December 18, 2018

Teaching Americans to dance like Israelis

Being an Israeli in the United States can have its challenges. Social customs are slightly different, you miss your friends and family — and the coffee’s not the same.

“I want really good espresso bars, and I find it very hard to find one. I’m a coffee addict, and Israel has really great coffee,” said Idan Cohen, 35, a choreographer and guest artist at the University of California, Irvine’s (UCI) Claire Trevor School of the Arts department of dance.

Aside from the coffee, though, Cohen has no complaints about living in Southern California. He and dancer Noa Shiloh, 29, are here to train dance students at UCI. Sixty students performed in “Swan Lake Fusion Project” in Irvine on May 28; the name hints at the uniqueness of Israeli contemporary dance. UCI faculty members Tom Wang and Diane Diefenderfer collaborated with Cohen on the project. 

Cohen previously danced with the world-renowned Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company before founding the Idan Cohen Dance Company. Shiloh dances in Cohen’s company and has performed with some of Israel’s major dance groups. Both have taught extensively in the United States, Europe and Israel, and have worked together for about four years.

Shiloh arrived in Irvine in January, and Cohen came in April. Their work at UCI is sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Israel Institute, and the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services in Orange County. 

The two dancers hope to expose American audiences to Israeli contemporary dance, which is less grounded in traditional forms, such as ballet. That is partly the result of Israel’s unique geographic position, situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe. It’s also seen waves of immigration from Russia, Ethiopia and elsewhere, with each group bringing its own style of dance.

“This is a great recipe for creativity, when people from different cultures and backgrounds come to a place like Israel, that’s so conflicted,” Cohen said. “There are so many questions in Israel that need to be asked about the body, about how the body engages itself in a newfound land. I think that art and artists can relate to these matters, and take responsibility over these matters.”

Israel is also a relatively new country, and while various global influences have shaped Israeli society, the country also has managed to forge its own unique culture. “We don’t have this tradition of beauty, this tradition of classical movements that need to answer certain aesthetics,” Cohen said. “We create a new land, and we create a new aesthetic for ourselves.”

Shiloh said being an Israeli has affected how she dances. “You can really feel a different energy from dance performed from Israel, or Europe, or from the U.S.,” she said. “The place where you’re from is written in your body and your approach. As a dancer, you really present the culture you’re coming from. The conflict and the intensity is really different, and you can really sense it. And it’s not something you choose to do. It’s in your body. It’s in your being.”

Anyone who’s visited Tel Aviv, which both Shiloh and Cohen call home, knows that dance is part of everyday life there. The city is world-renowned for its nightclubs, and young Israelis regularly flock to the desert for all-night raves.

“I just came from Brazil, and there’s something to be said for countries with warm climates,” Cohen said. “People tend to be more easygoing and more connected to their bodies.” Even though Shiloh and Cohen don’t frequent those types of dance venues, Cohen said, “we always wish for people to dance more.”

This is the second residency for the pair at UCI. Lisa Armony, director of the Rose Project, said her organization invited them to return because of the rapport they built with students. “She’s a fantastic, gorgeous dancer,” Armony said of Shiloh. “She’s just stunning. And she’s a wonderful teacher, and I know the students have responded so well to her.”

Armony said their impact extends far beyond the few months they’ve spent in Irvine. “We’ve had several students at UCI now express interest in going to Israel and studying dance, and even auditioning for Israeli dance companies,” she said. One student, Bret Yamanaka, is even a finalist for a leading Israeli company, Armony said.

Cohen and Shiloh’s visit comes amid intense student activism at California universities related to the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. Cohen said he’s had previous tours canceled because of anti-Israel campaigns. “I think a cultural boycott is a wrong concept, because culture is here to encourage discussion and to understand better the other,” Cohen said. “We find ourselves sitting with people, talking about the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and we always try to reflect a picture that’s real, and to open people’s eyes that what’s being shown on CNN is not necessarily the reality, and that there’s no black and white but rather many shades of gray in reality and in life.”

Shiloh said one of her UCI students is Lebanese, and that gave her a rare opportunity to engage with one of her Middle Eastern neighbors. “We can’t really communicate when we’re so close,” she said. “We need to get outside of that zone.”

On June 6 — which happens to be Cohen’s 36th birthday — the pair will be the featured guests at University Synagogue in Irvine’s “Shabbat Alive.” They’ll discuss the role of dance in their lives, and Shiloh will perform a new work created by Cohen. 

“I think there are many expressions of Judaism,” said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, the spiritual leader of University Synagogue. “Especially because we’re Reconstructionist Jews — we look at Judaism as a civilization, and there are many paths through that civilization. Not just through davening, not just through prayer, or study, as important as those things might be. We want to reach people in other ways — through tikkun olam, through social action, through the arts.”

It will be Cohen and Shiloh’s first performance in a synagogue. Cohen said he hopes it will encourage discussion of how religion and spirituality can open people’s minds and encourage them to be better people. “A synagogue or any other place of faith can accommodate so many different things,” Cohen said. “It could lead to a world where people embrace and accept each other.”

Cohen and Shiloh will appear at University Synagogue in Irvine on June 6.