Life & Culture

'My Jewish parents weren't happy when I wanted to be a dancer instead of a psychologist'

Yoram Karmi’s piece about gender equality in Israel is the perfect way to celebrate the country’s 75th birthday


Choreographer Yoram Karmi was 24 with a degree in psychology by the time he began his dance career, because “nobody spoke about dance” in eighties Israel. He had seen lots of theatre, been to concerts and read plenty of books, but had never watched a dance performance.

But moments before committing to life as a psychologist, he decided to take a further degree— in dance. “My Jewish parents weren’t happy,” he says over Zoom.

“Gay and a dancer? At least be gay and a psychologist. But I followed my gut instinct and it came to pass. I’m thankful for that.”

In 2002, Karmi founded Fresco, which is now one of Israel’s most prominent contemporary dance companies. Based in Neve Sha’anan in south Tel Aviv, the company will perform in London for the first time next month, at the Embassy of Israel’s 75 festival.

For the celebratory occasion, the company will perform lighter excerpts from its powerful piece Genderosity.

Tackling the theme of gender equality, the work was created in 2019, the same year Neta Hadid, a transgender woman, took her own life and in which gay people were fighting hard for equal rights to adopt.

“I thought this is my time to speak up,” recalls Karmi. “It was supposed to be a very angry piece, but it transformed into a celebration.”

Karmi promises joyful blue and pink balloons as a way of telling the story of gender in this site-specific performance set to South American music.

“We went for colourful and happy,” says Karmi. “We want people to have fun. It’s important.”

The choreographer explains that the piece arose from considering “how we perceive female and male in our so-called advanced Western society. We’re trying to seed little thoughts in people’s minds through the dance, but not push it in an aggressive way.

“It’s also very abstract. This is the power of dance— it’s open to interpretation,” says Karmi, who feels it is crucial in today’s political climate to show the Jewish community of London something that is liberal and progressive.

“It shows the true face of Israel, unlike politics, which have their own agendas. I believe the people who live here are plural, free-minded, open-spirited, and we’re happy to represent that. Israel is a magical thing.

"There’s something so warm, genuine and innovative, the life force here is stronger than anywhere else I’ve been.

"I’m proud to be an Israeli artist, and express myself thus far without any interference, and be able to say, ‘Here are nine dancers who are going to show you something completely different.’”

A previous piece from 2004 tackled the Second Intifada in Israel, and was called Bunker, “because I felt that we were all living inside bunkers, afraid to go out”, while his most recent dance, Aftermath, was a response to life after Covid.

“For an artist not to be able to perform or even go to the studio it’s like a death,” he laments.

“They brought us back and after two weeks shut us down again, and this broke everyone in pieces.”

When Covid was over, the building housing the Fresco studio was threatened with evacuation, and then Karmi’s father passed away.

“I had a tremendous feeling of there being no point to anything; many things in my life felt like they were collapsing.”

It could have meant the end of his career. “I had nothing to give my dancers, I felt completely drained. It was frightening. I thought, ‘You were a choreographer for 20 years. Now go learn to be an accountant for the rest of your life.’”

But then he looked back at his pieces and realised that each remained relevant. Eventually inspiration returned.

“I did Aftermath because in all the sci-fi movies, after the planet is destroyed, the cloud moves and there’s a ray of sunshine,” he says.

“It’s a very human spirit to believe that when you start again, this time you will make it. So Aftermath is a dystopian dance piece that talks about collective memory.”

It’s understandable, therefore, why Karmi feels so “lucky” to still be showcasing Fresco’s work.

“Every time I finish a piece, I’m sure it’s my last,” he says. “But when I see the audience, I feel this is my gift to give. And I thank the embassy in England for inviting us. It’s a huge honour.”

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