Sara Levi-Tanai

Taking ancient Yemenite moves to create modern dances.

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Folk Dance in Israel

In Israel there are many kinds of folk dance. One must distinguish between the ethnic dance brought to Israel by different Jewish communities, the ethnic dance of non-Jewish groups living in the area (such as the indigenous Arabs, Druze, and Bedouin), and the Israeli folk dance created from the 1930s to today.
Israeli folk dance--very much alive today and known all over the world--is an "invented" folk dance style developed by professional choreographers, mainly those who came to live in Israel in the 1930s. Many of the folk dances in favor today were created for pageants and festivities, mainly in the rural, collective settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim) in the 1940s. Those that survived as social folk dances did so by a process of natural selection through their use in schools, festivals, special festivities, and other vehicles. Those that were danced and liked by dancers and the dancing public became true folk dances, while others simply disappeared.
When Sara Levi-Tanai worked as a kindergarten teacher at Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh during World War II, she composed songs and dances such as her winning El Ginat Egoz ("to the walnut grove"). This has become a classic of both Israeli folk song and dance.

Modern Dance, Ancient Movements

Her work was often and, to my mind, quite erroneously, labeled as folkloric. Her choreography, as it developed for her company, is modern, contemporary dance, using ancient movement and rhythmic elements.
Such great folk dance choreographers as Igor Moiseyev or Amalia Hernandez "domesticated" folk dance to fit the modern stage. Mainly, they solved the spatial problem of many folk dances performed in a circle, thus excluding spectators from the central arena. Unlike them, Sara Levi-Tanai has "dissolved" ancient folk dance traditions and built her own original choreographic structures from the basic folkloric components.
Sara Levi-Tanai learned the traditional Yemenite-Jewish dance traditions to change and contemporize them. In Yemenite-Jewish dance tradition there is a clear distinction between the dances of males, who usually dance in solo, duets or trios, and the group dances of women. The men improvise freely, entertaining the wedding guests and of course the bride and groom to songs from the liturgical tradition sung in Hebrew. Women dance separately from men to songs they improvise, often in witty verses sung in a Jewish-Arabic dialect, created on the spot by one of the women.
Sara Levi-Tanai, from the very beginning of her work with the Inbal Dance Theatre, abolished the tradition of separate dancing of men and women. On stage there was always mixing of the sexes. Though there was an improvisational, spontaneous quality to the dances, she constructed her choreographic compositions according to the demands of her dramatic, literary, or emotional ideas. The traditional Yemenite-Jewish dances were not narratives. She felt free to develop dramatic and literary premises, perhaps because of her Ashkenazic literary education.

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Giora Manor

Giora Manor is a theatre director, journalist, and dance critic in Israel. He recently completed a biography of Sara Levi-Tanai called Sara's Way and is writing a book on important non-dancers who have had an impact on the art of dance.