DANCING ON THE GRAVES OF GAZA: Batsheva in London

Batsheva performs at London’s Sadler’s Wells

UPDATED: 22 NOV

The Batsheva Dance Company performed the first of three performances at London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre Monday evening.

This Israeli dance ensemble receives funding from the Israeli government and is seen as part of ‘Brand Israel’ – a propaganda attempt by the Apartheid State to whitewash their war crimes and atrocious human rights record by showing Israel’s prettier face to the world.

In addition to receiving coverage in the The Guardian, BBC and Haaretz, the London Evening Standard also included a mention of Batsheva’s performance:

In London, an Israeli Dance Company was facing protests tonight over the crisis in Gaza. Demonstrators were planning to march from the Israeli Embassy in Kensington to Sadler’s Wells where the Batsheva Dance Ensemble was due to perform. Eleven UK performances have been interrupted, with the Islington dance venue the target for the next three nights as campaigners accuse the company as acting as a “cultural fig leaf for the atrocities.”

Arriving at 7:15, the first thing noticeable aside from the large police presence was the very long queue that snaked up the street and around the corner. Ticket holders expressed relief when it was announced that the sold-out show, scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm was postponed until 8:00 pm, as it was impossible for everyone to be seated in such a short space of time.

It shouldn’t be long now.

About 400 pro-Palestinian protesters were directly across the street shouting: “YOUR TICK-ETS ARE COV-ERED IN PALESTINIAN BLOOD!” and “HEY-HEY, HO-HO, THE OCCUPATION HAS GOT TO GO!”  A large white trailer parked in front of the theatre partially obstructed the protester’s view of the queue. Further up the road penned in quite a distance away was a much smaller group of Zionist counter-protestors who were outnumbered by their Israeli flags and according to the police, left as soon as the performance began.

The large pro-Palestinian contingent.

Working the queue was Jonathan Hoffman trying to save face after losing his position as Zionist Federation Co Vice-Chair, as well as the equally repulsive Martin Sugarman who positioned himself at the entrance to the theatre, both distributing flyers while desperately on the lookout for pro-Palestinian trouble-makers and thus prevent the performance from being disrupted by human rights activists.

This is Zionist Martin Sugarman who positioned himself at the entrance, ready to point out pro-Palestinian activists – like us – to the police and theatre security.

There were more Israeli flags than counter-demonstrators. Wherever you find Zionists, you’ll also find the police.

The Zionist “Culture Unites” flyer that equates culture with a two-state solution. We came across a pile of these scattered on the pavement. (click for pdf)

Blind to reality: Jonathan Hoffman, FORMER Co Vice-Chair of the UK Zionist Federation.

Hoffman was so busy thrusting flyers at everyone and arguing – even with fellow Zionists – that he passed a group of people in the queue that he should have recognised and Sugarman was in a stupor after being told off by a police constable for loitering. There were also several pro-Palestinian campaigners who were distributing their Don’t Dance with Israeli Apartheid full colour flyers (below) and others publicising Saturday’s national demonstration for Gaza.

Click for the four-page booklet (pdf).

In the lobby of Sadler’s Wells, there was a battery of security guards behind tables, frantically checking bags that often tested the patience of those waiting.

It was gratifying to see ticket holders experience both the inconvenience and indignity of what thousands of Palestinians are forced to endure at checkpoints every single day. Also it was nice to know that the money to pay for all this additional security has to come from somewhere – hopefully out of Batsheva’s pocket!

After a quick inspection by one of the guards and being allowed to pass into Sadler’s Wells foyer, there was an usher handing these out, something you don’t see every day:

A unique souvenir. (click for pdf)

Inside the auditorium there were dozens of stern-looking security staff and ushers who were positioned by every exit. Everyone knew something was going to happen and a feeling of anxiety permeated the audience.

In a way, this too was gratifying, because the audience – and no doubt the dancers and crew – were also feeling anxious, not knowing what will happen which is a common occurence for many Palestinians: A house demolished, homelessness, an olive grove uprooted, sewage dumped into a water supply, arrest, administrative detention, torture and even death.

The draconian security arrangements inside the theatre included a complete ban on the use of mobile phones and during the interval, a guard was overheard saying he was going to kick out someone who was continuously texting.

Sure enough, it wasn’t that long after the performance began when a group of activists started shouting: “FREE, FREE PALESTINE!” After some screaming and yelling, they were quickly ushered out while the performance continued.

What was also worth mentioning about the performance was a highly charged militaristic dance sequence featuring female dancers in marching formation. Given the current political climate, not in the best of taste.

