charlson and a room of other dancers strike the same defiant pose
Meredith Charlson (center) at the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (Photo/Julius Brandeis)

San Mateo dancer kicks up her heels in Israeli program

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As Meredith Charlson spun across the floor at the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in Ga’aton, Israel, she thought about how dreams can come true with a lot of work and a little luck.

Four years ago, Charlson, then a senior at Aragon High School in San Mateo, saw the KCDC dancers perform at the JCC of San Francisco. Now she was dancing with the internationally renowned company in a five-month training program that wraps up this month.

The admission process was super competitive, with the 22-year-old Charlson winning one of only 37 spots offered by Dance Journey, a program sponsored by Masa Israel Journey. In addition to training and performing, she also gets to partake of Hebrew instruction, activities in the community and limited touring.

“I was so blown away by their performance in San Francisco, so I was on the lookout for opportunities to dance with them,” said Charlson, a 2016 Stanford University graduate who minored in dance.

Founded in 1973 by the late Holocaust survivor Yehudit Arnon, KCDC has nearly 80 Israeli and international dancers in its main and second companies, which tour Israel and internationally. It has a reputation for “well-executed mainstream contemporary dance,” as a Jerusalem Post critic wrote.

A few years ago, Charlson’s older sister, Doria, was accepted to Dance Journey but opted to go to France on a Fulbright Scholarship instead. Charlson herself auditioned in June 2016 but didn’t make the cut.

Though disappointed, it didn’t stop her from flying to Israel last July for a KCDC summer program — an intensive session that unexpectedly served as a second audition. She was accepted for the 2017 cohort that began in February.

Charlson sitting and smiling
Meredith Charlson (Photo/Elizabeth Stone)

Charlson is pleased by how much her dancing has improved in the demanding program. Her long days have been filled with hours of ballet, Gaga, floor work, body conditioning, Pilates and classes in which current and former company dancers teach excerpts from the KCDC repertoire.

Her fellow Dance Journey participants, who hail from North and South America, Europe and Australia, have learned 18 excerpts and will perform six of them at a final performance on June 26.

Charlson also choreographed a piece that was performed last month by two fellow Masa participants dressed in bright pink costumes.

“We worked on our choreography from day one,” Charlson said. “Rami Be’er [the artistic director] told us it is important for dancers to understand what a choreographer’s process is.”

Though happy to spend time in Israel, Charlson said she was disappointed that the schedule rarely allowed her to leave Ga’aton, located in northern Israel near the Lebanon border. Dancers were encouraged to audition in Israel and abroad, but there wasn’t much time for the kind of sightseeing Charlson did on her eighth-grade trip with Brandeis Hillel Day School.

“To be fair, it was expected that we’d have no free time. We are here to dance. We’re in a pretty isolated place and we’re not supposed to be distracted,” Charlson said, adding, “It really is amazing how Israel has become such a global center for contemporary dance. In a space like Kibbutz Ga’aton, where you are surrounded by dancers while also celebrating Purim and Yom HaAztmaut [Israel Independence Day], your Jewish identity and your identity as a dancer really merge.”

Charlson began taking ballet at age 3, studied at ODC Dance in San Francisco and helped coach the JCCSF’s dance team for the Maccabi ArtsFest while in high school.

Despite her lifelong love of dance, she doesn’t see herself becoming a professional dancer.

Instead, Charlson plans to take everything she has learned at KCDC and apply it to her other passion: theater. Charlson, who has acted at the ACT Young Conservatory in San Francisco, wants to focus on theater and performance studies in graduate school.

“I see myself doing work in choreography for theater,” said Charlson, who plans to apply to graduate schools after returning to San Mateo in a few weeks.

She already has one gig lined up: as choreographer for Los Altos Stage Company’s production of “The Crucible,” which will begin rehearsals this summer and open in September.

“I love moving my body and dancing, and I’ll always look for opportunities to keep dance in my life,” she said.

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.