An American in Tel Aviv

December 28, 2016

Ohad Naharin. Batsheva Dance Company. Studios with beach views. Even when your dance dreams come true, moving across the world to pursue them comes with challenges.

PC Ian Robinson

When 4 bed frames and 20 legs showed up to the apartment on my third day in Tel Aviv, I wondered how often things like this would happen until I learned Hebrew. How quickly would I be able to go to the store and know which bottles were shampoo, conditioner or detergent? Or figure out how to check a voicemail? Five years later, I’m still here, an American dancing in Israel who hasn’t yet mastered the language but has adapted in much more meaningful ways.

The road to Israel started at The Juilliard School in 2009. Ohad Naharin had set a mash-up of Batsheva Dance Company’s repertoire on a cast of about 40 student dancers, including myself. In that first Gaga class, I experienced things that I’d never felt before. There was this tingle. I wanted and needed to move like this. I’d never felt so at home in my body. Dancing for Batsheva became my number-one dream. Ohad and I hit it off, and after two trips to Israel—one for a summer intensive and another to polish a duet I would perform before graduating—I found myself moving to Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011.

Leaving New York was thrilling. Having spent 21 years in the same place, childhood through college, it was exciting to pack up and chase the dream. I knew this was where I needed to be. Adapting to life in Tel Aviv, learning the language of a shekel coin and trying to explain my sarcasm to Hebrew speakers, I would find myself struggling. But it was worth any hassle. Because at the end of the day, I was a Batsheva dancer.

For Barry, being part of Ohad Naharin’s creation process makes it all worth it. Here, with Iyar Elezra in Last Work. PC Gadi Dagon, Courtesy Batsheva

Dancing for this company, you get accustomed to some unusual circumstances. I didn’t expect the need to rehearse what to do when people decide to stand up and start yelling “Free Palestine!” in the middle of a performance, but it’s something I’ve grown to expect. When the company tours, audiences are often
greeted outside by protesters with signs and pamphlets about the Israeli occupation in Palestine. It’s upsetting how things like this become the “norm” as a Batsheva dancer traveling the world. We’re coming to dance for people, not to push some political agenda. For the Israeli dancers especially, this can get emotional.

Another new addition to my lifestyle in Israel was war. I’d seen things on TV about the conflict, but understanding that panic the first times you race to find a bomb shelter is something else completely. You somehow, unfortunately, get used to the sirens that warn you to hide when the Iron Dome shoots down rockets heading toward Tel Aviv. Despite the fear, you learn from those who know this life. I remember one time when the siren sounded before a performance and the audience came down to the costume shop next to the dressing rooms which functioned as a shelter. We waited it out together, then the show resumed.

Naharin’s Yag. PC Gadi Dagon, Courtesy Batsheva.

You can’t ever really know what to expect when you move somewhere so different from the only life you know. For me, the only sure thing was that I’d be starting my dream job at the one company I felt I fit most perfectly. There’s nothing like the feeling of personally creating dance with the man and the dancers who’ve inspired you most. Ohad’s creative process is super-collaborative. He comes in the first day knowing one thing about the work. That could be how it will end, or what the set will look like or that someone is running for the entire length of the piece. The months following, Ohad will set up rules to later be broken, and give tasks that take on a life of their own, and that’s when the magic happens. I’m so looking forward to creating again this spring.

Yet as physically and artistically satisfying as this incredible work is, over time, you realize the sacrifices you make when you move across the globe. Missing Christmases, graduations and weddings, you feel the burning sting of FOMO. Sometimes I ask myself, Is missing seeing my little brother grow up worth it?

Naharin’s Three. PC Gadi Dagon, Courtesy Batsheva

But when you wipe your eyes and see that you’re not at home this Christmas because you’re dancing in Paris, you reevaluate. Performing this work all over the world and having experiences I never imagined have been some of the most rewarding moments in my life.

I’m thrilled that next month we’ll be touring to the United States again. My first show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few years ago was surreal. Being on the other side, onstage behind the curtain in my hometown was a big check on my bucket list. I’m grateful to have another opportunity at BAM because these past years working with Ohad, I’ve grown more artistically than I ever thought I could.

Looking back on five full years abroad as I begin a sixth, it’s so satisfying to know how much I’m capable of. Downsizing your life into two suitcases and stepping into a foreign land isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. Getting started in a brand-new place is so gratifying. I feel like I can move anywhere now and say, “Okay, world, let’s do this!”