The Dancers’ Kibbutz
She leaps and soars before a crowd of women, their haunted eyes entranced by this unlikely expression of freedom.
When the S.S. officers hear about the Jew who performs for her fellow inmates at Birkenau, they order her to dance at their Christmas party. She refuses. She would rather die. Quickly.
But instead of shooting her on the spot, they leave her outside, barefoot in the snow, to freeze to death. As her legs go numb, she swears to herself that if she survives, she will devote the rest of her life to dance.
Yehudit Arnon sits in her small, leafy garden at Kibbutz Ga’aton in the western Galilee, flipping through memorabilia. A petite woman with large, expressive blue eyes and dark hair tied back in a ponytail, she is frail now, recovering from a recent fall that knocked her unconscious. But until then she was, at age 83, teaching professional dancers and acting as artistic adviser to a dance company situated on the kibbutz she and her mathematician husband, Yedidia, helped found 61 years ago.
During that period, Arnon has raised three daughters; taught movement to children from the Galilee and ballet and modern dance to young adults from all over Israel and beyond; become an admired choreographer; founded the critically acclaimed Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company based at Ga’aton; and won the prestigious Israel Prize for Dance in 1997.
Despite her eminent status, Arnon, say her students and colleagues, remains a humble and modest woman. “I never really planned any of this,” she offers with a bemused, almost embarrassed look. “It just evolved.”
Like a stone piercing the surface of the water, the vow she made at Birkenau has reverberated, leaving in its wake an ever-widening circle of dancers radiating from Ga’aton.
A muscular woman in a mauve leotard and headband leaps forward, her legs stretched outward in near splits, a violet blur bounding across the room. One by one the other dancers follow, executing a grand jeté on the black linoleum floor of the converted kibbutz dining hall, which is fitted with mirrors along one wall and horizontal barres along the other.
The 20 dancers (18 women and 2 men), who hail from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and South America, have only been in the country a month, part of the MASA-Israel Journey program, organized by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. Aimed at Jews aged 18 to 30 from all over the world, MASA enables them to spend a semester working, volunteering and studying in Israel in one of 160 different tracks.
Teacher Mika Webber is explaining in English peppered with French ballet terms and the occasional Hebrew—she refers to the splits asshpagat—how to execute a particular movement with a sense of momentum. “You know the story of David and Goliath,” she begins. “What would have happened if David had held his slingshot like this?” She mimics a person with limp arms, aiming a sagging slingshot. “You see, it has to be tight,” she demonstrates, arching one arm back and stretching the other straight ahead like a taut wire. “Feel the power in this. This is what you have to do with your whole body to have the momentum. Like David.”
The dancers, some petite and pixie-like, others long and lithe, perform the movement again. This time many of them manage to spring across the room in what looks like an effortless glide.
“Mika always finds just the right analogy,” muses Sandra Kramerova later that evening, sitting inside her dormitory-style room at the kibbutz after seven straight hours of dancing. Kramerova, 21, has come from her native Slovakia to participate in MASA. She and the other dancers prancing around the mirrored studio—still referred to as the large dining hall—make up the first group of MASA’s newly launched dance track, held at the kibbutz. With a bachelor’s degree in choreography and modern dance, Kramerova, a muscular woman with long blond hair, says she was drawn to the program out of her love of dance and her desire to spend time in Israel. “It’s a rare opportunity for me to experience Jewish life—something that I’m not really able to experience in Slovakia,” she says.
The program brought 26-year-old David Sonne, from Virginia, to Israel for the first time. Sonne, who has been dancing since the age of 5, was entranced when he saw KCDC perform in his home state. “I just had to see how Rami’s mind works,” he says, referring to KCDC in-house choreographer Rami Be’er. “Friends thought I wouldn’t survive because it’s desolate here on the kibbutz, but I love it. I’ve never felt happier in my life and I think it shows in my dance.”
MASA is the latest offering in the international dance village evolving on this kibbutz, located about 10 miles east of Nahariya in the lush green hills of the Galilee. However, the jewel in the crown of all dance ventures at Ga’aton is KCDC, the international professional dance company that performs in Israel, Europe and North America to rave reviews.
