Israel-inspired dance explores boundaries of body, country

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Nina Haft was in a Tel Aviv dance class when she had an epiphany.

The instructor, well-known Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, founder of the Batsheva Dance Company, reminded his students to move from their skin — to open their skin, to feel like a container pouring their body from one side to the other.

That directive, Haft said, “made me start to realize how my skin was like my own personal borders drawn around my body.

“And I started to think that I could use the body as a kind of map” for boundaries between nations, she added, particularly “the boundary that exists between Israel and the occupied territories.”

More than one year and numerous dance rehearsals later, those thoughts inspired the choreography for the contemporary dance performance “Skin: One Becomes Two,” which debuts Nov. 7 at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley.

Haft, who is Jewish, traveled to Israel on a research grant she was awarded as an assistant professor of dance at Cal State East Bay. It was her first visit to the Jewish state.

She wanted to study dance and multiculturalism, something she was “especially interested in because I teach in an immigrant-rich school and community,” she said.

She rented an apartment in Yaffo, near Tel Aviv, and took classes from Naharin. She also traveled to the Galilee for the Karmiel Dance Festival, the largest dance festival in Israel, with 120 performances, 5,000 dancers from around the world and 250,000 visitors.

At the festival, she found that Israelis have a very different relationship to dance than their American brethren.

“There is such an appetite for dance in Israel,” she said. “It seems like it’s a part of the physical culture there that it’s not here. In Israel, there’s a broad comfort level with contemporary and folk dance. Every time I went to a performance, the house was full. It was amazing.”

While in Israel, Haft also researched the history of dance in the state. She found that in Israel’s infancy, “creating an Israeli form of dance was a big part of the cultural agenda. To have a physical culture was a really important part of nation building,” she said. Early forms of Israeli dance drew on the traditions of the new nation’s Yemenite and Eastern European immigrants.

Upon Haft’s return to the Bay Area, she began working on a new piece with her dance company, Nina Haft & Company, an Oakland-based contemporary dance troupe. She had dancers write about a memorable experience related to their skin, and used the wide range of stories to spark ideas for their performances.

She also asked them to think about borders — breaking through them, abiding by them, failing to cross them.

“She asked us to respond with our bodies,” said Rebecca Johnson, a dancer in the company who has worked with Haft since 2000.

“Nina harnessed our reactions and pulled them together for ‘Skin,'” Johnson added. “A lot of the material was developed by this kind of loose, spontaneous improvisation.”

The performance will be preceded by a dance installation, during which the audience can move through different studios, watching various solos and duets, as though in an art gallery, Haft said.

The choreographer hopes that as the audience considers when to enter or exit a room, where to stand and how long to view the dancers, they will think about moving across boundaries, both personal and political.

Audience members will then gather into the main theater to watch the primary performance, which will include guest dancers dancing debkah, a Palestinian folk dance. Haft included debkah because of her experience meeting dancers in the Palestinian territories while she was in Israel.

“Palestinian artists and dancers told me that their dancing was about preserving their country and culture,” Haft said. “And in some way, that reminded me of what I read about the early Israeli dance movement in 1948, when people saw dance as nation-building.

“‘Skin’ asks more questions than it provides answers,” she added, “which I think is a pretty culturally Jewish approach to art-making.”

“Skin: One Becomes Two” plays 8 p.m. Nov. 7, 8, 14 and 15 and 3 p.m. Nov. 16 at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, 2704 Alcatraz Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $15; $12 for students and seniors. Information: (510) 654-5921 or www.shawl-anderson.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.