Instead of arriving to work at the Spectrum Dance Company’s home on tranquil Lake Washington Boulevard, artistic director Donald Byrd has spent the past two months crossing Jerusalem every day from his temporary home in Abu Tor to the Machol Shalem independent dance studio on the seam of eastern and western Jerusalem.
Byrd, an internationally renowned choreographer and one of Seattle’s most prominent dance figures, is one of four fellows of the inaugural class of the American Academy in Jerusalem, a project of the U.S.-based Foundation for Jewish Culture that sponsors the artists for a nine-week stay. Other fellows who have been in Jerusalem since October include David Herskovits, award-winning director of the Target Margin theater in New York; Lynne Avadenka, a visual artist from Detroit; and David Karnovsky, general counsel to the New York City Department of Urban Planning.
Designed to introduce senior creative professionals to the local arts scene in Israel’s capital, the fellowship presents the artists with the opportunity to work alongside local peers and to pursue — but not necessarily complete — a project in their field.
For Byrd, this is his second attempt at creating a project based in Israel. Four years ago, the Tony Award nominee “was disillusioned by the process of getting Palestinians and Israelis together,” when he worked on a piece based on a phrase by Israeli author Amos Oz. Visa issues prevented the Palestinian dancer from participating, but Byrd says he’s “not so naïve this time.”
At the beginning of his stay in Jerusalem, Byrd conducted auditions at Machol Shalem and chose one Arab-Israeli and three Jewish-Israeli dancers — Shaden Abu al-Asal, Anat Yaffe, Irad Matzkiach and Or Avishai — who have been working with him on his new piece.
This time around, Byrd explains that he decided to use the Abraham-Ishmael narrative as a source of inspiration.
“I believe it’s about the beginning of the conflict,” he says. “The whole thing is essentially a dysfunctional family drama.”
But the use of the biblical narrative will give the project a less political and “more poetic quality,” Byrd believes.
Byrd has been encouraged by the willingness of his dancers to work together, and by their honesty and openness. “The artists here are very open with their feelings, very smart and very opinionated, but it’s been very complicated, like everything in the Middle East,” he says.
During their time in Jerusalem, the fellows have met with professors and lecturers from the Bezalel Academy at Hebrew University and other arts institutions and toured galleries, museums, theaters and dance studios all over Israel. What made a particular impression on the Seattle choreographer is the diversity of Israel: “I now realize how many groups there are within the Jewish religion,” he says, and how little Americans know about Israeli Arabs and Christians in Israel.
“We hear only about the extremists,” he explains.
While Byrd has no illusions about cultural exchange resolving the conflict, he does believe that “art can communicate to people differently than political discourse and can help provide another way of looking at things.”
Byrd has nothing but praise for his dancers and for the Israeli dance scene in general. “The Batsheva Dance Company and Ohad Naharin are great companies on the international scene,” he says, and the Suzanne Dellal Dance Center in Tel Aviv is a place Byrd would like to emulate in Seattle.
Byrd is due back in Seattle at the beginning of January with plans to bring some of his new Israeli dance colleagues to the Pacific Northwest.
“I think it’s important to create dialogue about what artists are doing in Israel,” he says.
He also hopes to find a way for Spectrum Company dancers to come to Israel to take part in a dance festival in the future.
The Foundation for Jewish Culture initiated the concept of the American Academy in Jerusalem to promote intercultural dialogue between artists and professionals whose talents could specifically benefit Jerusalem.
Elise Bernhardt, President and CEO of the foundation, said, “We are confident that this program will provide a significant contribution to the local Jerusalem cultural landscape, facilitating relationships between Jerusalemites, Jerusalem’s new and seasoned cultural institutions and the fellows.”