The kibbutz also hosts KCDC’s sister company of younger dancers, known as the KCDC-2, which puts on original productions for families and children, mainly in Israel. The two troupes perform some 200 times a year.
Ga’aton also offers afternoon classes for children; a matriculation in dance for youngsters from several high schools in the Galilee; a two-year intensive workshop for post-high-school age Israelis; and is awaiting approval for a B.A. dance program at a nearby college. Plans call for an outdoor amphitheater—in addition to the soon-to-be-opened 500-seat indoor auditorium—as well as dormitories, summer courses and an annual summer dance festival. There are already about 100 dancers in various programs who live here full time in the small, sparsely furnished bungalows that once housed an older generation of kibbutzniks. The members of the five-month MASA program are the newest inhabitants to join the dance village.
On a typical morning, the first sound resonating from this kibbutz is not the roosters crowing, but classical music wafting out of the open windows of a studio. The last sounds of the day emanate from the former silo, now a pub, where dancers and young kibbutzniks mingle till late at night over beer and grunge music. Periodically, one can see a svelte figure in a black leotard stretching a leg on the windowsill of the semicircular concrete-and-glass dining hall-turned-studio.
It wasn’t always this way. when the Czech-born Arnon and her husband arrived here in 1948, along with other Holocaust survivors, mainly from Hungary, they devoted themselves to working the land, building rudimentary homes and just staying alive, as fighting near the northern border of the nascent state spilled over to the kibbutz. They planted bananas and, later, avocados, raised cows and chickens and, eventually, established small industries.
After a few years, Arnon found time to teach movement to kibbutz children and stage small productions for the holidays. There were kibbutz members who would study dance with her, then make their way to their jobs in the cowshed. In 1970, she founded the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. When the kibbutz was privatized several years ago, the dance company and dance village became financially independent enterprises, paying the kibbutz for use of facilities.
Today, Ga’aton has about 125 member families; its main sources of income are a surgical tool firm and a cardboard factory. Dance makes up a relatively small part of the kibbutz income, but a significant part of its identity.
While MASA students pirouette and plié through ballet, modern dance, repertoire and improvisation classes, in an adjacent studio other dancers twirl to a different beat. The members of KCDC are rehearsing Aide Memoire, one of the company’s better known works, which they have performed in dozens of countries.
Several male dancers scale tall wooden panels lined up in a row on the stage; the men appear to be literally climbing the walls, as jarring music amplifies the disturbing hypnotic scene. Sometimes they hang from a ledge, then leap to the floor, crawling and writhing. The men, joined by gyrating women dancers, begin rhythmically pounding on the panels, transforming the walls into instruments that express their emotions.
The unusual use of props is a Be’er trademark. A native of Ga’aton who studied with Arnon, Be’er took over from her as artistic director in 1996 and has since choreographed over 40 works for the company.
Seated under the shade of a large oak tree outside his kibbutz office, accompanied by his large black dog who sometimes wanders onto the stage during rehearsals, the 51-year-old choreographer ruminates about the influences that have shaped his artistic approach. His grandparents were publishers of art books; his father, Menahem, is an architect (who designed the dance studios). “Our house was filled with books and music. I play the cello, and my sisters play other instruments, so we do chamber music together,” says Be’er. “I try to bridge these worlds—art, music, movement, sculpture, architecture—through my work. Through text, props and lighting I try to create a unity.”
Every dance has a message, but it is never overt. “It’s not a language of facts and words; it’s about atmosphere and feelings,” explains Be’er, a robust man with shoulder-length blond hair and blue eyes. “I try to give the viewer a range of possibilities for individual interpretation. It’s about the freedom to follow your inner world.”
Be’er’s parents were, like Arnon, Holocaust survivors, and that, too, has shaped his work. Aide Memoire deals with “the memories of the second generation that come through from the first generation,” he says. “The subject is very basic in my existence.” But references to the Holocaust are not explicit. “Some have said that this piece brings to mind train tracks. That could be. I force the dancers to perform in a tiny limited area of the stage and there are associations that follow from that.”
He wants to enable viewers to “connect to the Holocaust through dance,” but hopes they walk away with a universal message “against violence and racism.”
