January 27, 2020

Dance Camera West spotlights Israeli dance films

Dance film is a unique art form, at once spontaneous and rehearsed, conceptual and concrete, architectural and atmospheric. And just as dance has evolved, so has dance film and so has Dance Camera West. Now in its 14th year, the Los Angeles-based festival has broadened its focus to include documentaries as well as feature-length films and short films that use choreography as their main narrative device.

In the first years of the festival, “It was primarily focused on visual art,” said Tonia Barber, executive director of Dance Camera West. “You might watch somebody do the same movement for, like, 20 minutes. And it might be something that you would be more than likely to see at the Getty, screening on a wall, and something that you could come and go [to and from] in your own time frame, and you weren’t committed to sitting in your chair for the duration of the whole film.”

Barber took over the festival four years ago, with board members urging that its films be more accessible. “They really wanted to identify with the theme, ‘finding dance in everyday life.’ Which is very inclusive of all forms of movement,” Barber said.

Three distinct Israeli dance films will screen May 3 at 1 p.m. at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown Los Angeles as part of the program “Israel Past and Future.”

“Ze’eva Cohen: Creating a Life in Dance”
Award-winning television and video editor Sharon Kaufman makes her directorial debut with “Ze’eva Cohen: Creating a Life in Dance.” The half-hour documentary spans the 70-year career of Ze’eva Cohen, an Israeli-born dancer, choreographer and dance professor at Princeton University. Cohen began as a young dancer in Israel and left in 1963 to study at the Juilliard School and perform with the Anna Sokolow Dance Company.

“I think Anna Sokolow saw in me a certain naiveté, a certain rawness,” Cohen says in the film. “She saw that I could give myself completely to a role and become the role. And she could see that I would go with her all the way.”

The film is primarily narrated by Cohen. She discusses how her style blends many dance influences, from German Expressionism to the Yemenite dancing of her grandparents. As a young girl, she imitated her mother dancing to Tchaikovsky records, and went on to study improvisation and the techniques of influential choreographers Martha Graham and José Limón. She also was a founding member of Dance Theater Workshop, where she choreographed and danced from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s.

The film features several dances Cohen choreographed inspired by biblical characters, such as “Negotiations,” about the matriarchs Sarah and Hagar, and “Jeptha’s Daughter.”

“She understands the biblical story. She came to understand her unique story as a Yemenite Jew, and what her own movement would be, how she could put that into her dance,” Kaufman said in an interview.

Working with Cohen made Kaufman realize they had more in common than she’d thought.

“As a film editor, I’m a choreographer. It’s who we are. That’s the craft that we do. Because we’re also dealing with movement and timing and music,” Kaufman said.

“Renewal” takes us inside the Vertigo Dance Company and its pioneering Eco-Arts Village on a kibbutz outside Jerusalem. The 40-minute film explores the company’s green lifestyle, which includes greywater recycling, mud building and permaculture, and its understanding of its place in dance and in the world.

“We are searching for the art to dissolve into all aspects of life. So what we eat and how we raise our children is part of our dance piece,” Vertigo Dance Company founder Adi Sha’al says in the film.

In one piece, “Birth of the Phoenix,” the dancers are dressed in red outfits and jump and writhe around in soil under a portable dome that is open to the elements, incorporating the earth into their movements.

“I consider Israel a country of innovators and a country of builders, and their art scene and their dance scene, in particular, really reflects that to me,” first-time filmmaker Stacey Menchel Kussell said by phone from New York. “Modern dance and contemporary dance is sort of a niche field, but in that field Israel has a huge impact. If you go to festivals all over the world, you’re going to see one or two companies from Israel, which is amazing because the country is so small.”

“Glove Story”
Director Oren Shkedy and choreographer Dana Ruttenberg explore the idea of personal and public space in the 38-minute film “Glove Story.” Four dancers move between alleyways, restaurants, elevators, beaches and courtyards, resisting one another’s embrace while simultaneously pulling one another closer, testing the limits of intimacy.

Throughout the film, the dancers wear shiny red gloves for handling sewage, blue latex surgical gloves and black evening gloves. Each shift drives the story forward and represents a mode of being and operating in the world. It’s an obvious metaphor, perhaps, but an effective one.

The idea for the film came from an incident at Ben Gurion Airport, as Ruttenberg was returning to Israel after spending six months as a visiting professor at the University of Florida. She noticed the passenger behind her in line had pushed his baggage cart against her, touching her ankle.

“That never would have happened in the U.S.,” Ruttenberg said in an interview from her home in Israel. “I lived in New York for five years, and you could be on the subway, and even when people have to touch you, there’s a clear distance, and your personal space is marked very well, not only by yourself, but by people around you.”

The incident got Ruttenberg thinking about the role of borders and boundaries in our lives. The other passenger could have moved back, she said, but he didn’t. “At first I thought, ‘How rude,’ but then it got me thinking about how borders are so important in Israel. There must be a connection between the ambiguity of borders and personal space, and the never-ending battle between the political borders and the geographical borders,” she said.

More than 30 films will be screened during the Dance Camera West Dance Media Film Festival. It kicks off April 30 with “Dancing Is Living: Benjamin Millepied,” a profile of the newly appointed director of the Paris Opera Ballet and founder of L.A. Dance Project. Other films explore the connection between dance and animation, hand-clapping games, hip-hop dance and even cheerleading. The selection of films is wide enough to appeal to any dance enthusiast.

“Israel Past and Future” will screen May 3 at 1 p.m. at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown Los Angeles. $15 ticket includes museum admission. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit