post Shoulder Dance

June 4th, 2008

Filed under: Music Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 10:07

Eskesta Dancing from the Shoulder
University of Haifa Student Dancers from Ethiopia

by Mordechai Beck

Yossi Tzagay moves his head and shoulders back and forth as though they were only temporarily attached to the rest of his body. The gasps he elicits in the audience give way to laughter at the pure virtuosity of his flowing movements. Soon he is joined by fellow dancers. Some of them copy his graceful movements with their heads and shoulders and others make sympathetic gestures with their bodies, gyrating and turning to the throbbing beat of the nearby drummers. After a few minutes, the dancers are joined by students of the Rubin Academy who have been invited to participate in this special class of Israels latest ethnic dance group, Eskesta, an Amharic name meaning appropriately enough “Shoulder Dance”.

photo: Martino’s doodles (Flickr)

The students more or less the same age as the members of the group giggle nervously as they try out these strange body and head movements, although somehow their metabolism does not seem built for these acrobatics. But being the serious students they are they are soon copying the exotic gestures as best as their occidental bodies allow them.

“This is a very typical movement for Ethiopians,” explains Ruth Eshel, who is founder and director of the project. “The head and shoulder movements go back to tribal life in Ethiopia. It is the most significant movement for them, the basis of the dance form, and it has had a significant influence on the dance group.”

Another source of inspiration is the ritual and prayers of the Ethiopian synagogue of holy days such as the Sabbath and festivals or those derived from the Jewish life cycle, such as weddings and funerals. One of the dances in Eskestas repertoire is based directly on a dance performed (by men and women together) in the synagogue on Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement. If dancing in synagogue on the holiest day of the year seems strange to western eyes, the members of Eskesta point out that the aim of the dance is twofold to jump and become tired in order to be rid of ones sins and be purified, and in a state of purification to reach a level of joy that will allow the members of the congregation to reach Jerusalem.

“This is what we did in the synagogue in Ethiopia, and it is this same dance we perform on stage,” explains Aviva Alkamo, one of the five lithesome women dancers in the present troupe.

Eshel first encountered Ethiopian dance movements when four Ethiopian immigrant students joined her choreography course at Haifa University. “When I saw them,” she recalls, “something went through my mind. After a few weeks, I asked them if they were interested in forming a dance troupe. It was a dream Id had since the time Id researched Ethiopian dance some years beforehand. They said yes and through them I was able to contact Ethiopian students from other departments who expressed a similar interest. However, what was in their minds and what was in mine were two different things. They thought in terms of commercial folk dancing like they had seen on Ethiopian television. I told them that this was certainly not my idea at all. At first, they didnt really understand me, but they trusted me.”

“The challenge was how to base a contemporary art form on their indigenous culture. The starting point was not folk dancing, which I believe should be left untouched. The starting point was to be found in subjects. Having previously researched the community for a period of five years, I was able to suggest some possibilities to complement the groups own ideas. I then used the suggestions as a basis for improvisations. This was a totally novel concept for them. I asked them to improvise without music, to close their eyes so as to be undisturbed by any outside influence. I wanted the movements to come from deep within themselves. I stressed all the time that I did not want them to do any movement merely to impress me. They should simply dance with honesty, and I would find ways of using what came out. To make sure, we captured their improvisations we videoed all the rehearsals.”

“Initially, their tendency was to be too realistic, not sufficiently abstract. The improvisations continued nevertheless until one day, after about three months, they revolted. They couldnt see that out of these everyday movements of theirs you could create dance. I knew then that this was the time to start to choreograph. I selected certain of the movements and decided on a certain number of themes on which to focus.”

“I tried as much as possible to retain their sense of timing, use of space and their natural energy. It was important not to impose movement from another style. While the selections, concepts and abstractions were mine, the dance styles were theirs, so the result was both authentic and extremely modern.”

Eshel, a well-known dancer, choreographer and critic for the daily newspaper, Haaretz, points out that despite obvious parallels, Eskesta is different from the famous Yemenite dance troupe, Inbal.* “In the 1950s, when Sara Levi-Tanai got Inbal started,” recalls Eshel “she was faced with similar problems. What they did in Inbal was to take basic motifs from the Yemenite Jewish tradition and turn them into an art form. I wanted to utilize these youngsters purity of movement before it was too late, and to create a novel dance form one which would connect to their personal biographies, but formed and shaped by the demands of an ultra-contemporary dance form. I did not want kitsch, or stuff for tourists. I wanted an authentic art form. Even as I was crystallizing my ideas I realized that I was taking on a huge challenge, one which might simply fail.”

The young dancers were all born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel either in “Operation Solomon” (1980s) or “Operation Moses” (1990s): “Their experience was in many cases horrendous. People lost parents, family members and friends on the way. This year, at their own suggestion, we worked on the subject of the epic journey through the Sudan desert in which some of them participated. The dance is a way for them to express themselves and narrate what happened. A kes (Ethiopian communal rabbi) taught us the funeral prayers which take up a substantial part of the work.”

