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Footloose: Former Batsheva dancer breaks her silence

// Oct 7,2013

Sharon Eyal, who now works with partner Gai Behar, is realizing her own artistic vision.

By Elad Samorzik May 24, 2013

Published in HAARETZ

One day, about seven years ago, the theater agent Menno Plukker was walking with an associate on Saint Catherine Street in Montreal, near the Place des Arts. Suddenly, he noticed a poster announcing that Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company was to appear that evening in a work called “Bertolina,” by a choreographer whose name he didn’t know: Sharon Eyal. Plukker, who represents cutting-edge artists such as the playwright and director Robert Lepage, and the choreographer Crystal Pite, looked at his watch. The performance was scheduled to begin at eight, in just two minutes, so he rushed to buy a ticket; the show was nearly sold out and he had to sit in the first row.

“For the next hour I was completely mesmerized by this marvelous work,” recalls Plukker, who would become the international agent for Eyal and her creative partner, Gai Behar. “Afterwards I was screaming and breathless at the same time. I met Sharon at the reception following the performance and told her I would travel the world to see her work, which I did. Once I traveled to Israel just for a day, to see ‘Bill’ in Tel Aviv. There is something absolutely new and unique in the choreography and style of the performances by Eyal and Behar, something I haven’t see with other choreographers for many years.”

Plukker’s story of how he came across Eyal and Behar, and fell head over heels in love with them, is not unusual. In recent years, the two − who are partners in the studio and outside as well − have attracted growing numbers of admirers, in Israel and abroad. Something in their work moves people deeply, touches audiences of all types, and can also enthuse young people and others who do not usually attend performances of contemporary dance.

The androgyny, sexuality, space alienness, murkiness, tribalism, roboticism, energy, eroticism, wildness, sensuality, urbanism − all are among Eyal and Behar’s hallmarks, vividly displayed in a series of works they have jointly created in the past decade. Among them are “Bertolina” ‏(2006‏), “Makarova Kabisa” ‏(2008‏) and “Bill” ‏(2010‏), all for Batsheva; “Killer Pig” ‏(2009‏) and “Corps de Walk” ‏(2011‏) for Norway’s Carte Blanche troupe; and “Too Beaucoup” ‏(2011‏) for Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance.

In late 2011, Eyal and Behar shook the foundations of the Israeli dance scene when they announced that they would be terminating their connection with Batsheva. Eyal thus brought to an end 23 years with the acclaimed troupe, which she joined as a dancer in the late 1980s. She subsequently held senior posts with Batsheva, among them associate artistic director and, from 2005, house choreographer. The company’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin, and its executive director, Dina Aldor, learned of the decision in the midst of work on “House,” which Eyal and Behar produced for Batsheva in December 2011. Their work “Lost Cause” ‏(March 2012‏) was their last for the company.

Why did the two leave Batsheva, a company which seemed to provide them with optimal conditions for creative work, thanks to its superb dancers, fine rehearsal spaces, financial security, highly proficient technical team and excellent marketing? The answer is simple: It became too crowded there. Over a long period it became increasingly clear that a company headed by a choreographer as active as Naharin has little room left over for a second permanent choreographer such as Eyal, who over the years won a fine international reputation of her own.

Even though she was given opportunities to create new works ‏(Batsheva was obliged to allow her to stage two of her own shows every three years‏), most of the dances Eyal choreographed were not performed very often, either in Israel or abroad, since every year the repertoire was filled with works by Naharin. In addition, the amount of time she was given with the dancers ‏(Eyal is capable of working for hours to perfect just one movement‏) was probably insufficient for her artistic needs.

She and Behar were frequently commissioned to create works for companies elsewhere. However, this too could not save the situation, as they had to work with different dancers on each occasion, and learn their particular language of movement. ‏(“When we come to other troupes I am usually seen as an alien,” Eyal says.‏) The fact that the rights to these works usually remained with the host company only added to the frustration.

