As Culture Ministry tsks at nudity, Jerusalem’s Dance Week takes off

As Culture Ministry tsks at nudity, Jerusalem’s Dance Week takes off

Government wants to make sure viewing public knows unclothed performances are being staged without its funding

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Shamel Pitts (right) and Mirelle Martins in their work, 'Black Velvet,' which features some nudity and is being performed as part of Jerusalem International Dance Week (Courtesy Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins)
Shamel Pitts (right) and Mirelle Martins in their work, 'Black Velvet,' which features some nudity and is being performed as part of Jerusalem International Dance Week (Courtesy Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins)

Machol Shalem, a Jerusalem dance center and host of the ongoing Jerusalem International Dance Week, will allow performances with nudity, but will make sure those troupes don’t receive any public funds.

That was what the umbrella dance organization told the Ministry of Culture and Sport and the Jerusalem municipality, after the two bodies told the dance festival they wouldn’t support performances with nudity.

The dance event began Tuesday and runs through Thursday, December 7, with performances of local and international dancers, some of which include partial nudity.

Machol Shalem received about NIS 500,000 ($143,00) for 2017 from the ministry, a sum that constitutes about 25 percent of its annual budget and was used primarily for the dance festival. So far, said Machol Shalem co-founder Ruby Edelman, there have been no threats made about pulling that funding.

“We got a phone call about two weeks ago from the dance department of the Ministry of Culture,” said Edelman. “The person on the other end of the phone said, ‘We heard you have nudity in your shows, and you need to point out in your program all the works that have nudity, and write that the Ministry of Culture doesn’t support nudity.’ We said, okay, but we’re still going on with our show.”

Ruby Edelman, co-founder of Machol Shalem (Courtesy Machol Shalem)

About two minutes later, said Edelman, he received another phone call, this one from the Jerusalem municipality, which told him to add the municipality to the Ministry of Culture’s message.

According to the ministry, while it provides support to the dance organization, “the content of the performances presented, in other words, the repertoire, is not determined by the Ministry of Culture and Sport.”

Outspoken Culture Minister Miri Regev has previously expressed disapproval of performances featuring nudity.

“A performance in full nudity, even under the cover of art, is contrary and detrimental to the basic values of the Israeli public and Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and hurts the feelings of the wider public,” Regev wrote to Israel Festival director, Eyal Sher, in June.

“We’re not blind to the fact that Miri Regev might catch sight of something and not approve of it,” said Edelman.

In fact, said Edelman, he didn’t choose which troupes ended up in the festival. He and his life and Machol partner, Ofra Idel, sent an array of possible troupes to their board members, and had them choose which ones would be invited to International Dance Week.

“The issue of nudity didn’t come up,” he said. “And we never really thought about it. I don’t care if someone is dressed or naked; it’s not even a statement, it’s a tool.”

One of the works featuring nude dancers is “Black Velvet,” a multidisciplinary performance art work created and performed by Shamel Pitts, Mirelle Martins, and Lucca Del Carlo.

Pitts is a Juilliard-trained dancer who spent seven years in Israel with the Batsheva Dance Company, and now works with Martins, a Brazilian dancer, with whom he created the work.

“We feel that part of what we’re doing with ‘Black Velvet” is at a time when these systems and structures are creating censorship and we’re trying to build bridges so we can see each other and meet the other,” said Pitts.

“We’re beyond politics,” said Martins.

The two dancers, now in Israel, were not much interested in the flap over “people and their freedom to express themselves in art.”

Still, “we know what’s going on out there,” said Edelman. “But we don’t deal in self-censorship. We pass the performances to the audience and tell them to see it and pass their own judgment.”

Edelman said he isn’t worried about the possibility of losing funding, despite having worked hard to establish Machol Shalem as a dance center that hosts professional and amateur dancers from around the world in Jerusalem.

“We’re not a company, we’re a dance center,” said Edelman. “We made direct contact with international dancers, not just through Tel Aviv. We’ve made Jerusalem a center of dance, and there hasn’t been anything else like this in Israel for the last 25 years.”

Edelman said if the ministry does pull his funding, he will find other sources of financing, and will make sure to support the artists who work with him.

“We’re trying to figure it out,” he said. “Is it really legal for her to do it?”

As for the performance of “Black Velvet,” Pitts and Martins aren’t planning to change anything.

“We perform it as we perform it,” said Pitts. “The work itself is constantly changing, as each time to reach a performance date we get to the studio and look at what we created together and reimagine it and dig deeper. It’s a live show and we treat it as something living that we take care of.”

“Black Velvet” will be performed on December 2 at Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center and on December 3 at the Jerusalem Theater, as part of Jerusalem International Dance Week.

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