Minutes later, another disruption: A voice shouted out “FREE PALESTINE!” Security guards and ushers waving torches ran past. More screaming, shouting and clapping.

After the interval, a female voice, close by, shouted: “END ISRAELI OCCUPATION!” Turning around, I saw that the guards had to struggle and had a hard time removing her. One later said to an usher that she had a scarf that was tied or wrapped around her seat which made her more difficult to remove.

At the start of the question & answer session held after the performance, it was made clear that any questions answered would only be about the company and not other issues associated with the tour. Ohad Naharin, the Artistic Director, boasted that some of the dancers were Spanish, Japanese and American (but of course not one dancer was Palestinian). During the company’s appearance in Edinburgh, a woman was shouted down by the audience for daring to ask a question about Israeli Government funding.

So much for questions and answers.

It was at that point we left disgusted, thinking how anyone with a molecule of conscience could remain passive while sitting through one of the most nauseating spectacles ever.

A news report from Monday

ON TUESDAY:

Soprano Deborah Fink was one of the people who disrupted Tuesday’s performance. As  was the case on Monday, the performance was halted while security staff removed the protesters.

Deborah said:

As part of the show, a voice said, among other things, ‘Ignore Beethoven’, so I just had to sing ‘Ode to Boycott’ again, (Sung to the tune of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’: “Israel end your occupation, there’s no peace on stolen land) – the parody with which we disrupted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at last year’s prom!

Within seconds, security guards yanked me out of my seat and whisked me off down the stairs. They took me so fast that my feet barely touched the ground – am not joking. But I carried on singing the Ode, as well as I could, under the circumstances, as well as slogans in operatic recitative style.

I’d been in the upper dress circle so I had 3 flights of stairs to go down.

Ten minutes later, two more women emerged having unfurled a colourful banner bearing the words, “Israel dances while Gaza burns.”

One of them, Teresa said:

I took this action to give a voice to the Palestinian people whose culture is silenced.

Fellow Londoner Anne said her message was, “Remember the blood of Gaza” and “Brand Israel off the stage.”

Compared to the over 100 pro-Palestinian protesters who turned up on the second evening, the Zionist counter-protesters numbered just four.

AND ON WEDNESDAY…

Around 20 minutes into Wednesday’s performance, a Palestinian student from Ramallah unfurled a Palestinian flag and called out: “Stop the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians” and brought to a halt the performance while he was removed.

A second protester, Georgie, held up a banner declaring: “Israel dances while Gaza burns”. She later said:

“People were sitting watching dancers while the country that sends them is slaughtering innocent Palestinians, stealing their land and bulldozing their homes,”

The theatre’s chief executive and artistic director Alistair Spalding refused to meet academics from the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) who had asked to discuss the invitation to Batsheva with him.

Batsheva’s next and final leg of its UK tour is Plymouth where they can expect more of the same on the 23rd and 24th Nov.

Leaving. Good riddance Batsheva!

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2 thoughts on “DANCING ON THE GRAVES OF GAZA: Batsheva in London

  1. HASBARA ALERT!!

    I understand that, given the nature of the current regime in Israel and its atrocities committed, you would pretty much want to disassociate with and condemn everything it does, supports, and propagates. And that you would want to extend this condemnation and disassociation onto an independent dance group that is one of maybe five companies in the world right now that is able to develop its vision totally and wholly because it has the opportunity to do so. You have no idea what a rare thing that is in the world of dance, but more pressing is the severity of the plight in Gaza right now, and any attention drawn to the Palestinian plight is justified, because the world needs to wake up and stop the violence. But does this attention need to be called through the destruction of the work of someone who’s also trying to solve things, and through creation? I know the work is made possible because it gets money from the Israeli government. Maybe Ohad should have made a bigger effort to set up a large base of independent donors with uncompromised backgrounds and lots of money to throw around to support his company so that he could continue to revolutionize dance in a way that could probably save the world if more people looked, instead of branding the company as a symbol either way for their political stances. The Israeli government wants to present it as a cultural ambassador even though Batsheva is pretty damn controversial back home, if you’ve ever seen Ehad where the dancers in a liberating move strip off their clothes to the Jewish passover song you can imagine that it wouldn’t exactly fly with an orthodox audience. And speaking of unorthodox, if you look at the company it’s quite a mix of Jews and gentiles, white, brown, black, straight, gay, and everything in between…probably a bunch of individuals who are not used to being seen as figureheads of oppression. And the opposition wants to use it as a symbol of cultural apartheid, that until things change drastically and quickly we can’t square it with our conscience to support anything that is even in some indirect way allowing the bullets to fly. And I get that, things need to change and within hours not within months because revenge is being taken on a people who were already being forced to live in a constant state of indignity, and whose lives are now a game of probability played by those flying overhead.