On top of all this, Behar offers another persuasive explanation, which also derives from the couple’s perfectionist ambitions: “In the medium we work in, the nuances, the messages, the aesthetics and everything else are based on technical and production elements: dancers, technical crew, lighting staff. In the end, the only way to achieve precision in what you want to get across in the final work, in all its aspects, is to ensure that everyone involved in the production has been chosen by you, that you have done the proper screening and that everyone is in sync with you.”

The truth is that about a year ago I saw a production of your work “Killer Pig” in Herzliya, performed by a troupe from Washington, and it was pretty poor in terms of the level of the performance. I was very disappointed.

“And rightly so,” Eyal snaps. “It really was awful. I didn’t dare go to see it. It’s embarrassing. It is very hard for us to see our work done like that. It’s not fair.”

Invitations from abroad

Seeking to free themselves of all these frustrations, Eyal and Behar set out to found their own troupe. At first they joined forces with Adi Yekutieli, who was the director of Art Year in Tel Aviv (in 2012). With him they formed the basis of the company − “the underwater foundations,” as they call this phase. Their immediate major goal was clear: to take part in International Exposure, which takes place at the end of each year, at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv. In this event, local companies and choreographers strut their stuff before representatives of international dance venues and festivals, in the hope of getting invitations to perform abroad.

As the vision for a new company was taking shape, an offer arrived from Sweden’s veteran Göteborg Ballet to stage a work in a joint evening with another pair of Israeli choreographers, Guy Weizman and Roni Haver, who are based in Germany. It was a tempting suggestion − not least financially. Eyal came up with an idea which in retrospect she describes as “genius slash dumb.” She would go to Sweden with her dancers, who would take part in the work to be produced for the Göteborg Ballet while at the same time she would work with them on a new version of “House,” to be performed at International Exposure after their stint in Sweden.

“Untitled Black,” the work staged in Gothenburg last October, was extremely impressive and equally ambitious. However, the months that Eyal and Behar spent in Sweden were intolerable.

“My vision was that it would be amazing to take the dancers I love most in the world with me to Sweden,” Eyal relates. “There is a place to live there for everyone for four months. I give them work and pay them salaries, they are with me as part of an incredible commune, and we get our act together and produce the best work in the world. We have a studio, so we work on ‘House’ and then return to Israel. But in practice we didn’t have a penny to our name, but we had promised people salaries − so things became very difficult. We spent the money we were supposed to get from Sweden, and things became oppressive.”

We will get back to the economic complexities later, but the problems in Sweden actually stemmed in part from an attempt to go on building the new ensemble. Nor did it help that Yekutieli left the project, and its initial foundations more or less fell apart. From Gothenburg, Behar called Shlomit Slavin, an old friend who had accompanied the pair on their independent path, and invited her to take up the reins and manage the company. Slavin, a former production exec in advertising, accepted the challenge and has, since last October, managed the troupe with a sense of mission and without taking a salary.

“I very much believe in this dance company,” Slavin says now, explaining her willingness to work on a volunteer basis. “I know the remuneration will come, and soon.”

In fact, the first remuneration arrived quickly. Despite the couple’s apprehensions, the productions they staged during International Exposure garnered a record 14 invitations for tours abroad. Even Yair Vardi, the director of the Suzanne Dellal Center, who founded and manages International Exposure and is an ardent supporter of Eyal and Behar, saw this as an exceptional achievement.

“I felt like I was on top of the world,” Behar recalls, to which Eyal adds, “I felt like a rock ’n’ roll star, like you’re at some performance and people tear your shirt off.”

The ensemble’s near-future is packed with tours. In July they will appear at the large and prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts; in October they will be at Chapel Hill in North Carolina; and from there they will fly to Amsterdam. November will find them in Budapest, followed by a tour of three venues in France. Also on the cards are tours − for which final contracts have not yet been signed − in Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Mexico and Monaco. Advanced talks are underway for performances at the highly regarded Art Basel fair in Miami Beach, in December.

