Catastrophic Love

Hadar Ahuvia’s new show explores the language of Zionism’s folk dances in order to face the Nakba.

Svetlana Kitto
May 22, 2019
Jules Skloot and Mor Mendel in "The Dances Are For Us." Photo: Maria Baranova

In “Everything You Have is Yours?” which appeared at the 14th Street Y in February of last year, dancer and choreographer Hadar Ahuvia explored the origins of the Israeli folk dances she grew up with to address questions around Zionism, cultural appropriation, and the Nakba. Her new work, “The Dances are For Us,” continues to analyze the historical origins and political weight of these dance forms, this time with a group of seven performers, all with differing relationships to Zionism, Israeli folk dance, and other classical and folk traditions. The work will run from May 30th–June 1st at Danspace Project in the East Village.

Svetlana Kitto: Your mom danced, right?

Hadar Ahuvia: Yeah, my mom was a semi-professional folk dancer when she was in her 20s, and then in her 30s, she traveled and taught in the US. When we lived in Hawaii, my mom had this little [Israeli folk dance] group, we’d perform at some synagogues, or on Israeli Independence Day. It was a really interesting assemblage of people. We danced with Jews for Jesus, Evangelical Christians, Chabadniks, Reform Jews . . .

SK: How were politics discussed in your home?

HA: It was just assumed that you would be a good Zionist. I started doing some research projects about Israel and Palestine in school. I didn’t really have great source materials until a teacher of mine junior year gave me a book by Edward Said. And I was like, “Oh my God, Mom, no wonder they blow themselves up. Their lives are horrible.” And she said, “Hadar, you sound like a Palestinian.” And that was like a dirty word, that meant I’m not supposed to talk about that.

SK: Then what happened?

HA: I moved to San Francisco when I was 17 to go dance and there’s a really big Palestine Solidarity Movement there. And even the liberal Jews who I was staying with had more capacity to have a conversation about it—they were as invested, but also had different politics than my parents. I think I saw footage of Palestinian refugees leaving for the first time and just felt hugely betrayed and lied to and ashamed. Because the truth that I had grown up with was that there was nobody there.

SK: Right. My grandfather used to say that Palestinians didn’t exist. That they had decided to start calling themselves that just to lay claim to the land, but that they didn’t exist.

HA: The [early Zionists] were strategic about buying tracts of land that were less populated with custodians, to create spaces for Jewish community. And they did call it a conquest of land and labor.

SK: The language was much less apologetic then.

HA: Yeah, exactly. It was seen as a loving thing to do . . . I’ve been thinking about this word “love” a lot in relation to Israel. Zionism was, for me, love for your people. Working the land was this erotic thing that made both the land bloom and the Jewish body heal itself from centuries of diaspora, which they saw as sickening. Which is something that I also felt pretty deeply—the fact that my parents left . . . In Hebrew they call leaving Israel “going down.”

I think this is something I’m trying to admit a bit more in this version of the show: that I love the dances and the songs. I think it’s important to understand how this love is built. One of my collaborators, rosza daniel lang/levitsky, was talking about how when we dismiss the love of Zionists, or even people like white nationalists, we dismiss the power of love. We call what they do hate, but really the way that they talk about it is in terms of love for their people. And to dismiss the power of that weakens our analysis, right? And it also means that love is not the only answer. There are other material conditions that need to change.

So I’ve just been allowing myself to really relive this language—trying to conjure what I felt while dancing. You’d dance these dances and be like, “We’re moving away from the past, moving towards the dream, and we just want to live here in peace and love.” It’s this willfully ignorant love.

Performers in “The Dances Are For Us.” From right: Hadar Ahuvia, Mor Mendel, Raha Behnam, Jules Skloot. Photo: Maria Baranova

SK: What else is this version trying to do differently? I know there’s so many more people in this one, and that you purposely chose people who have different relationships to Zionism.

HA: I just described the way that my mom held together this assemblage of people with really different experiences through the dances. That’s really what the project of Israeli folk dancing was, to create a dance for the people of all the diasporas, who were going to come up to Israel and create this new nation. I was thinking about that process of trying to create a unifying culture. This was done by the modern dancers and choreographers from Europe, who then devoted themselves to creating folk dances.

SK: You talk in your piece about the appropriation of those dances.

HA: It’s not that all the dances are Arab or Arab Jewish dances—a lot of the dances are also like Polish folk dances. But there were very intentional ways that [the choreographers] tried to transform their bodies, to orientalize their bodies. I think it was in Nicholas Rowe’s book Raising Dust, about the history of dance in Palestine, that I first read quotes by Rivka Sturman and Gurit Kadman, founders of the Israeli folk dance movement, talking about Debka Gilboa, which is this dance I learned from my mom. In this dance, it was very direct, like: We won a battle, we need a victory dance. Let’s use the dance of the people we just won the battle against to make ourselves of this land. They’ve been here for a long time; they look Abrahamic. Let’s just use the dance that they’re doing; it must be what our ancestors did. Now we do the dance, now we stomp ourselves into the earth, now it’s ours.