In another production, Upon Reaching the Sun, Be’er makes use of a single prop with astonishing versatility: a pole that, unraveled, becomes a wicker mat, a gown wrapped around a dancer, a cubicle in which dancers hide or a lighting fixture. Be’er engages all senses, incorporating texts from 19th-century German playwright Georg Büchner’sWoyzeck and a musical score that ranges from rock to tango in this allegorical tale.
The company’s newest production, InfraRed, also called In the Black Garden, is based on a poem by the same name written by Be’er about soldiers whose actions are color-coded: “In the black garden/ Red soldier watches/ Blue soldier warns/ Yellow soldier shoots/ (Back against the wall).” The haunting text is read out loud during the production, which unfolds strikingly in primary colors. Be’er says he was inspired by the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Bandalbum cover and commissioned the costumes to reflect the look of 19th-century European soldiers’ uniforms. Like players on a checkerboard, the dancers move forward, backward, right, left, horizontal, vertical. All along, there is a sense of an invisible world revealed through infrared light.
“In that black garden, Be’er was enamored with the three primary colors and had a ball, producing what is perhaps his most visually striking work, which often simply takes your breath away with its overwhelming beauty,” wrote Jerusalem Post dance critic Ora Brafman after the work’s April premiere.
The company was originally composed of kibbutzniks from all over the country. Today, it is open to Israelis and foreigners alike who have the qualities Be’er seeks in a dancer (“technically trained, able-bodied, musical, creative, generous dancers with an inner passion and strong personality”) and are willing to live in a rural setting. At a recent audition in Germany, some 400 dancers showed up.
Japanese-born Yuko Harada is one of three foreigners currently part of the company. “I never imagined I’d go to Israel,” says the soft-spoken 30-year-old who had previously been a member of troupes in England and Germany. But after seeing KCDC perform in Germany, she was intrigued and auditioned. “There was something very special about the company that I felt when I saw them perform—a certain kind of harmony that I did not understand and wanted to figure out. I had never seen anything like it.
“Three days after I arrived here,” continues Harada, who performs a riveting solo in InfraRed, “I had figured it out. It’s this place—it’s so isolated, without distractions. It enables total concentration and devotion to dance. That creates a harmony that is reflected in the performance.”
Like other members, she speaks about the sense of community, even family, in the dance village.
Yehuda Maor, a self-described lapsed Zionist who left Israel 40 years ago to pursue dance in San Francisco, New York and Salzburg, was also enchanted by the close-knit ties and special atmosphere at Ga’aton. During a visit to give a master class, Maor was invited to join the dance village. “I was so enthusiastic about what I saw here—it’s something so unique—that I couldn’t say no,” recalls the 65-year-old Beersheva-born Maor, who has dual Israeli-American citizenship. He now lives at Ga’aton, where he teaches ballet and codirects the MASA program, auditioning and recruiting participants. “Seeing this has turned me into a gung-ho Zionist who raves about Israel,” he says with a laugh.
Seated next to Arnon in her garden, Maor says in a more solemn tone: “I think much of the specialness about this place emanates from her. People are drawn to her. She is the Dalai Lama of dance.”
Arnon is absorbed in leafing through her memorabilia and stops at a photograph of a handsome young man with dark eyes and a crew cut. She has taught thousands of dancers over the years, but takes particular pride in this unlikely star she helped groom—Ayman Safieh, a Muslim from a nearby village who is now studying in London. She speaks about him with an almost maternal pride.
As she reaches for another memento, the number etched on her arm becomes visible. Two years ago, she went to Germany to participate in a dance project in memory of Jewish orphans sent to extermination camps. The project organizer was the grandchild of a Nazi officer. “People criticized me for going,” recalls Arnon. “But I have no place for bitterness. I feel that if we can find the good in every person and see their soul, we have accomplished something.”
“Yehudit embraces everyone,” interjects Maor. “Her message is that through dance the soul opens up.”
Arnon makes a dismissive gesture, as though this is obvious. “Dance is not gymnastics,” she chastises. “If you don’t give your soul, you might as well join the circus.”