    So when things are this urgent, this extreme, nothing is separable, so when Naharin says that he is pro-Palestinian state and that he would “not only be willing to give up land for peace but my house” that’s null and void because if you’re getting money from the government than your art is a reflection of all the policies of the institution. Please find me an artist that agrees with this last statement. The thing is, you can’t have seriously watched the performance with any kind of objectivity (and maybe you would argue that objectivity isn’t valid when war and peace and life itself are in question) because if you had you would have recognized what the work is about: the freedom of the body, the beauty of movement and contact that is not the same thing as sex but encompasses sensuality, the ability to be natural, to communicate with each other, to be humorous on a stage where people have taken themselves too seriously for centuries, to stay curious and joyous but above all to stay HUMAN. It’s this last thing, this pervasive humanism, that really defines Naharin’s work and sets it apart from anything else happening in the dance world at the moment. Maybe they should have taken a firm line like you would suggest and broken from all government funding and support, it’s been noted that other Israeli artists have done this in a show of protest for the actions against Gaza and the West End. And bravo to them (and I suppose that’s more money that will go straight to the military.)

    But I would like to try to point out, if I may, that a dance company is not “other artists.” A painter needs an easel and paint, or maybe just charcoal and paper, a writer needs their pen, a singer their voice. So you might say well, a dancer has it the easiest, all you need is your body. But what you really need is many bodies, a place to put them so that they can learn to move with each other, music to keep them together, and a stage to try to make people’s lives a little bit better for a short time. And believe it or not, this takes money. This is why dancers all over the world are dependent on any kind of funding they can get, and why most will spend their short careers pandering to the out of touch wishes of a cultural elite or some arbitrary government official’s idea of what dance should look like. And the ones who don’t usually spend large amounts of time (many of them in london) un-employed scavenging for the next project. If you want to support untainted art than I can give you some of their addresses. There are so few places on earth that have somehow managed to escape these restrictions and in spite of it all have made a base where creation is possible on a daily basis. Batsheva is one of these places. The thing is, nobody really gives a damn about dance or the arts and you had probably never heard of Batsheva until it was presented to you as a harbinger of death and destruction in light of the current political situation, and maybe it’s right that you hadn’t because when people are dying little else is important. You probably had no idea that Batsheva was founded in part by Martha Graham, herself a profound pioneer of the human spirit, right before the six days war, and how after that Batsheva has managed to endure and grow in the midst of political and social upheaval and never waver from its message of humanism and love, which has been heard by more than a few, if not by nearly enough. And dancers know this. They know that there are a handful of people that care or are able to tell what they’re doing, that they will reach a small audience, and they are not motivated by external gratification. There’s no real fortune and fame in the dance world, and success is elusive and hard to define, but anyway they try to do something that expresses the joy of living for a short time. That’s why people from all over the world want to work with Batsheva, because it’s happening there, they’ve found a way to be free within circumstances, which is why it’s so ironic that a dance company is being made the center of this issue, especially one that’s entire philosophy is based on openness, on resilience, on the ability to laugh even in the jaws of destruction.

    The thing is, it’s easy to shout slogans, to march, to protest, and all of these things are justified for a cause that needs to be heard. But do you have to do it blindly? Can you not see that in this case your just cry for humanity and your righteous anger is misplaced, because they are the same cries of Batsheva? The violence in Gaza has to stop. But Ohad Naharin is not a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, and neither is his company. And if you’re attacking one of the few things that could be part of the solution (because really GaGa could save Gaza) than what room are YOU leaving for dialogue? Because a cease fire is not a solution, and if real communication is to begin than you have to find a cross-cultural language, and what better language than that of the human body.

    • Good grief! Your carefully worded reply reads more like a PR piece from Batsheva rather than one submitted by a person.

      Nowhere in your lengthy diatribe do you say WHY whenever Batsheva performs anywhere outside of Israel, there are demonstrations, protests and disruptions.

      Your beloved dance company accepts funding from the apartheid Zionist state who use it to whitewash their criminal acts, violations of international law and try to deceive the world into believing Israel is a cultural and democratic beacon rather than the nasty, vicious, criminal entity that it really is.

      No doubt you would have said the same thing if it was the Berlin Philharmonic visiting the UK during the 1930’s, a cultural institution representing the apartheid South African government, or any other government guilty of engaging in acts of terror, genocide and war crimes.

      There’s nothing artistic, beautiful or graceful about what Batsheva has become and your attempt to be an apologist for the ensemble doesn’t hold any water.

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