Israel-inspired ‘Dabke’ to be performed in Rockville

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by Lisa Traiger
Arts Correspondent

“Ideas are a strange thing. They pop up in the weirdest places at the strangest times,” Israeli-born, New York-based choreographer Zvi Gotheiner said last month about the inspiration for his evening-length contemporary dance work “Dabke.”

Modern dance in and from Israel is hot, white hot. From Tel Aviv to New York, Toronto, San Francisco and the world capitals across Europe, the made-in-Israel or made-by-Israeli label is a commodity that theaters, presenters and dance audiences crave. In recent years, Israel – from Tel Aviv to Mitzpe Ramon, Jerusalem to the kibbutzim dotting the country – has become a world center for modern dance. Recently minted fine arts grads flock to studios and companies in Tel Aviv, Kibbutz Ga’aton and even the Negev to study and perform with some of the world’s most cutting-edge choreographers.


The Batsheva Dance Company, where Gotheiner danced upon completing his Israeli army service in the mid-1970s, has long been the Jewish state’s foremost modern dance troupe, especially now that it is directed by kibbutz-born and Martha Graham-trained choreographer and innovator Ohad Naharin. But Israeli modern dance choreographers and dancers are prized from Belgium to Beijing to New York, Houston and beyond for their creativity, technical ability and unbridled, well, chutzpah. “Israelis are dancing with a sense of urgency that is beyond creating beautiful shapes or parading the body for its beauty only,” Gotheiner said. “There’s maybe a sense of life and death in it: you need to celebrate the breathing body as long as it’s alive because it can also perish very suddenly, right now.”

Gotheiner’s work “Dabke,” inspired by a spur-of-the-moment dance in a Stockholm restaurant, will make its Washington, D.C., area premiere on Saturday and Sunday when his company ZviDance performs at American Dance Institute, a popular studio/dance theater in Rockville. The weekend kicks off ADI’s new program to explore Israeli contemporary dance with continuing performance opportunities for Israeli and Israeli-American companies in coming seasons.

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Two summers ago while teaching and choreographing in Sweden, the choreographer and his boyfriend dined at a Lebanese restaurant, he recalled. “My boyfriend and the restaurateur got very friendly quickly and, before I realized it, they were dancing dabke between the tables. That gave me an idea for the piece.” Dabke is a traditional Arab dance found in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iraq, among other Middle Eastern nations. Meaning “to stomp” or “stomping dance,” a dabke is traditionally performed in short lines by men clasping hands, or with their arms slung around shoulders. Today, in some communities women might join the dabke lines or form their own, stamping out the increasingly complex rhythms and syncopations, in a follow-the-leader fashion. Jews in pre-state Palestine saw their Arab neighbors dancing dabke and soon incorporated it into their own newly developed Israeli folk dances.

Gotheiner first encountered the dance form as a youth growing up on Kibbutz Mesilot in the Beit She’an Valley. “I remember growing up dancing dabke,” he said. “It was one of the most fun dances to do because it’s very muscular and very rhythmical. We actually knew that it was a borrowed folk dance from the Arabs.” But in researching the dance, after that inspirational night in the Stockholm restaurant, he verified that the Israeli dabke differs from that of its Arab cousin. It’s bouncier and, like all Israeli folk dances, choreographed rather than improvised. “It’s definitely been morphed and transformed to a new [dance] form,” Gotheiner said, “but it shares something with her neighbors.”


Gotheiner’s “Dabke” is far from a traditional folk dance, Arabic or Israeli. The idea of one culture borrowing or appropriating a dance from its neighboring culture intrigued Gotheiner and he went to work. “I decided to look for information about [dabke] on YouTube and … there are thousands of clips of people dancing it in weddings and celebrations.” Gotheiner made no direct contact with Arabs, either in Israel or in the immigrant community here in the U.S., where he has lived and worked for more than two decades.

“I made a decision to use Internet as my tool,” he explained. “I think it’s a contemporary way of cultural transmission. Since my attempt was not to reconstruct the authentic dance, it was more to be inspired, so I think it was more appropriate to use YouTube.”

The work, which runs a little less than an hour, features Gotheiner’s eight dancers – four women and four men – who explore the rhythmic, syncopated, flat-footed stomping characteristic of authentic dabke. There are also moments of the lighter, more bouncy Israeli dabke interspersed along with the more exploratory elements of modern dance. But even these highly trained contemporary modern dancers, Gotheiner admitted, were challenged by the complex rhythms and how the stomp reverberates through the body up to the chest, sternum and shoulders. Gotheiner’s work is a riff off that basic step and throughout the piece, as the dancers reconfigure themselves in pairs, small groups and short lines, their feet might pound the floor, but their arms fling, legs flick, kick and their torsos swivel and dip, all to an original score by Scott Killian. The work also features the authentic dabke recordings of Ali El Deek, a Syrian composer/performer.

“I was intrigued by the idea of the Arabs and the Jews dancing a similar dance, but with that eternal conflict … it was very attractive to me as a theme,” Gotheiner said. “Somehow culturally we do very similar things: we eat similar foods, we make coffee similarly and we dance our folk dances in similar way.”

The work, which premiered in New York nearly a year ago, has yet to make it to Gotheiner’s homeland. He hopes that opportunity will come in the 2014 season. “That will be very interesting for me,” he said. “The piece has been performed primarily for dance audiences. I’m curious to see what the piece would do for Arabs and what the piece would do for Israelis.”

“Dabke,” will be performed by ZviDance on May 4 at 7:30 p.m. and May 5 at 2 p.m. at the American Dance Institute in Rockville. Tickets, $30-$15, are available by calling 866-811-4111 or at www.americandance.org.

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