Next year will be busy, too, with performances scheduled in Belgrade, a seven-performance gig in Switzerland and a planned tour to Chile. They are also slated to appear at the Joyce Theater, a central dance venue in Manhattan. Eyal and Behar are devoting all their efforts to the ensemble these days, and recently turned down a number of potential commissions from other dance companies to create works for them.

They call their new troupe L-E-V, but don’t expect a satisfactory explanation for what the acronym means ‏(“It’s whatever you want it to be,” Eyal insists‏). As of now, the ensemble consists of dancers who were in Batsheva ‏(either in the young ensemble or the adult troupe‏), all of them artists with extraordinary talent: Doug Letheren ‏(who also helps with ongoing management‏), Gon Biran, Leo Lerus, Olivia Tarrish Ancona, Rachael Osborne, Rebecca Hytting and Keren Lurie-Pardes. Also slated to join the troupe is Dominic Sharazin, from the Nederlands Dans Theater.

L-E-V is a significantly smaller company than Batsheva, where Eyal and Behar were able to run wild with some 20 dancers in the senior company plus another 20 from the ensemble. Indeed, given their large-scale works for Batsheva − whose power derived in no small measure from the number of dancers onstage − a key question now is how the present constellation will affect their creative work. Is the smaller company a compromise for them?

“I’m crazy about it,” Eyal says, surprisingly, when asked about the troupe’s modest proportions. “My wildness is not quantitative, it’s qualitative. I feel that I can let loose far more when I have fewer people to work with.”

As an example, she cites “Sara,” a work which she and Behar created in March for NDT2, the young offshoot of the Dutch troupe. They could have chosen up to 30 dancers but made do with seven. It’s a very short piece ‏(12 minutes‏), based on a song by the Swedish electronic music duo The Knife − a static work of melancholy beauty in which the dancers stand in a row and activate various body parts, barely moving. ‏(A filmed version of this delicate work, which was staged in a joint evening with other choreographers, will be screened in July at the Tel Aviv and Haifa cinematheques.‏)

“I have not yet learned how to probe this intimacy all the way to the end,” Eyal says. “The savagery is internal, it is about digging inside the individual, for the small details, the nuances, and that is what does it for me.”

In a certain sense, “House” is also a more introverted work. What happened to the power, the volume, the force, the tribalism − all the things that became synonymous with you over the years?

“I’ve become more minimalist, right? I think that the greatest strength resides in minimalism. Power doesn’t mean that I go wild with 30 dancers: Power is when someone knocks you to the floor with the wink of an eye.”

Clearly, then, the new troupe has stirred plenty of international interest. Still, its future and success depend on the attainment of economic stability. At the moment there is no regular influx of money. L-E-V is not yet receiving public support ‏(two years of activity are required before funds are allocated by the Culture and Sports Ministry), and its income is based largely on donations and payments for performances abroad. Eyal and Behar note that they have run into debt lately, principally because they have been forced to pay dancers’ salaries from their own pockets.

Doesn’t this situation give you sleepless nights?

Behar: “It’s impossible to describe it as existential anxiety, because existential anxiety occurs when you have an idea and simply don’t know where it is going. We have a different sort of problem here. We have set invitations and tours, but we are experiencing operational anxiety: We don’t know exactly how it’s going to work. We have the minimal budget to pay a technical crew, but we and Shlomit have startup investment and don’t know how things will turn out economically. But we are going with it all the way; it can’t happen in one day.”

How do you envisage the company’s future?

“Apart from dancing on the moon, we want to see the company become financially stable. In the past few months we have been compelled to pass up many appearances in places that wanted us, but which we couldn’t get to because we didn’t have the money to promise our dancers. We want to have the ability to meet the demand. Beyond that, we want the company’s activity to surprise us and expose us to activity in new areas. We are getting offers from many musicians, designers, directors and, in general, from a great many talented people, and that interests us very much.”

