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How does Israel produce such great dancers?

Is it the schools, or the Middle East conflict that gets Israelis dancing? Joy Sable interviews the man bringing Israeli dance to Sadlers Wells

    Israeli dancer Jasmin Vardimon
    Israeli dancer Jasmin Vardimon

    Next Tuesday, Hofesh Shechter, the acclaimed Israeli choreographer, will be presenting a short run of performances at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. In October, audiences can look forward to a production of Pinocchio by another Israeli dance-director, Jasmin Vardimon. These are just two Israeli artists showcased by the Islington theatre, which has, over the past few years, done much to promote the work of Israeli dance companies, including the Batsheva Dance Company, Emmanuel Gat and rising star Sharon Eyal.

    “It’s not a policy as such,” says Alistair Spalding, the artistic director and chief executive of Sadler’s Wells, “but there happen to be a lot of strong dancers and choreographers coming out of Israel, so if we’re going to represent the best in the world then we have to represent dancers and companies from Israel.”

    For such a tiny country, Israel has a rich tradition of producing world-class contemporary dancers. Spalding has his own theories about why this is. “Dance doesn’t sit in English culture — it’s not really part of our daily life. I did ask Ohad Naharin, [the leading choreographer and director] ‘Why do you have so many great dancers and creatives coming out of Israel?’ He said that it is partly to do with schools: you learn some maths, do some Hebrew and then everyone dances together. It’s a part of your day, everyone dances together, not just girls doing ballet, so it becomes part of the culture and therefore people are more inclined to go into it as a career.”

    Spalding sees the “unique and gifted” Naharin as having had a great influence on the popularity of dance in Israel, but thinks the ongoing situation in the Middle East also plays a part. “Where there are sometimes places of tension, where there is something going on which isn’t so easy, then often there is a great deal of creativity that comes out of it. There is something to say about your life that it is not straightforward, there are these conflicts and so there is a reason to make art.”

    Under Spalding’s tenure, a number of Associate Artists have been established at the theatre, whose work represents a core part of every season. Both Vardimon and Shechter are among this elite band.

    “We were selecting people who we thought would develop work that was strong but also was of a scale for the size of the stage, so they became associates very quickly. They are both very different. Jasmin comes from more of a dance theatre tradition so it is very much my taste, a way of combining theatrical elements with choreography. Hofesh came straight in to Sadler’s Wells and was an immediate success.”

    The office Spalding is speaking from is on the fourth floor of a modern theatre which is not yet 20 years old, but it is the fifth theatre to exist on a site that can date its theatrical origins back to 1683. A strong sense of history pervades the building, which is filled with photos and sculptures of famous names in British dance.

    Even the original well, discovered deep below the theatre, from which it derives its name, can be viewed from a glass vantage point. It is a heritage of which Spalding is proud but refuses to be bound by.

    “I always say that we have a tradition of the new. So when Lilian Baylis [the theatrical producer instrumental in helping to found the Vic-Wells (later, Royal) Ballet] was here, they were all making new work. We don’t do the heritage repertoire here, we’re a little bit more contemporary; it’s a contemporary building and we have to reflect what’s happening right now, so that’s a definite choice. I think there are really lovely things about our history which we shouldn’t forget but we shouldn’t be tied down by them.”

    Baylis would probably have approved of future plans, which include the building of a new theatre on the Stratford Olympic site, for contemporary dance pieces more suited to a smaller venue. It will include six studio spaces enabling new, young talent to gain choreographic and performance experience.

    Describing his job as “a gift” Spalding says he has “colleagues all over the world — a lovely network of people”.

    One place his international travels have yet to take him is Israel. “I’d love to go at some point,” he says. And as one of the strongest champions of Israeli dance in this country, he would be sure of a warm welcome.

     

    For more information on the current season, including performances by Hofesh Shechter Company and Jasmin Vardimon Company, visit www.sadlerswells.com

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