Something intentional happens when the Ka’et Ensemble slides onto the dance floor. Their yarmulkes are off and tossed in the corner, as the members of the troupe — all men and religiously observant — twist and move to their dances, embodying the dichotomy that is a religious male doing modern dance.
“They are religious people who live their life of worshipping God but they have needs of their bodies and culture and it can exist simultaneously,” said Ronen Itzhaki, Ka’et’s choreographer and director, and, the only non-religious person among the ensemble.
Now in its seventh year, the Ka’et Ensemble will take part in Between Heaven and Earth, an annual Jerusalem dance festival where Ka’et will premiere “Heroes,” their newest work.
“It asks a very simple question,” said Itzhaki, referring to the dance. “The Jewish guy that lived hundreds of years ago in Poland, around the time the Gemara [historical Talmudic analyses] was written, what happened to him now that he’s Israeli with a big, strong body and goes to the army and to basketball games? It’s clear that the diaspora guy was a kind of nerd, and weak, compared to the strong, muscular Israeli. There are things I like in both and don’t like, but it’s our Israeli identity.”
The concept of the dance ties in with the theme of the dance festival — which opens November 17 and runs until November 24 — and will look at the theme of otherness, with works by various dance troupes performed at Jerusalem’s Beit Mazia, Gerard Behar and the Israel Museum.
“For us, it’s a platform of interaction between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the worlds of dance,” said Itzhaki.
Itzhaki helped start Ka’et based on a mere impulse, as he likes to say, and left a more mainstream dance career in order to help this small group of religiously observant men train as dancers.
“For them, it was a danger,” he said. “They entered something out of love and bravery, and a fire to dance.”
Now, seven years later, the troupe has matured and there are new questions, said Itzhaki. They ask themselves what is their purpose in the dance world? How should their art move them forward?
“We ask ourselves why is it worth it, because clearly none of us are getting rich from this,” he said.
At one time, said Itzhaki, the dancers might have said they were dancing to be better Jews, but they don’t offer that explanation any longer.
“Now we have enough tools to say that there is something here,” he said. “Religious people can dance and it doesn’t require huge courage the way it once did.”
They have been mainstreamed, to a certain extent. Ka’et was present at a recent conference of men’s learning institutes, where they spoke about their work, an event that wouldn’t have taken place 10 years earlier.
The ensemble is in what Itzhaki calls “a second wind.” There are new members, including some rabbis over the age of 50 who come to dance Gaga, the freestyle dance created by Ohad Naharin, the revered choreographer and director of the Batsheva Ensemble.
“We don’t publicize it,” said Itzhaki, “but we have a lot of conversations, a lot of discussions and now there’s a track just for rabbis over 50 who come and have a class with me.”
It’s a mark of Ka’et’s arrival and acceptance in society, he thinks.
“We now meet all the criterion for modern dancers, we’re totally legitimate,” he said. “We can take on new dancers, although that’s not as simple. They don’t have to be religious, but they have to accept who we are.”
Ka’et Ensemble at Between Heaven and Earth Festival, Beit Mazia, November 17, 8:30 p.m. Tickets available through festival website.