L-E-V and lepers

Starting next week ‏(May 28 – June 8‏), L-E-V will perform a work titled “Housen” as part of the Israel Festival. The intriguing production will be staged in the former Hansen Leprosy Hospital in Jerusalem, which occupied an architecturally stunning building from 1887 until the last patient was discharged in 2000.

A project is currently underway to convert the structure, located in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, into a cultural and artistic center.

“Housen” will be the first official event to be staged at the venue. It is a cooperative production between Eyal and Behar (who will present a new version of “House” there), and artist Ran Slavin ‏(who is the partner of Shlomit Slavin‏). Together they will fill the structure with elements of light, smoke and video clips in which Eyal and her dancers appear. Slavin, a regarded filmmaker and video-sound artist, has known Behar from the period when he was involved in music, and appeared at parties organized by Behar. Slavin has since followed Behar’s dance career with Eyal, and says he is particularly impressed by “House,” a work in which he finds cinematic qualities.

“It contains the mystery of the cinema – as in fragmented scenes,” he says. “It connects powerfully with my work, which deals with narrative on the cusp of the abstract, between cinema and video art. There is something very dark, androgynous, cinematic about ‘House.’ It evokes scenes from a dream that connect together, like a psychological labyrinth. And there is also something supernatural about it to which I am strongly drawn – something otherworldly, alien.”

A former Jerusalemite, Slavin remembers Hansen House from his childhood. “It was like a kind of ghost on the ground,” he recalls, “something you heard about, that people whispered about. You knew there was a leper colony but it was also a kind of secret, like a sealed well. When we got there, it turned out to be an amazing place, a jewel in the middle of the city. And straight away the associations started to flow. What do we do with it? Right off, I understood that it had to be something total, something that would work in the whole structure. Out of a dialogue with Gai, it started to come together. The trigger there was a sort of ghost. The place was always associated with diseases, with leprosy – a terrible disease. We toured it and it was scary, like a castle of horrors.”

“We are making use of the impact the place embodies − the mystery, the fear, the murkiness, the death and the horror,” adds Behar. “It feels like being in a haunted house. It’s like the place is alive, and with Ran’s help we are trying to ‘resurrect’ it a little.”

Eyal, for her part, notes that the first time they visited the site, she couldn’t bring herself to enter; the second time she lingered outside for half an hour before mustering the courage to venture in. “I felt the ghosts and demons there,” she says.

Are you serious?

“Yes, but I also sense a demon hovering around you.”

What kind of demon do you sense around me?

“Yellowish. He is not huge, more like a small robe, a kind of body contour. But in regard to Hansen I really do connect to the fears there in the building. I know the history: I lived in Jerusalem and I was scared. And I’m a coward in general, anyway.”

The space they chose in which to present the movement element of the piece ‏(the first two parts of “House,” plus additions‏) is the inner courtyard, which is located at the center of the structure. The dancers will be the permanent members of the new company without Rebecca Hytting ‏(who has a previous commitment abroad‏) but with the addition of Yaara Moses. A surprising addition to the cast is the model and actor Hen Yanni, who will perform a tailor-made part as a non-dancer ‏(see box‏). The part was originally played by dancer Bobbi Smith, who appeared nude. This time, though − because of the audience’s physical proximity to the performance − her private parts will be covered with a silicon-like material.

Eyal and Behar’s acquaintance with Yanni, a celebrity in Israel, has been brief and intense. She came to see “House” in International Exposure and later told them how moved she had been. “Both Gai and I were turned on by her,” Eyal says. “It was an amazing connection.”

What turns you on about her?

“The strongest thing about Hen is her authenticity and sincerity. She is bestial, wild, special. She has the instincts of an animal. She finds good in everything. She is talented, beautiful and delicate. And what I want to say most prominently about her is that she is real at a whole different level.”

How did she become part of the cast?

“It all worked very well for me, the fact that she is not a dancer, that she is something else entirely. It connected with what I am going through today, with new and different elements and collaborations. I saw her act and she is absolutely phenomenal. I don’t like the word ‘audition,’ because I can sense people, and I sensed her. I sensed that this was a right connection for the work, that this is what we needed.”

