Artistic Dance in Israel

Turning away from tradition and establishing its own roots.

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The author of this piece is a noted choreographer and expert in the history of Israeli artistic dance. Along with Ruth Ziv-Ayal and Rina Schenfeld, she was one of the pioneers of fringe dance in Israel in the late 1970s.

Artistic dance in pre-state Israel was first fashioned by Eastern and Central European pioneers in the early 20th century. Rejecting classical ballet, they turned to Ausdruckstanz (German dance of expression) as a starting point because its concepts of embracing simplicity, breaking tradition, and seeking social involvement fit with their own ideology. 

It was through the work of a few key people that artistic dance laid its roots in Israel. Scholars single out Baruch Agadati for presenting the first modern dance recital in the land. His performance, in Neve Tzedek on the outskirts of Tel-Aviv, sought to create an authentic Hebrew dance by combining ethnic material such as Yemenite, Arab, and Hasidic dance.

Two years after Agadati's recital, Margalit Ornstein, an immigrant from Vienna, established the first dance studio in Tel-Aviv teaching "Rhythmic Exercises"--a combination of various instruction methods. Mordechai Golinkin founded the Eretz Israeli Opera in 1924, and ballerina Rina Nikova headlined the shows. In 1933, she founded the Yemenite Ballet, composed of young Yemenite women. The group's work centered on theatrical scenes invoking biblical themes.

Among the immigrants arriving in Israel following the Nazis' rise to power in 1933 were Tille Rössler, who had been a principal teacher at Gret Palucca's school in Dresden, and dancers Else Dublon, Paula Padani, and Katia Michaeli, all of whom had danced in Mary Wigman's company.

In 1935, at the peak of her artistic success as a notable dancer in Central Europe, Gertrud Kraus immigrated to Eretz Israel. She went on to found The Folk's Dance Opera Company, which operated from 1941 to 1947. By the end of the 1940's the third generation of Israeli dancers started performing including Naomi Aleskovsky, Hilde Kesten, and Hassia Levi-Agron who later founded the faculty of dance at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

Despite the general opposition to classical ballet, Valentina Archipova-Grossman, originally from Latvia, began a classical ballet studio in Haifa in 1936, training many future teachers. In 1938, Mia Arbatova, a former ballerina at the Riga Opera, founded her own ballet studio in Tel Aviv.

Rina Nikova's Yemenite Ballet

Changing Influences

After World War II broke out, all cultural links to Europe were severed and dancers in the Yishuv entered a period of cultural isolation. This lasted about fifteen years from the beginning of WWII through the War of Independence to the early 1950s. Ironically, Israel, a safe-haven from the devastation of Europe, became one of the only countries on the globe where the German Ausdruckstanz became dominant. 

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Ruth Eshel

Ruth Eshel is the author of Dancing with the Dream: The Development of Artistic Dance in Israel 1920-1964. She is a dance critic for the Hebrew daily Ha`aretz and the artistic director of Beta Dance Troupe which draws inspiration from the culture of Ethiopian Jewry.