Reaching Beyond Limits

 
In an Israeli “dance village,” students test their boundaries and discover peace of mind. One dancer reports.For a tiny country, Israel spawns a whole lot of contemporary dance. Last fall, Elena Hecht, a native of NYC and Barnard College graduate, traveled halfway across the globe for a year of total immersion in movement, nature, and kibbutz culture. Here she reflects on the transformative Dance Journey experience:
 
There are not many places in the world where high-level dance training and nature converge. But imagine a tranquil community where students live side by side with the renowned choreographer whose work they are studying, as well as the seasoned professionals in his company.
 
A home to studios with panoramic views of the countryside, obstructed only by an occasional gaggle of wide-eyed preschoolers catching a bit of rehearsal on their morning walk. A life where a trip to the grocery store means the chance to practice a foreign language, and where a day off might mean an excursion to the desert.
 
For one year I lived in this seemingly surreal world, along with a family of about 20 dancers from around the globe. The five-month Masa Dance Journey program (I stayed for two sessions) is affiliated with the internationally acclaimed Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and strives to replicate the day-to-day feeling of being in a professional troupe.
 
Students audition by video or in person, either at the kibbutz or at one of several international auditions. About half of the participants hail from the United States, the other half from places as diverse as South Africa and Slovenia. The program is a component of the Galilee Dance Village of Kibbutz Ga’aton, where it is housed alongside KCDC and its second company, KCDC 2.
 
Tucked into the avocado plantations and rolling hills of northern Israel, 20 minutes inland from the coast, the kibbutz is a dancer’s oasis. Though located in a politically tumultuous part of the world, Ga’aton is nonetheless a quiet haven, free of distractions. As Bettina Szabo, a former student originally from Uruguay, says, “You just have to care about dancing, you really don’t have to care about anything else.”
 
Like KCDC’s schedule, each Masa day begins with a technique class, either ballet or modern. This warms you up for the day’s work—learning repertory by KCDC artistic director Rami Be’er in preparation for a final performance in the company’s theater, as well as for smaller performance opportunities that may present themselves throughout the program.
 
Be’er’s movement vocabulary is extreme; it demands technical fortitude and unrelenting intensity. In the second program, from February through June, we focused on Aide Mémoire, an evening-length work laden with the ghosts of the Holocaust. The piece makes use of a series of walls on which dancers climb, hang, lean, bang, push, walk, and jump, as though caught in an unremitting struggle.
 
From my first day on the kibbutz, repertory like Aide Mémoire challenged me to reach what Mika Webber, Dance Journey artistic director, describes as “always going above your limits, searching for more, never letting go, and never saying, ‘That’s all I can do.’ ” A former dancer with KCDC, Webber feels that in teaching the repertory, she is “trying to peel something from each student, to make them go beyond what they think is their limit.”
 
This past year, the focus on Be’er’s work was complemented by Graham-based classes (in addition to morning technique) and a weekly two-hour improvisation/composition class taught by KCDC member Yuko Harada. “This is the time that you can really work with yourself, and explore your body’s ability, your spiritual ability, and your emotional ability,” says Harada. “That’s also a part of dance, part of art, part of life.”
 
Students are further encouraged to choreograph with open access to studio space and the chance to present their work in the company’s theater with full lighting and costumes.
 
Workshops with guest artists expose students to the world of dance beyond the kibbutz. Just a few of the offerings: contact improv, tai chi, Gaga (Ohad Naharin’s improvisational technique), and repertory by contemporary choreographers like Israel’s Inbal Pinto and Sweden’s Mats Ek.
 
In addition to the work in the studio, the program fosters a number of distinctive Israeli experiences through its affiliation with Masa, an organization established by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government. Students study Hebrew, volunteer in the surrounding community, and take frequent organized trips around the country.
 
The days are chock full, starting as early as 8:30 a.m. But the rigor is balanced by a uniquely Ga’aton tranquility which infiltrates the Raya House, the former kibbutz communal dining hall which is now home to Masa’s sunny studios. Alum Ana Harmon, a former Boston Ballet trainee, thinks the calm in the studio relates to “something about seeing trees outside. Your whole life is surrounded by natural things and it just puts your head in a better place. I breathe more when I dance; my mind is freer.”
 
Webber agrees that the peaceful atmosphere gives students space to think and grow. “It gives you a serenity that you might not have come to otherwise,” she says. “You have to become up front with yourself. It’s so cliché, but this is called a journey and it is a journey. You see people changing.”
 
The program, now in its second year, is constantly searching for ways to develop further. Webber hopes the student body and staff will expand, and she plans to introduce classes in theater and voice. As she says, “I think the sky is the limit.”
 

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