Gaga connection

Sharon Eyal doesn’t want to elaborate on Batsheva. She likens her ties with the company to a long relationship that has ended. Projecting a business-as-usual approach, she notes that her relations with Naharin are correct, and that she even comes to Batsheva for Gaga lessons. Speaking of which, she emphatically underscores her deep bond with Gaga, the movement language developed by Naharin, and the total faith she has in it. “Dancers who do Gaga have far greater abilities,” she states. She also confirms that her dancers warm up with Gaga, and so it turns out that there is another dance company other than Batsheva whose movement foundation is Gaga.

“That framework gave me things I could not have received anywhere else,” she says of Batsheva, “all the things I can now develop by myself and can take off. From my first day there I had freedom – freedom in my head, freedom to create. I always felt that people believed in me, respected me and gave me the stage. That means so much. My departure was part of my maturation there, it was made possible because the place gave me powers, confidence, taste, professionalism, sensitivity, understanding, generosity and a bond. I worked alongside a professional who is an absolute artist.”

Looking back, what are your strongest memories from the Batsheva period?

“There are thousands. I remember the first time I met Ohad. He was a big guy in a gray coat and I was a little girl of 16 and a half. He said, ‘Hello, I’m Ohad Naharin,’ and shook my hand. I said, ‘I am Sharon Eyal.’ I have another memory in which he is looking at me through the window in the studio above, and I have hair down to my bottom, I’m wearing a torn overall, completely wild like some animal. And I remember my first solo, in ‘Kyr’ [a 1990 Naharin work]. I was too ashamed to dance it in front of people, so he asked all the dancers to leave the studio and I did it for him alone. I remember getting a pep talk every week, because I wanted to leave. Thousands of memories and moments. We went through almost my whole life together, that’s a lot.”

Over the years Eyal has consistently refused to give media interviews, because she possessed a deep fear of exposure and did not want to bare her private life. Even though something in her seems to have become more relaxed lately, she makes it clear that the fears still haunt her. “I am simply learning to manage them better,” she says. As far as she is concerned, Eyal explains candidly, the main purpose of this interview is to get people to come to the performances in Jerusalem. Furthermore, she is now the head of an independent troupe “and there is something very potent about giving an interview about something that is completely yours.”

Behar, who is also not prone to giving interviews, adds, “We have gone through half a year of Sisyphean effort, crazy debts, super-efforts, creative work in substandard conditions such as we never knew before, with untamed ambition to make this thing work. So we want to do whatever we can to that end.”

Eyal, who is 42, first met Behar – who is six years her junior – at the beginning of the new century, when he was a producer of parties and underground musical and artistic events. Besides their joint career, they have two children: Noa, 11, and Charlie, 4. They have collaborated since Eyal invited him to watch a rehearsal of “Bertolina,” and quite soon after he became an active professional partner.

The couple maintain something of an unconventional relationship. In our first meeting they told me they had quarreled over something that day and then had gone at each other physically ‏(albeit playfully‏). But a moment later they were holding hands. From time to time in our meetings they kissed with great passion.

“I have great passion for Gai,” Eyal confirms. As for her choice to work closely with a life partner, she asserts that it could not have happened with any other man. “I just don’t think anyone could stand me.”

How do you explain the fact that it works with him?

“He has the ability to contain. He is well aware of the pressure points you have to push in order to make me feel better − he knows me. There is no one I trust more than Gai,” she adds, and her eyes suddenly fill with tears. “I am a very emotional person, as you can see.”

And he also tolerates your caprices.

“To his regret and to his joy, yes. It’s obvious that I am crazy, there is nothing to hide here. But it doesn’t come to me from evil. I don’t know where it comes from; it comes from somewhere, and he is able to absorb it, not to get too exercised about me, not to enter the drama I am in. I am very dramatic.”

