Republic of Dance

Festival Draws Thousands to Sleepy Israeli Town of Karmiel

Down With It: The Karmiel Dance Festival features professional shows as well as amateur competitions.
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Down With It: The Karmiel Dance Festival features professional shows as well as amateur competitions.

By Lisa Traiger

Published July 25, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
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For three days every summer, the northern Israeli bedroom community of Karmiel, population 52,000, swells to upward of a quarter of a million people. Most of the visitors are avid dancers or dance lovers. Others come just to enjoy the heady atmosphere of the Karmiel Dance Festival, which bills itself as the largest international dance festival in the world.

This year, on August 7, 8 and 9, Karmiel celebrates the festival’s 25th anniversary, bringing to town more than 40 dance troupes, hailing from Beersheva to Metulla, as well as professional companies from as far away as Beijing, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro and Pittsburgh. City residents rent their rooms or leave town to accommodate a massive influx of dancers who perform around the clock for three days and nights. Hotels, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds throughout the region are booked at least a year in advance.

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“The first mayor of Karmiel, the late Baruch Venger, wanted to put Karmiel on the map,” explained Leviah Shalev-Fisher, the city’s communications director, about the festival’s birth. “After considering a lot of things, he decided to renew a folk dance festival from years before that took place in Kibbutz Dalia.”

The Galilee kibbutz hosted a series of dance pageants, beginning in 1944, under the direction of dance teacher and choreographer Gurit Kadman, a German-born pioneer who came to pre-state Israel during the Third Aliyah, after World War I. Inspired by early 20th-century German ideals of returning to the land and resuscitating waning folk culture, Kadman made essential contributions to the development of Israeli folk culture, particularly dance, in the young Jewish state.

Kadman and a small cadre of other dancers saw the rondo, or circle dance form, with hands clasped or arms reaching across shoulders, as an expression of the communal ideals of the kibbutz movement and of the young nation. As young Jewish pioneers built farms and cities, these dancers drew from diverse immigrant and indigenous cultures to create a new art form: Israeli folk dance, or as it’s known in Hebrew, rikudei am. “In the nights after our work,” Kadman told dance historian Judith Brin Ingber in the early 1970s, “we would dance for hours, sometimes all the night through, joyful and proud, knowing we were reviving the land together.”

Dance at the dawn of modern Israel expressed the young nation’s collective ideals and the birth of the new Zionist Jew, wedded to the land but looking to the future. These days dance in Israel still looks outward, and it has taken on a strong international flavor, making it unrecognizable to the founding generation that strung together grapevine and Yemenite steps. Recently choreographed folk dances use salsa steps or Irish jigs, Turkish chants or hip-hop moves. You can see the melting pot of Israeli dance by simply looking over the schedule of the Karmiel Dance Festival.

Alongside traditional groups dancing horas and Arabic debkas, companies like Yair Werdyger’s Tel Aviv-based Israeli Irish step dancers will present a program he calls “Irish Magic.” Married team Avner and Keren Pesach of Jerusalem’s Kibbutz Ramat Rachel will premiere a program of flamenco puro — old-school, “pure” flamenco — with their Remangar Flamenco Dance Company.

In years past, visiting troupes have included the Bolshoi Ballet, the National Ballet of China and the Polish Dance Theatre. This year’s big international draw is, ironically given the history of Cossack-Jewish relations, the Russian Cossack State Dance Company, featuring 80 dancers in a program called “The Cossacks Are Coming.”

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