As if their journey was not traumatic enough, when they eventually reached Israel, the Ethiopians found themselves as strangers in a strange country, a millenium apart in culture and outlook. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the poorest continent; Israel is one of the worlds leading countries in many spheres, including hi-tech, industry, and social innovation. In addition, the immigrants had the problem of language: many of them were not literate even in Amharic their own native tongue, and their very identity as Jews was constantly questioned.

The students who were to form Eskesta are in many ways bridge builders. On the one hand they want to be accepted by their Israeli peers and integrate into their new environment; on the other, they wish to preserve and develop their own traditions which are almost entirely unknown in Israel.

“The Israeli audiences received them wonderfully. What surprised the public was not only the quality of the movements but also the inner concentration. Ethiopians, on the other hand, were divided in their opinion: some expected to see westernized folk dancing; some said that they did not understand the meaning of the movements; others adored them.”

Despite her apprehensions, as soon as she began working with the group, Eshel “felt like one of them. In the past Id based a lot of my own work on everyday movements. So we had this natural sympathy. In order to create a rapport,” explains Eshel, “we held sessions about their background, about what they remembered from their past, about the Ethiopian Jewish tradition, about their experiences on their way to Israel, some of which were extremely traumatic. Though they are extremely shy the girls especially we managed to collect enough material to begin the dance project. This process of gathering material about life back in Ethiopia is beginning to take hold within the community. The father of one of the dancers, Yeshalem Pakado, is putting together a collection of stories concerning Ethiopian Jewish traditions.”

Within the first year, Eshel and her group of a dozen young men and women had managed to create a new art form. “It is built on the basic movements that recall Ethiopia as well as games that the members of the group used to play as children, but it has also been shaped by the needs of performance. We added music on traditional Ethiopian instruments, the krar, flute, drums and mesenko. The dancers sing, and in some place utilize the silence. Original songs were composed by Zena Adhanani who is a dancer and singer well-known in the Ethiopian community. Costumes were specially designed to emphasize the origins of the group light off-white loose trousers and shirts for the men and simple white dresses for the women.”

Eshel, whose own career as a dancer was curtailed by a disastrous car accident, is as much a mother to the group as their professional coach. “Though they were educated here,” she observes, “they still have an Ethiopian sense of time. They run their lives in a different rhythm. They are not used to the rigid discipline that characterizes western choreography. Yet it is more than fun for them. They feel that they are serving their community. This is extremely important in terms of the enthusiasm and dedication that they bring to their work. Plus the fact that they are students with all the usual problems of keeping up with their studies, doing their assignments, and so on. Their problem is to translate their motivation and enthusiasm into commitment. Some of the lecturers have told me that since the advent of Eskesta the students feel more respected and, in some cases at least, this has had a favourable impact on their academic performance.”

Inevitably, some of the earlier students dropped out, but others replaced them so that today there is a fairly stable core group who work together, rehearse and perform. In fact, an indication of their success is that every week they have to turn down requests by youngsters wishing to join the troupe, especially from the 200 or more Ethiopian students studying at the University of Haifa.

The groups first hour-long programme included liturgy, instrumental music, two authentic folkdances from the areas of Tigre and Gondar, and a prayer suite, partly based on the ancient Gez language, in contrast to Amharic which is what the group generally speak among themselves. In order to research the piece the dancers had to confer with a kes who was deeply moved by the youngsters interest in wanting to retain and develop their ancient traditions. A second work is based on the daily cleansing ritual that is part of the Ethiopian Jewish tradition.

So far the group has appeared all over Israel, and has represented the country abroad, including at the 1998 Ravenna International Music Festival. It is now being considered for inclusion in the next Israel Festival. “Perhaps the most interesting performance,” says Eshel “was their recent appearance before an audience of 600 people in Addis Ababa including all the ministers of the Ethiopian government, diplomats and prominent local dignitaries. What amazed the Ethiopian audience was to see how their own ethnic tradition had been transformed into an authentic art form. They had expected the usual touristic treatment and simply had no idea that such a thing was possible. It was a marvellous experience for all of us.”

As much as she is pleased with the reception they have received, Ruth Eshel is careful not to over-expose the group. “Ive restricted their performances to two or three times a month, although we could perform far more if we accepted every invitation we get. I simply dont want them to overdo it at this stage. They are still students, and really dont have the time to devote to dance. As it is they rehearse twice a week for four hours a time and that is already a major commitment.”

Part of the pressures the group is under reflects the fact that they are all members of an immigrant community that has had more than its share of problems in the absorption process. Their vulnerability in the social, economic and political fields has made them a highly visible element on Israels sociological map. As modest as Eskesta is, it is thus fulfilling a far larger role than being simply a dance group. Each time they perform, the dancers are not merely bringing life to old forms but in a very tangible sense bringing dignity and vitality to an entire immigrant community.


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