getting away -- a workshop with Ohad (one of those "only needs one name" folks) calls.