Contact Israel

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Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Vanessa Cook

Professional dancer Vanessa Cook ventured to Israel just before Christmas for a month long contact improvisation festival to experience the dancing, the people and the culture. In a country that is dominated in western media coverage by political strife and violence something altogether different emerged.

A myriad of connections are triggered in peoples’ minds when they hear the word Israel. It’s unlikely that many people would think of an International Contact Festival. I enjoy travelling and contact improvisation so when an opportunity arises where the two can mix I’m interested in noticing how much I can learn about the nuances of both the national culture and its contact community as well as how much they inform each other.

I was the lucky recipient of the Lisa Ullman Traveling Scholarship Fund, which funded my flight to Israel, making this adventure possible.

I chose to go to Israel’s contact festival because I wanted to learn from established teachers and ´jam´ with dancers from around the world. Israel has a complex identity and a rich cultural environment and I wanted to experience these by being part of a creative exchange in an otherwise politically volatile country and I think dance is a way of meeting people in as neutral environment as possible despite Israel being a political hotbed. By living communally with the other participants I believed I would have the opportunity to engage in cultural exchange.

The agenda for the festival showed a high level of creativity within its 3 contrasting weeks. The first was called "Contact on the Road" and was advertised on the website as an;

"Opportunity to travel around Israel while dancing. A five day journey to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Jaffa, and the new Ecological Art-Village of Vertigo. Participants will experience an abundance of places, teachers and friends. We will have a daily 3 to 4 hour activity with focus on the different places we will visit. Activities will take place indoor[s] and outdoor[s] as weather permits.”

It appealed to me. Here’s how it really was…

Beginnings

I journeyed to Heathrow airport, obeying the rules of the London Underground (complete silence, no eye-contact, no physical contact). I entered the corporate bubble of my British Airways 747 and spent isolated hours cut off by headphones and individually selected in-flight entertainment. The contrast of this to my destination couldn’t have been sharper.

I arrived at sunset on a Friday, which is the beginning of the Jewish day of rest, or Shabbat. This meant there was no public transport running. After a taxi ride into what felt like the edges of a wilderness, I arrived at the kibbutz which was the home of Vertigo Dance Company in the Ella Valley between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I was taken to the communal sleeping area where 40 bodies and rucksacks were strewn all over a large open space. The eco-toilet had no flush, rather, a bowl of sawdust to cover all deposits.

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After an informal Shabbat meeting (singing, reflecting, and blessings) and a delicious Shabbat meal, the evening of dance began. My first dance was with a landscaper, Eli, who wanted to improve his skills. He took his shirt off and we began. Such enthusiasm! I knew the rules of engagement on the studio floor more than I did the customs of Shabbat meetings so I found a level of familiar comfort in the dances I shared. It was the most at home I’d felt all day and where my real introductions began.

However, I had thoroughly enjoyed witnessing and being so warmly welcomed into a liberal Jewish Shabbat meeting.

That first evening introduced the two experiences that would thread through my entire trip; the familiarity of contact work and exposure to the unfamiliarity of Israel’s many faces. Balancing these two engaged my interest completely for the duration of the month.

The pattern that emerged for the rest of the tour was that we travelled to a new place, had an intensive outside and enjoyed a jam in the evening with the local contact community before sleeping in Bedouin tents.

All of the places we travelled to were varied and beautiful. Our first outside intensive was in a clearing up in the mountains near the kibbutz. I enjoyed eating olives and almonds from the trees and feeling the sun on my skin (trying to remember the incongruent thought that it was perhaps snowing at home). I often enjoyed being in beautiful nature spots more than I enjoyed the dance intensives.

For me, just being in these places was sufficiently inspiring without dancing because the group approach sometimes felt overly serious. Perhaps my being the only Brit explained why I slipped between sincere application and feeling amused ridiculousness when I found myself dancing with a bush. Sometimes I wanted to just sit still to enjoy the wind and blue sky or tumble down the mountain side laughing rather than dance. However, in true contact community style, there was room for all responses.

Mud And Salt

There was a day that we spent at The Dead Sea where there was an unspoken consensus between all group members that the physical intensive needn’t be our focus. At over 400 metres below sea level, it is the lowest point on the face of the earth with the highest saline levels of any body of water. The whole group stripped off and floated effortlessly in the thick, salty water. We then daubed ourselves in mud from the mineral beach and dried in the sun.

We looked like a cross between beautiful Greek ashen-grey sculptures and crude looking Neanderthal creatures. Our therapy started all over again as we washed the mud off and floated impossibly. This ritual absorbed our senses fully precluding any thought of dancing. The sensations would serve as a mental stimulus for dances later on.

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The outdoor intensive setting I enjoyed the most was the Maktesh Qatan crater. Accompanied by only the sun, the wind and the occasional bird of prey, the landscape was vast and silent. At times, the huge, smooth rock formations made me feel as if I was on the surface of a different planet. The crater surfaces lent themselves to being climbed, pushed against, rolled along, hung off and balanced on. Dances with a partner and closed eyes enabled us to really explore the environment.

The intensives and evening jams were punctuated with the perfunctory activities of cooking and mealtimes, as well as other activities such as building mud walls in the eco village, climbing and abseiling a 50 metre summit over breakfast, hiking in the Maktesh Qatan crater, roaming the streets of Jerusalem and exploring the Luzit Caves. I found it utterly refreshing to be able to play and interact through dance, travel and other outdoor activities.

To Good To Be True

When the end of week 1 arrived I reflected on its best features. I had thoroughly enjoyed all the other participants. Having spent 24/7 with the group, finding ourselves sleeping in Bedouin tents, sharing stories on the bus, exchanging ideas as we prepared and shared meals, we’d become a cohesive social group. The group members were all like-minded, open and friendly. Sounds too good to be true? But it is true and it was good.

We rented 2 apartments together to stay in during the second week of the festival in Tel Aviv. The social group that formed remained an identity for the whole festival. Together we’d had an excellent introduction to some of the culture, customs, geography and practicalities of Israel.

One question that arose in my mind during the week was why all the participants were foreign, mostly European. Why didn’t local dancers come on the tour? I think the content of the week offered the answer. Because a major focus of the week was seeing places, I imagine most Israelis had seen the places we visited (Israel being a mere 8,000 square miles whilst the UK, for example, is 94,000 square miles).

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A friend offered another reason. To get value for money he said he would rather attend a week with more intensive classes and jams than attend the tour where we did 1 class or 1 jam a day intermingled with travel. This is the choice all the Israeli participants made, attending the 2nd and 3rd week in their droves. It seems that week 1 was tailor-made for the foreigner who is visiting Israel for the first time.

Whilst the way the intensives were pitched was not always conducive with the way I felt in a particular environment, the closing circle reminded me of how unique contact jams are as a social sharing event. The tour closed in a field at sunset. Positive moments experienced between the group members were shared verbally.

Part of the appeal of the contact community is that it exists spontaneously between participants and dissipates after the event. In a world of dislocated fast-paced living, I find I can only take pleasure in the exception that contact jams are to the pattern of modern life-styles lacking in cohesive communities. Part of the pleasure I derived from our bubble of mutual respect was that it took place in Israel, where for many, peace and good will remain an unachievable political pipe-dream.

Vanessa Cook is a professional dancer currently working with Gravity and Levity on their up and coming productions and with All Play, the company she co-founded with dancer Nikki O'Hara.

all photos by Vanessa Cook

[ All Play ]
[ Gravity and Levity ]

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