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Moves That Mirror a Culture

Inbal Dance Theater has a melting-pot style reflecting its roots in ancient and modern Israel.


To Ilana Cohen, artistic director of Israel's oldest dance company, Inbal Dance Theater, art, like life, is something that is "evolving all the time." Having joined Inbal in 1963, 14 years after Sara Levi-Tanai founded the troupe known for incorporating biblical themes and an ancient dance language into modern dance moves, it is safe to say that the Israeli-born Cohen has virtually grown up with the group. At age 58, she is still dancing, still committed, she says, to the notion that art as a way of life is also a way to promote cross-cultural understanding.

Cohen is intent on bringing that message with her as Inbal embarks on a six-city, monthlong tour of the United States, with stops including San Diego, Miami, Houston and Los Angeles. In its first visit to the States since 1987, and its first to L.A. since 1973, Inbal lands at the Skirball Cultural Center this week to participate in a unique dance partnership with the Sherman Oaks-based, American-Israeli Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble.

Titled "Shared Roots," the project (sponsored by the Skirball, the Tel Aviv Los Angeles Partnership committee of the Jewish Federation and the city of L.A.) includes a series of workshops for Jewish and non-Jewish students, a public lecture-demonstration by Inbal and a dance workshop for educators led by New Yorker Ruth Goodman. In addition, Keshet Chaim and Inbal (the name means cymbal or the clapper of a bell) will work together, exchanging dances and creating a joint work to end the series of public performances, highlighted by each company's repertory, to be held at the University of Judaism on Saturday and next Sunday. In turn, Keshet Chaim will tour Israel in July with a series of performances, workshops and collaborations.

Genie Benson, managing director of Keshet Chaim and a dancer with that troupe, says a partnership was initially suggested in November 2000 by an Inbal board member. By May 2001, discussions were underway to fund an exchange program for four or six dancers from each company.

"We didn't want to have to pick and choose dancers," says Benson, whose company numbers 26, "so we helped create a tour for Inbal, hooking [L.A.] into it, which was also a way to help bring about the residency."

Picking a handful of dancers to bring to Los Angeles would, no doubt, not have suited Cohen either. She is now able to bring all of her 18 dancers.

Cohen was Levi-Tanai's assistant for many years before taking the helm at Inbal five years ago, although it has only been in the last year that Levi-Tanai, now in her 90s, stopped attending rehearsals because of ill health. Speaking from Houston through an interpreter, Cohen recalled the changes in the company over the decades.

"In the very beginning of Inbal, [the dancers] were strictly descendants of Yemen--Jews who arrived in Israel from Yemen, with dances strictly from Yemen. The word 'folk dancing' is very tricky here. Even Sara didn't start with 'folk dancing,' but took movements from folk and gave them her interpretation--taking subjects that are biblical and developing on them a unique movement language." The company adds balletic plies and leaps, for example, to more traditional elements such as deep squats and indigenous music.

"The generation after I joined the company," Cohen continues, "Jews also came from Spain or from other North African descendants. We even had a couple of Americans who joined the group. In the 1980s, the changes [really] started--with the dancers and with the acceptance of other cultures. Israel is a melting pot, and you have Jews who came from all over the world. My dance group has been inspired from [these] different elements, although the core of the movement language is influenced originally from the Yemenite--this core you can still see throughout our show."

Cohen is referring to "The Story of Ruth" and "Sajarra," which are being performed on the tour. The former depicts the biblical saga of the widowed Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, and the latter is an exploration of changing traditions and the generation gap. Cohen notes, "Although they are apart by years, you'll find the same language of Inbal in both of them. My own choreography is reflecting the next language of Inbal."

Of "The Story of Ruth," the Jerusalem Post has written, "[It] is not a folk dance nor even ethnic dance. It is art dance ... created with genius." Another Israeli critic called "Sajarra," which means twig, "one of Cohen's finest works."

Cohen, whose choreography for Inbal dates to 1982, ascribes some of the company's artistic growth to the fact that dancers today are more technically capable, allowing, she says, for a more elaborate movement language. In addition, although most of the dancers hail from Israel, there are dancers from Russia and Libya, with Inbal also boasting an Arab-Israeli member.

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