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The language of dance

"Open to the rhythms of life and the music of the universe..." RANVIR SHAH relates his impressions of Rina Schenfeld, Israel's first lady of dance, while the prima donna talks to CHITRA MAHESH about what keeps her going.


SHE'S coming, she's coming. At The Other Festival, we were delighted and awed by the fact that we would be hosting Rina Schenfeld, the first lady of dance from Israel. She was going to be our closing night and as organizers we realized how senior she was in the international contemporary dance world only after all the press material on her arrived. This was followed by a series of emails and correspondence with the Consulate General of Israel that wanted to ensure that everything was perfect and helped make us even more anxious as to how we were going to deal with this huge star!

Cut to Tapovan Hall, two days before her performance, she has arrived and is sitting demurely in the audience with her producer Rosalia, who fiercely looks out for her and all her technical specifications for the performance. I meet with them post performance and am pleasantly surprised that there are no diva tantrums. They love the rooms at The Park Hotel, are delighted to be in India and are full of praise for the work of Allen and Karen Kaeja from Canada that they have witnessed. Rina tells me that it is strange but she feels such a genuine connection with them and their work, especially their films, which delve into the Holocaust and the agonies it created for the community and individuals. A film of the Kaeja's called "Sarah", which deals with Allen's father's first wife and her disappearance during the war was a piece of work that touched Rina deeply. How strange, she shared that they had to come to India to connect to a deep but non-universal Jewish feeling of compassion.

That night as we share a drink with the young dancers and the Kaeja's, she's a teenager let loose at the bar. She wants to know everybody's story and wants pictures with everyone. At dinner we talk about Indian dance. I share with her the history of how contemporary Bharatanatyam is derived from Sadir of the devadasis and how it has morphed into a post independence, post colonial reformist construct of a new vocabulary and where it is going from here. She reminisces of the time when she was eighteen and had watched the celebrated Indian dancer Shanta Rao at a Kibbutz. "I was asked by my friend the Baroness de Rothschild to go and see her and I remember it so well, she was so hypnotic to watch. As a young girl I wanted to go to India and at last I am here," her eyes expanding as she affirms a dream coming alive.

The Baroness de Rothschild or Bathsheba was a great mentor and was instrumental for bringing contemporary dance to Israel. Says Rina, "She was really my patron and mentor. She saw me at a dance class I was at and sent me to New York to study with the great Martha Graham. I just said yes and went, no planning, no money just wanting to learn. And Martha was a great friend of Bathsheba's and continued to come three times a year to Israel to teach and workshop and I learnt from her some of her famous works. That's how it all started. One day after a few months in New York I asked Martha if I could go to Julliard, the famous dance school and her eyes widened (she mimics her...) and she was angry I could see, she used to slap people when she got annoyed and I was afraid, but in a while she approved and so I learnt all the other aspects of dance at Julliard and Pina Bausch and I were classmates! It was a wonderful time. After returning to Israel I started the Bathsheba Dance Company and we had wonderful years!!"

She further reminisces of how in the early years the government was supportive and there was only one person with an assistant who was in charge of funding but how there is a large autocracy now that wants to know every detail of where she danced, how long the piece is and other mundane details. We share our common contempt for bureaucrats who are insensitive to the arts and realise the Dov Steinberg, who is the consul general of Israel in Bombay and responsible for her participation in The Other Festival is with us and quickly make him the exception to the rule. This follows a long musical conversation between Rina and Dov with Rosalia chipping in Hebrew about the state of affairs in arts patronage in Israel.

Having returned from Mahabalipuram, she is hugely amused by the animals she encounters there "The goats, the cows and the pigs, they are so strange and wonderful, all at peace in front of the temples, going about ignoring the people. It was so strange!!" I share with her some aspects of Pallava history and the titbits of knowledge I possess from taking friends to Mahabalipuram over the years. She has also just been to the silk stores and is in ecstasy with the fabrics she has seen and bought and is so worried about excess baggage, but we pacify her. This is just the first leg of her trip!