This year I decided to focus on just one choreographer, Rivka Sturman. She’s considered one of the mothers of Israeli folk dance. “Hine Mah Tov” which is a dance we do in the piece, has a Yemenite step in it and it has something that the choreographers codified as the dabke step. I’m sure if a Palestinian dabke dancer saw it they wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as a dabke step. If a Yemenite person saw a Yemenite step, they’d say it has nothing to do with their dancing. So sometimes it feels silly to call it appropriation. But it is emblematic of social conditions happening at the time, conquest of land and theft of Yemenite children. At that moment when Rivka inserted the steps into her dance, I can see a little bit more clearly in videos of her, her direct translation of that step. The way that people do it today, it’s kind of shameful to call it the Yemenite step.

SK: In terms of how this builds upon or changes course from the last work—

HA: Yeah. I’m trying in this iteration to analyze this role of the choreographer—in Hebrew, the dance instructor is called the markid, which translates as “endancer,” the person who en-dances you. I embody the markid in this version. While I’m talking the dancers through the steps, I’m kind of inculcating them with this . . . language. In the last one, the line was “We were here first, we made it bloom.” Now, it’s, “We knew the land, We made her bloom.” I noticed, it’s actually not that we were there first—the Zionists are not so hung up on having been there first. It’s just ours. We worked it, we have the deed—either the biblical deed or the legal deed from the 19th century. Also, “knowing” in Biblical language is when you have sex with a woman—like, we fertilized her. This is the disturbing mythology that I grew up with: “Look at everything that we’ve built. We made the desert bloom. Meanwhile what have Palestinians done? We made her orgasm and they’re just sitting around complaining.”

Performers in “The Dances Are For Us.” From left: Jules Skloot, zavé martohardjono, Oren Barnoy, rosza daniel lang/levitsky. Photo: Maria Baranova

SK: How did you step into taking on Zionism so directly, because it wasn’t quite in your previous work.

HA: I think I started kind of backwards: A choreographer asked me to do some folk dancing at rehearsal and I did it and afterwards I felt angry about it. I was like, “Do I feel tokenized or do I just feel like it’s mine?” I had done some work on the topic in school that was more head on, but I was really scared of using it as some kind of card, you know, to be seen as somebody who’s trying to make a name for herself by making work about a controversial issue. So I was like, “Okay, I just won’t deal with that.” But when this choreographer asked me to do it, I felt some heat there. So I think I told her I didn’t feel like doing it in her dance, and then started playing around in the studio with it. That was around 2014, soon after was another assault on Gaza. And that summer I went to a JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace] gathering for artists called “Facing Nakba.” So then I started to feel like, maybe it’s not enough for me to talk about my tension with the dances, I also had to explore how the dances function as part of ongoing Nakba.

SK: What do you see being the use of this approach? If it has a political use, what is that?

HA: I performed at a conference on Jews and Jewishness in the dance world at Arizona State University. At the time when I was invited to go, there was no funding from Israel, but then when I got there, I found out there was funding from the Israeli consulate in LA. I decided to stay and perform a solo of mine, Joy Vey, from 2014, for an audience of Israeli and American Jews. In that piece I’m singing this Israeli song, and then I translate and rewrite the song, which was again about me facing the Nakba while dancing these dances. My strategy was to move us within a song we are really connected to; I thought people would be willing to hear this message because I’m speaking Hebrew, because I’m dancing these dances, because I have this connection.

I was surprised at the response, which was, “Thank you. That was so beautiful and moving.” Not like, “That was really challenging.” People were able to see what they wanted in the work.

SK: It reminds me of that movie Jesus Camp, about an evangelical Christian camp for children. As a person watching it who’s not in that community, it’s horrifying to see what’s being done to these children, it just seems like child abuse. But the woman who runs those camps sells the film on her website because she doesn’t see it that way.

HA: Yeah. The first people to walk up to me at the end of my last showing were people from the Israeli Consulate. And they were like, “We want to put you on our calendar.” And I was like, “Wow, did I fail?” So I’ve just been thinking about the role of culture . . . I mean, I just turned down an opportunity to go perform in Israel.

SK: You did?

HA: Yeah. At Susan Dallal for their 30th anniversary in Tel Aviv. The boycott actually doesn’t necessarily apply to Israeli citizens and I’m a citizen. But because I’m not based there, I also have other choices about how I show my work. It didn’t feel right. I realize that I am interested in being in conversation with Israelis—we’re the people who need to be doing this “undoing” work. So I’m not opposed to conversation, but I also know that performing the work and people being able to leave and pat themselves on the back for seeing a work that was challenging things doesn’t necessarily change the status quo. I do feel that I’m trying to build an anti-Zionist analysis within the work. But I also feel like I’m a little less . . . ambitious, maybe? About what dance can actually do. The dance itself will not change material conditions for Palestinians. So for now I am deciding to only show my work in Israel/Palestine at select artist-run spaces.

It also feels really fraught. There are times when I feel ashamed: What am I doing as a white Ashkenazi artist raising money and visibility for myself? But I also feel like, you know what? What I want for a Palestinian artist is to be able to do the same. And I’m not sure it helps them for me not to do it. I do think there’s a shift in material conditions that has to happen. But it doesn’t mean keeping myself small.

It comes back to the question of what is the value of art and the role of culture. The work is in many ways about how effective the Zionist project was at culture building. What I’m saying in the piece is that the dances are powerful. So it seems the answer is, well, I have to value what art does, I have to concede that culture is a powerful, effective tool.

Svetlana Kitto is a writer, editor and oral historian in NYC.