S.F., Israeli dance companies join for Gate of Winds

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San Francisco choreographer Margaret Jenkins has completed several collaborations with dance companies across the globe, but her upcoming performance is something personal.

“Margy,” as she is known in the dance community, is collaborating with Israeli choreographer Amir Kolben for upcoming performances at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Amir Kolben (left) and Margaret Jenkins work on “The Gate of Winds.” photo/michelle fletcher

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company will celebrate its 40th anniversary season with two new works: “The Gate of Winds,” Jenkins’ first Israeli collaboration, and “Times Bones,” reflecting works she has made over the past four decades. Performances run April 3-6.

“The 40th has been a way of looking back and looking forward [and seeing] what brought me to this place as a choreographer,” Jenkins says.

She and Kolben sat down in Jenkins’ San Francisco studio to talk about the work they have been producing and how their relationship started nearly three years ago.

“It’s my fault,” laughs Jenkins, explaining how they began working together. With a familiarity that longtime friends share, Jenkins explains that after visiting Israel for the first time in 2011 with her husband (both are Jewish), and getting a feel for the Israeli dance scene, she made a decision.

“I started to feel a real pull and interest in making a work with an Israeli company,” she says.

With the help of Eyal Shir at the Jerusalem Foundation, an organization that focuses on community, cultural and coexistence programs, Jenkins met artistic director Kolben of the Kolben Dance Company in Jerusalem and the two hit it off immediately.

Jenkins, 71, has a long history of working with dance companies in India, China and Japan, but she says there was something special about an Israeli collaboration and working with Kolben that resonated and was meaningful. “I could connect with a different part of my person,” she explains.

After meeting Kolben in Jerusalem and feeling a real connection to what she describes as “a very complex city,” Jenkins broached the idea that the two work together on a piece.   

“I felt that collaborating with Amir would provoke more investigation. For me, making a dance and creating a work is about finding things out,” she says.

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (above) will join Kolben Dance Company of Jerusalem in the collaborative piece. photo/margo moritz

But Kolben, 60, whose contemporary dance company often combines theater, live music and animation, had initial reservations about working with another choreographer.

“I had some ambivalence towards the proposition because I had never collaborated with anyone as far as choreography is concerned,” he says. “I’ve never done it and for good reason — I’m an opinionated person and I like my opinions to be heard. I’ve collaborated with musicians, but it’s a different thing.”

Nonetheless, he agreed.

After mobilizing close to $500,000 in support from Jewish philanthropists and foundations in the U.S., Jenkins was able to raise enough money to make the work possible. 

The piece they created, “The Gate of Winds,” looks at the city of Jerusalem and explores metaphorical and literal questions about life, faith, barriers and boundaries.

The process of working long-distance over two years has had its challenges, the choreographers agree, and the most notable currently is the time constraint. Both choreographers say they enjoy having time to work on a piece, leave it and revisit it months later. But time is a precious commodity when you’re combining dancers from two companies in two distant countries.

“It’s a great privilege to have time away from it. And re-meet it again,” Jenkins says.

The choreographers had a brief five-week “experiment” last year when Jenkins’ company traveled to Israel to work with Kolben; the choreographers have also been in communication about “The Gate of Wind” over the phone and have shared videos of previous pieces they’ve done.

But Kolben says phone calls and discussions are not where the real work happens. “What looks good on paper does not always look good in person. The real work [happens] in the studio,” he says.

The 15 dancers (eight from Israel and seven from San Francisco) began daily rehearsals on March 1 in Jenkins’ studio and will continue to do so until their first performance.

Despite growing up continents apart from one another, the choreographers say they come from strikingly similar backgrounds. Jenkins is a self-proclaimed atheist, and says she grew up in a progressive, leftist household.

Jenkins and Kolben say that while “political” is a loaded word, “The Gate of Wind” was based on their discussions about walls and barriers and the metaphors for them.

“It’s not just the Wailing Wall or the wall as a divide. What do these walls represent in terms of how we all live our lives? I think we are activating that metaphor in our work,” Jenkins says.

But Kolben is quick to point out that depending on where a performance takes place (a June performance is slated in Jerusalem), it will be construed by the audience in different ways. “If we show the work here or in Israel, it will resonate differently because of the differences of how life is,” he says.

For Jenkins, who began as a dancer in New York and San Francisco, this is just another step in a career that has spanned five decades.

“You put your feet on the ground and you cannot be the same ever again.”

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company performs with the Kolben Dance Company of Jerusalem at 7:30 p.m. April 3-5 and 3 p.m. April 6 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F. $25-$35. www.ybca.org