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Dancing for life

Why the 'Princess of Israeli Dance' should never retire

Publication Date : 30-11-2012


Watching Rina Schenfeld Dance Theatre's "Dancing Bach" last Saturday as part of the International Dance Festival 2012 and Bangkok Art and Culture Centre's (Bacc) and Cu's Performance Festival was a real honour.

From the first scene in which Schenfeld danced with a red ball while a member of her company played on a blue ribbon to Bach's "Goldberg Variation No 17" to the last scene, in which photographs of her works throughout 50 years of professional career with music by Israeli composer Shlomo Artsi, showed a brief history of Israel's modern dance, the audience was in for a treat. This revealed not just her lifelong passion for dance but also for Bach's music.

While aware of her physical limits, her spirituality and conveying of messages are clearly as strong as ever. It is also evident that she loves using masks, costumes and simple objects all of which come alive as integral parts of her body. She shared some of these techniques in her workshop the following day.

At 74, Schenfeld is as young as, and reminds me of, my father. The former shows no sign of retirement from dance; the latter is retired from civil engineering yet is either constructing or fixing something in his house every day.

And so my first question in the interview, "Why are you still dancing when most people at your age have either stopped or become choreographers or teachers decades ago?" is met with a wide smile and "Why not?

Schenfeld was one of the original members of the Batsheva Dance Company from 1963 to 1979, when she left to start her own company, a move that in her words, was "very difficult", considering the period and the fact that she's a woman.

"Our directions were different. It's when I began to be interested in using objects in my performances. It started from me playing with elastic bands I pulled from my pants.

"After that, the company's level dropped a little and Ohad [Naharin, Batsheva's current artistic director] brought them back up [and into international limelight] again."

This past summer, Batsheva's performances in a few UK cities were sabotaged by audiences who couldn't separate arts from politics. The company's former leading dancer comments, "The world is not really aware of what's actually going on daily in Israel. I've lived with political conflicts all through my life. When I was young, many of my Polish relatives were killed in World War II."

Schenfeld has keen eyes and always observe what's around her, which usually either inspires or motivates her. "My daughter says that I'm like a child," she says. Walking down the escalators from the fifth to the first floor of Bacc I can see why. Later, she notes, "I like this place [Bacc]. We don't have something like this in Israel."

For more than a decade now, Schenfeld has been working with media artists who create videos to accompany her performance. For "In the Dead Sea" she dances in front of a white screen onto which is projected a video of her standing and floating in the Dead Sea. For "In the Water", her image in the video is rippled like waves while she dances in front with a thin red scarf. This is different from a number of dance performances in which video images bombard the audience's perception.

"I think I always make sure that I'm not just part of the video," she notes.

The Rina Schenfeld Dance Theatre now has six members, she says. All the dancers, except her of course, have daytime jobs and they rehearse in the evenings and weekends. The one that we watched in "Dancing Bach", for example, is a professional lawyer who was also trained in gymnastics. With Schenfeld's sheer determination and vigour, the company shows no sign of slowing down. They are working on a new production with original music by a famous Israeli composer.

"It's still a secret but I think you can publish that."

And now I understand why dance critics called her "princess"—it's a title that you're born with and live with for the rest of your life.

The writer wishes to thank the Israeli Embassy's Kuntheera Satityuthakan for all assistance.


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