As we are eating dinner the chef of the hotel wanders by and Rina is already praising the Norwegian Salmon she has been having almost every day. She tells him she is an expert at Sushi and could help him when he informs her that he is overbooked due to banquets. "This is truly art," she says of her beautifully arranged dish.

The next day her friend Rosalia has started being nervous about the lights and technical specifications. She needs to speak to Israel to the lighting designer and ask for modifications because of some of the technical restrictions we have at The Other Festival. Rina is arguing rapidly with her in Hebrew. In the end she says, "Don't worry even if nothing works, put on one light and I will dance" — a simple honest response of a true artist. The performance is to an almost packed house, the audience gives her a warm response, there is silence throughout the performance and then a crescendo of applause. Backstage later after all the dance fans and enthusiasts have gone she says to me, "A dream realized to dance in India!" It is a real and moving moment.

We meet later to see Viraj Singh's film "Cinema Verite" in the lobby of the Park Hotel. I give her the background. There is a huge following of Hindi cinema in Israel and she is able to understand and relate to the subversive humour at once and wants to bring the film to a documentary film festival in Israel. She wants to see Astad Deboo's work, (he is also with us that evening) and explore the possibility of inviting him to Israel.

Post-performance she is on a new high. It's Norwegian Salmon again for dinner and comments and reflection on the performance. Later as the evening mellows, she talks some more of her work and family. Her daughter who used to dance with her when she was very young. The terrible pressure she had to face being under her wings as the child of a famous public persona. "The papers were full of her pictures at 17. She was beautiful, it was all too soon. Perhaps I made a mistake, she does not dance anymore, will see what happens...''

I do not probe further as she seems to share something deeply private and yet something that is common knowledge in the dance scene in Israel.

The next day she arrives early to watch the all day long "Samavesham" organised by Prakriti foundation at Sundar Mahal. I have told her earlier about its intent and she is completely curious. As Kalamandalam Rajasekhar starts his first piece of Kathakali as Draupadi, she sits in a corner reflecting and imitating his hand gestures. The programme is long and finishes late in the night but she has been there all day. Curious, delighted and inspired asking questions about the dance forms, and dancers. During a break at lunch she goes to the house of Madras antique dealer Lily Vijayaraghavan to see her collection of "Shringar" objects and returns with only glass bangles for herself.

It is time for farewell and as we part the impressions are of a woman who has seen a large part of the world and life, whose long auburn hairs are a somewhat strange signifier of a colourful past and present, who has a huge naive and curious approach to people and new cultures, but is a child at heart delighting in the experience of the new allowing herself to be open to the rhythms of life and the music of the universe. Thank you Rina, for your friendship.

Ranvir Shah

* * *

IT'S lunchtime at Amethyst, Gopalpuram. Wandering around the lovely Sundar Mahal absorbing the sense of timelessness, the wait for her, is not so intolerable. She comes, with the vivacious energy flowing all around her and sits down with apologies. Age sits lightly on her narrow shoulders, she has just performed the evening before for The Other Festival. Meet Rina Schenfeld, one of the foremost dance artists from Israel. With a reputation as an artist from the 1960s, she is the principal dancer of the Batsheba Dance Company.

Your work has been described as something very different. You experiment with a lot of things?

My spiritual mother is Martha Graham. I worked with her. But to get away from her style, I had other ideas. What really saved me, was working with objects. In the beginning, I worked with geometrical forms to get away from a very dramatic story. So that it could be more abstract, feel different, experience different emotions. Objects are, well, objective! I divide my work into three periods. The first is geometrical and with that I was close to mysticism. The second period was with nature. And now I use everything I see — props, costumes, and poems.

I want to know more about your work. What went into it, how did you go about it? Why did you choose that particular subject?

It's a special chapter. It is different. Something you can call a chance operation. Things that happen by chance. They are very beautiful, meaningful, very artistic. So, in Art, instead of seeking and inviting it, you just go by chance.

When I start working on a new piece, I don't know what it's going to be. It just evolves; it has come from the inside. I start my work usually with improvisation — as this is the best way to really invent a dance. I didn't improvise till the age of forty. Now everybody improvises.

