Bathed with morning light, a roomful of young dancers twirled and dipped as they performed a piece they were learning in a master class for the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
Dorry Aben, originally a dancer with the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and now a teacher for its Dance Journeys program, focused closely on the dancers, who were performing a piece from the company’s repertoire.
Many of the approximately 90 male and female dancers who attended one of the two master classes she offered on March 4 were trying out for the company’s five- or 10-month Dance Journey programs.
“It is a chance for dance students to come abroad, be in a foreign country, and dance with a professional dance company,” said Yoni Avital, Aben’s husband and international director of the company.
Avital organized the master classes at Rutgers and also oversees the company’s international performance schedule, drawing on his experience arranging gigs around the world for his band, The Shuk (whose diverse repertoire includes contemporary, ethnic, sacred, jazz, Israeli, Jewish, and world music).
For Avital, the stop at Rutgers was a return to his alma mater. The child of a Moroccan-born Israeli father and a mother from Brooklyn who made aliya in the early 1970s to Kibbutz Gezer, Avital grew up primarily in Brooklyn, with a short period in Israel.
He studied psychology and music at Rutgers and then worked for a year with autistic teenagers at a developmental center in New Jersey. As a student, he said, he remembers cycling from the campus to the Jewish Center in Princeton to serve as a bar/bat mitzva tutor. A self-taught cantor, encouraged to study on his own by his rabbi grandfather, Avital has been hazan at High Holy Day services in the Flemington Jewish Community Center for the last 12 years.
A year after college, Avital left New Jersey to backpack around the world, and a few years later met the Dutch-born Aben through mutual friends in Tel Aviv, while he was working with Birthright. At that time she was dancing with a company in Amsterdam, and he was about to start a program in physical therapy in New York. But he decided instead to move to Amsterdam with her.
The couple came to Israel together after her contract ended, and her first choice was to dance with Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, said Avital. “She was intrigued by their movement, their language, and by the choreographer Rami Be’er’s work,” he said.
The company was founded by Yehudit Arnon, a Czech-born dancer and Shoa survivor. In Auschwitz during the winter of 1944, Arnon adamantly refused the order of Nazi officers to dance for them at their Christmas party. As punishment, she had to stand outdoors all night, and, Avital said, “She promised herself if she survived, she would devote herself to dance and dance education.”
Arnon came to Israel in 1948 with a group of Hungarian immigrants who established Kibbutz Ga’aton, the dance company’s home. The dance “village” she set up in 1970 in the kibbutz’s former tobacco-drying plant now includes nine studios (one a professional theater), a cafe, restaurant, swimming pool, and both an international and a domestic dance company.
Dance Journey students live and work on the kibbutz. “Most dance companies are in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, or London, but this is a quieter, pastoral place where they can really focus on their trade,” said Avital.
Rutgers student Daniel Costa, who took the master class, said he felt drawn to Israeli dance, due in part to his class with Israeli choreographers Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor at Rutgers this semester (see related story). “I have been noticing more vulnerability and self-expression in dance I see from Israel,” said Costa, a BFA junior from Green Brook.
“In America I notice they categorize and put things in boxes,” compared to dance choreographed in Israel, which, he said he feels, “is way more open.”
Hannah Sego, a junior BFA dance major from Indianapolis, said she was intrigued by the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. “I love the idea of kibbutz because they are all living in a community together and it is all about creating art and they don’t have to worry about the outside world,” she said.
Regarding the dance village’s future, Avital said, “We are looking to build new structures to house more international guests coming to visit the Galilee.” Almost daily, he said, busloads of people come to watch a show or rehearsal, tour the village, and perhaps even do a dance workshop.
“My own personal ethos is bringing together people of all backgrounds through the arts, be it music or dance or other art forms,” said Avital. “That for me on a personal level is what makes my work inspirational and motivational on a daily basis.”