Eyal is one of the most sensitive women I have ever met, and certainly the most sensitive artist I have interviewed. Conversations about various subjects, professional and personal alike, can drive her to extreme sensitivity. In fact, it takes only a quick glance at her tremulous eyes, whose blue pupils seem to be covered by a permanent moisture, to discern that this is an exceptionally delicate and vulnerable soul. And one of the most sensitive elements in her world is, of course, dancing.

“I dance because I have to dance,” she says. “Because I love it, because I want to pass it on. I create because I feel that I have something to give, and it is very true. That is why I connect with true people, true art, true love. That’s what does it for me,” she says, her eyes moist.

How do you live with that sensitivity?

“It is very hard. Often it’s a nightmare. But I would not forgo it, because it’s a trait which I believe is also my strength. Generally, a particular trait consists both of strength and weakness. So, yes, I am super-vulnerable: with certain things it’s amazing, and with others I eat shit.”

How does that work when it comes to looking after your children? They must be more precious to you than anything.

“Through them you learn how to be stronger. You learn, are exposed, accumulate experience, work on yourself. And you have a gorilla by your side” − referring to Behar, of course. “I can’t think without the children. They give me the true meaning of this life. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.”

Do they take an interest in what the two of you do?

“They are both little artists and they love our art very much.”

Do they like to dance?

“They both like to dance very much. Noa dances and paints. Charlie is a little break-dance guy. They are amazing, and we are these Polish-type parents who adore them.”

Yesterday, at the end of our meeting I took your picture with my cellular phone, and when you saw the picture you pointed out that your skin looks smooth. When we talked about our ages, the fact that you were the oldest person at the table seemed to preoccupy you. You are only 42, but is the passing of the years starting to make you feel uneasy?

“Wow, funny. Could be. The truth is, I laugh about that subject – about my being the oldest of the bunch. But I’m also the most retarded of the bunch, so it’s all right. No, it doesn’t really bother me.”

What did you think of the photo I showed you from your early period with Batsheva?

“I didn’t like it. I think I feel better now.”

I also think you look better today.

She hesitates for a moment and then looks me in the eyes and concludes the interview: “Write that, please.”

‘Extraterrestrial and asexual’

“I feel as though I am coming back from the dead,” Hen Yanni says, about her part in “Housen,” by Eyal and Behar. “It’s insane. I find the physical tension and concentration riveting. There is a progression to the creature I play. Regarding the others, I feel they are creatures that come out of me. That’s what’s strongest for me.”

Yanni, 30, met Eyal and Behar after a performance of “House” at the Suzanne Dellal Center half a year ago: “A mutual friend worked with them on the premiere, and I fell in love with them that night. They just opened all the boundaries for me,” she says. At the age of 17, Yanni embarked on a modeling career abroad, which lasted four years. “I’m glad I came back to Israel at an early stage, because the modeling was becoming less interesting and exciting for me. That was, in part, because I’d achieved what I wanted: the French and Italian Vogue, and Dolce & Gabbana. It took me time to accept that I wasn’t continuing to conquer the world. It wasn’t easy to come back to Israel and go underground.”

Yanni studied acting for five years in three different schools. She was a nominee for the Best Actress Ophir ‏(the Israeli Oscar‏) for her performance in Doron Eran’s film “Melting Away” ‏(2011‏). “I was always given androgynous parts in the fashion world,” she says, “and in ‘Melting Away,’ I play a man who becomes a woman. When I saw [Bobbi] Smith do the part in ‘House,’ I didn’t notice that she was nude. Sharon and Gai wanted to create a feeling of something extraterrestrial and asexual. I always liked playing with my gender as an actress, too.

“I didn’t believed it when they approached me for the part,” she adds. “Sharon works mainly through images and feelings that she wants to get across. She talks to you as an equal. I learned so much from her. I love that she is not set in her ways, that she adjusts herself to me. Sharon and Gai are encouraging me all-round. Thanks to them, I started to work on my music.” (Shir Hacham)

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