When you dance, how do you feel?

Very spiritual, uplifting. I feel it's very mystical, even though I'm talking about human feelings, problems. I don't know if the public feels that, but for me, it is elevating.

When you have a thought in your mind and you want to translate that into an action of some dance, how do you do that? How do you put a movement to an emotion? What goes into that process?

It's the egg or the chicken situation. Is it first the emotion and then the movement or the other way around? I think it's both. But usually I like to improvise, see whatever comes from my inside.

How have you found Indian dance? Can you relate to them, any of the Indian dance forms? Which is the one you relate to most?

I don't know really. I think it's a world full of images, energy, colours, and smells, emotions that I can relate to. It speaks a lot to me. When I was very young in Israel Shantha Rao came to Israel. I was fascinated. You don't have to understand; you can feel. Dance is an international language.

You wanted to be a dancer from a child?

I started only when I was 12, which is supposed to be late. The moment I stepped in I knew this is my life.

What do you plan to do in the future?

My next plan it to go back to Israel — a man from New York is coming to lecture on Martha Graham. He has invited me to perform. Then I have a premiere of a new ballet, "Laila Laila".

Do you think that, in the future, you might collaborate with different art forms in India?

I would love to. I don't know its music. I would like to bring may be an Indian dancer or modern Indian dancer to Israel.

What kind of questions were you asked yesterday?

The most common question was about the story of swans, because I understand in Indian dance there is always a story. Actually I wanted to run away from stories. I want to have drama, emotions, human feelings but not a story that you have to follow. Even now when I watch Indian dance, I don't have to know the story. I see only emotions the range human beings have all over the world. Usually I tell the public whatever you saw in my piece is what I meant because I think the public brings something from within. So there is a meeting between the artiste and the public.

I had some question about the costume that was made by a young girl in Israel. She was thinking about the situation in Israel and put me in a corset, which was very tight to show that it is a very tight time in Israel. I didn't put all this in my dance but the costume expressed it. There is a lot of hostility in that area.

How much of time and attention do you give to that aspect?

I don't give it, as I told you, it is there. It comes through me, whatever I observe, goes out. An artiste is a person who lives a lot of life, observes everything around. It can be smells, it can be anger, it can be emotions, it can be the extent of nature, it can be anything. So I believe everything is absorbed and coming out, not immediately but may be next time.

Some parting comments?

I love the way Indians treat their culture. I think you are all taking care of it.

That's my impression. It's not gone away. It's kept. I love this tradition.

Cultural collaborator

RINA SCHENFELDS'S presence in India was made possible by the support of the cultural collaborator, Consul General of Israel, Dov Segev Steinberg. And he is very vocal when it comes to describing his love for India and the fact the he would like the two countries to have more interaction, especially in the field of arts and culture.


"She is the princess or the First Lady of Israeli Modern Dance," he says of Rina. "I try to bring cultural events to this country from time to time and the occasion was when we had a film festival in Chennai." A chance meeting with Anita Ratnam in Bombay led him to The Other Festival, where he also got to meet Ranvir Shah. "They told me about it and I asked, could you not involve Israeli artistes? And the first person I thought of, is Rina." "What can be better than culture in bringing people of two countries closer? This year, we are celebrating 10 years of formal relations," he adds. "If we speak about cultural activities, we have lots of them on both sides. You can ask a child in Israel about Zakir Hussain. When we were growing up, names like Shashi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor were well known to us. I got to know India through the movies. When Indians come to Israel, the first thing they were told about is the song `Eechukku dhaana, eechukku dhaana'. People still remember old Hindi songs.

"There is great admiration for Indian culture in Israel. Chennai is one of my favourite cities. There is something wonderful, relaxing in the atmosphere. Next month, we are organising a workshop or a seminar on medicine. Itwill be open to doctors from all over Tamil Nadu. The aim is not just to teach, but also to exchange ideas and views and learn from the experiences of the Indian doctors.

Chitra Mahesh

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