On a sunny afternoon in late February, three dozen dancers careened across the floor in the airy upstairs studio of the UA’s Stevie Eller Dance Theatre.
“You’re floating here, like dust,” Yaniv Abraham called out in a soft Israeli accent as he spun across the room with the students, leaping, twisting, and turning. “It’s like flying in the air.”
His co-teacher, Guy Shomroni, gave his own instructions to the soaring students. “Soft, but physical,” he said. “Even in the biggest jump you’re going to remain soft.”
Dressed in casual T-shirts and leggings or shorts, the dancers mimicked the two instructors’ unfamiliar movements. They did deep squats and loosened up their arms.
“The lower the plié, the better!” Abraham cried. “Find the physicality in softness.”
One student in ballerina pink moved her spine to one side, an unfamiliar movement in classical ballet. A classmate wanted to know exactly how to move his head. A third student asked, “Is this a hop or a slide?”
The dance fragments combined were just 22 seconds long, but the students repeated the same steps — and leaps — again and again, practicing the segment for 45 minutes. Looking like a perpetual-motion machine, they danced in unison and steadily improved with each new attempt and with plenty of encouragement from the Israeli instructors.
They were learning the startling choreography of Ohad Naharin, an Israeli famed for his inventive contemporary dances. And by the time they finished rehearsing the strange new moves, they were exhilarated.
“It’s enthralling,” a panting Rachel Shiffman said after the class ended. “I’m really excited.”
Rachel Zaner declared it “my most challenging class ever.”
Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, is “one of the premier choreographers in the dance world,” said Jory Hancock, dean of the UA College of Fine Arts, director of the School of Dance, and a former dancer himself. “It’s an essential part of our students’ education to be exposed to masterworks of internationally recognized choreographers.”
The students learned Naharin’s path-breaking movement from two alumni of his acclaimed troupe during a seven-week residency. The instructors danced for years with Batsheva — Shomroni putting in 11 years and Abraham over nine.
They are now freelance choreographers and international teachers. The two Israelis are highly sought after as “repetiteurs” — or stagers — of Naharin choreography. But before they begin with choreography, they immerse the students in “Gaga,” Naharin’s novel system for making dancers more aware of their own bodies.
“It’s an approach to movement, not a technique or style,” Hancock explained. “It’s a way of tuning into your own body.”
Though Gaga movement is wild and free, its rules are strict. Dancers cannot watch themselves in mirrors: too distracting. Accordingly, the mirrors in the Stevie Eller studio were covered up with giant sheets of paper for the training.
“When you work without a mirror, you’re better at trusting your senses,” Shomroni said after class.
Nor does Gaga have the “codified steps and placement of ballet,” said grad student Shelly Hawkin. “It’s basically an improvisation, with more exploration.”
With Gaga, dancers do not stop moving for one hour and 15 minutes, Abraham said. “It’s really a body language.” And it’s a language the students can use in all dancing, no matter who the choreographer.
Nearly all of the school’s 140 students attended the Israelis’ Gaga classes and learned Naharin choreography. Only a selected group will perform portions of his dance “Minus 16” at the “Spring Collection” concerts, April 22–May 1.
To dance major Zaner, it doesn’t entirely matter who gets a final spot on stage.
“This isn’t about who gets to perform,” she said. “It’s all about us developing as artists.”
The rare opportunity for UA students to study a masterpiece of Israeli dance came about through the efforts of Ed Wright, director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies on campus.
“We have a Modern Israel Studies Institute at the UA,” Wright said. “Our goal is to integrate Israel studies in a broad way into the curriculum. And our mission is to promote teaching, research, and public outreach about Israel, from ancient to modern times.”
Unfortunately, he noted, media attention to the Middle East focuses almost entirely on conflict, but there’s far more to the societies of Israel and its neighbors than war.
“I’ve been wanting to do something with the arts for a long time,” Wright said, to provide a more multidimensional portrait of Israel. “Modern dance presents that opportunity.”
Tel Aviv is a hotbed of contemporary dance, and its influence extends beyond Israel, Shomroni said. Naharin choreography is performed regularly by companies in Europe and the United States. Just last spring, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre danced his “Minus 16” at Centennial Hall.
Israel has had a strong tradition of dance since its founding, and every year an international dance festival showcases a week’s worth of Israeli dance pieces.
“Lots of people are creating in the field in Israel,” Shomroni said, “and a lot of the choreographers came out of the Batsheva company.”
To bring Israeli dance to the UA, Wright reached out to the Israel Institute in Washington, D.C., an organization that promotes the study of modern Israel and sponsors a visiting artists program. They had a few choices and selected Batsheva.
Wright contacted Hancock, and the two agreed that Judaic Studies and the School of Dance would co-sponsor the artists’ residency. They worked out a deal that allowed the students to perform the Naharin dance excerpts publicly, though permission was granted only for this year’s “Spring Collection” concerts.
The Israel Institute sponsored costs for most of the project, which involved international travel, housing, and stipends; UA donors Ken and Linda Robin pitched in the rest. The School of Dance, Hancock said, provided the space for the classes as well as private studio time for Shomroni and Abraham to work on their own choreography.
Even in the first few weeks of the residency, Wright said, the two Israeli dancer-teachers “were having an impact on the campus and community. Everyone says how wonderful they are.”
Likewise, the affable Israelis found the UA dancers enthusiastic and energetic.
“They’re obviously pretty highly trained,” Shomroni said. “Sometimes trained dancers are harder to teach, but everybody is steering in the direction.” He felt the switch to the invigorating Gaga philosophy had been beneficial for them. “It’s good to get a wide range of experiences, to step between ideas.”
The students, for their part, were downright rapturous not only about Gaga, but about Naharin’s choreography and all they learned from the repetiteurs.
“This is a master class,” grad student Shelly Hawkin said, still sweating after the session. “You’re learning everything all at once.”
Max Foster, another grad student, agreed.
“It’s like discovering avenues to dance in ways I’ve never considered before,” he said. “It’s a totally sensory experience.”