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Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Congregation Beth El
This review was first published on SanDiego.com

The Israelis seated next to me at the Beta Dance Troupe’s show on Wednesday would not stop talking, which didn’t necessarily surprise me. I know a lot of Israelis, have family in Israel, and I’ve been to the country a few times. So when my neighbors continued to talk at normal, even enhanced volume during the introductory videos, I barely took note. Given the abundance of noise in the hall, it appeared that a majority Israeli audience had turned out to see their compatriots, not just to support them, but to learn from them.

As the modern state of Israel turns 60 this year, the appearance of the Beta Dance Troupe in San Diego highlights a society that is far more complex than most might imagine. This was not traditional Israeli folk dance danced by European-born pioneers on the kibbutzim (socialist settlements that were popular during Israel’s early years). Rather, the Beta Dance Troupe represents a relatively small portion of Israeli society, a fascinating slice of Israeli history and identity that rarely, if ever, receives visibility outside of Israel. The Beta Dance Troupe is comprised of Ethiopian Jews, a population in Israel that estimates put at around 130,000. And the story of their repatriation is fascinating.

Tribes of practicing Jews were identified in Ethiopia at the beginning of the 20th Century, though their presence on the African continent spans centuries. When they began facing persecution in Ethiopia, efforts were made to bring the Beta Israel population, as they are called in Amharic (meaning House of Israel), to Israel. Notable airlifts by the Israeli government in 1984 (Operation Moses) and 1991 (Operation Solomon, a three-day top secret rescue that brought nearly 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel) increased the population significantly and gave rise to one of the many new faces of Israeli society.

Dr. Ruth Eschel, a choreographer and former dancer, founded Beta Dance in 2005, following ten years of directing Eskesta Dance Theater which similarly explored the traditional dance forms of Ethiopia through the first and second-generation Ethiopian Israelis. Eskesta refers to shoulder dancing, the dominating feature of the traditional dances.

It appears that the creation of Beta Dance Troupe was an attempt on Eschel’s part to translate this traditional dance form into a contemporary, theatrical aesthetic or at least marry the two ideas. The company, composed of eight young performers, all students at the University of Haifa in Northern Israel, performed a mix of traditional and contemporary work that fused the Ethiopian shoulder, neck, and head dancing with more abstract, gestural movement.

At one moment in the first piece of the evening, “Liturgy,” with the dancers all in white and one holding an umbrella, it was difficult not to feel a vague connection with Ailey’s “Revelations.” At other moments, the fast movement of the dancers’ shoulders and the thrusting of their heads to the strong rhythms and beats would have been at home in any popular local nightclub. It confirmed how strongly and substantially Africa influences the way we dance today, and how similar and yet simultaneously distinct the traditions from a particular country or continent can be to one another.

The attempts at a more contemporary style didn’t serve the company as well as the purely traditional works, probably because the dancers looked far less comfortable executing it. When engaged in shoulder gymnastics and head athletics of eskesta, there was a confidence, a light, and a joy that came through. And every once in a while a dancer would break into a smile that was illuminating. These moments revealed authenticity where the dancers seemed to feel at home.

As Ethiopian-Israelis, all but one born in Ethiopia, I can imagine that “home” is a complicated concept, one that is filled with contradictory meaning. Yet here, in this synagogue, performing as part of the San Diego Jewish Music Festival, and greeted with a standing ovation from San Diego’s ex-pat Israelis, they might very well have felt at home.

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