Ethiopian Student Dance Troupe Headed for Paris... And Beyond<BR>

Ethiopian Student Dance Troupe Headed for Paris...
And Beyond

When I’m dancing, I feel wonderful. I am so concentrated. I feel like I am back in my village of Bahir Dar [in northern Ethiopia], going to the river, washing, praying, celebrating Shabbat...” – That is how Zena Adhneni, 25, a student in the Theater Department who came on aliya in 1990 (the year before Operation Solomon) describes his desire to dance.
The members of the Eskesta Dance Theater, for which Zena dances, are eleven University students who made aliya from Ethiopia between five and twelve years ago. The five women and six men are studying in various departments – General Studies, Political Science, Nursing, Economics, Theater, Education, and Archeology. Before last December, not a single one had any formal dance experience. Before April, none had ever stepped foot on a stage. Now, only half a year after coming together to experiment with Ethiopian dances, the group has been invited to perform in Paris, at the International Festival of Jewish Music and Dance in July.

This fairy-tale story began during the fall semester of 1995, in a course on Composition in Movement, taught by Ruth Eshel of the University’s General Studies Department. Of the fifteen students enrolled, four were Ethiopian, studying Theater.
“Watching the way the [Ethiopian] students moved, I was struck by their creativity, their natural abilities. I felt I had to see more, to develop their talent,” Eshel says. “They were so enthusiastic about the class that when I proposed starting an informal Ethiopian dance group outside of class, they couldn’t have responded more favorably.”
Eshel, a thirty-year veteran of dance and choreography, is well known throughout Israel for her original ideas and experimental work. According to dance critics, she was one of the first artists to break from the established dance troupes and introduce post-modern dance to Israel. Performances as a soloist and a member of the Bat-Sheva Dance Company have taken her across the world.
Ten years ago, however, Eshel thought her dancing days were over. “In 1986, after twenty years on stage, I thought I had reached my limit. At that point, I stopped dancing and started to write.” Since then, she authored Dancing with the Dream – The Development of Artistic Dance in Israel, 1920-1964. In addition, she has written dance criticism for Ha’aretz, contributed articles on dance to The Hebrew Encyclopedia, and, three years ago, began a collaborative effort (with Giora Manor, dance and theater critic) on the country’s first dance quarterly (Israel Dance).

In 1991, the same year that she began lecturing on the history of dance at the University, she put together a documentary film on Ethiopian dancing in Israel, at the request of the Ministry of Education and Culture. For two years, she toted her video camera to Ethiopian immigrant communities throughout the country, filming weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and holiday celebrations.
“I developed a love and admiration for the Ethiopian community and culture,” she says, reflecting on her experience. “After seeing the way these people moved, the way they expressed themselves in dance, I had dreams of creating an Ethiopian dance troupe. But with all of my other commitments, I dismissed this as unrealistic.”

Last semester, however, she could hold out no longer.
“I knew this could be something big,” she says, looking back. “I saw these kids had amazing talent and real potential.” She admits, though, “I think I was afraid of going back to the life of dancing.” With a little prodding by her students, who were anxious to get underway, she eventually gave up her anxiety and gave in to her dream.
“They told me they would find friends who were interested in participating, and we agreed on a time to meet,” she explains. “To be truthful, I was skeptical of how many people were going to show up. There really wasn’t much of an incentive—they wouldn’t receive academic credits or money.” But they came—and came. After three meetings, there was a core group of eleven committed students.
Eshel quickly realized that this was going to be more than just an informal dance group. “After just a few weeks, fantastic material was emerging,” the former dancer recounts. Yet, for the first two months, Eshel was insistent that the group work in silence, doing improvisations.
“I wanted them to be concentrated, precise. I was trying to reveal movements that can only emerge from the subconscious. I knew it was important to wait. With the right amount of time, I knew that their movements would begin to emerge naturally,” she says. “Understandably, more than a few of them were skeptical,” she adds. “They did not know where I was leading them.”

“In the beginning, I thought the whole thing was very strange,” recalls Shmuel Beru, 21, a student of Political Science and Theater. “I thought, ‘What is the point? Where is this leading? Ruth kept telling us we were on the right track. I didn’t understand. But then she showed us how to organize our movements and everything suddenly came together. I began to understand.”
The movement that emerged reflects the personality and culture of these dancers. It is not Ethiopian folk dance, but Ethiopian artistic dance. “When we started,” Eshel says, “they expected to dance folk dance—Westernized, commercialized folk dance like they saw on Ethiopian television, using the eskesta [a brisk shoulder movement, the most prominent feature of Ethiopian dance], neck movements and jumping. But I was against this kind of dance.

“I knew that the eskesta would come eventually, because it’s a part of Ethiopian culture. In the beginning, I encouraged them to explore movements of their own, coming from within,” she says.
After two months, Eshel chose to focus on two main themes from the wide range of material that had emerged from the improvisations: prayer and village life. Since all of the students had spent their childhood in their native Ethiopia, they had only to recall their memories and adapt their movements.
Eshel provided artistic guidance and selected and arranged the movements. “All of the movements are their own,” Eshel explains, “and we work on the choreography together.” Zena took responsibility for the music, employing Ethiopian drums and flutes to accompany the movements. But the majority of the troupe’s dancing continues to take place in silence. The result: a forty-minute program composed of a dozen short dances.

In addition, the troupe is preparing a segment of liturgical music taken from ancient Jewish Ethiopian prayers, which they will complete in time for their Paris performance this summer.
“An Ethiopian Kess [rabbi] visited us and taught us Jewish prayers in the ancient Ethiopian language of Gaez,” explains Tesfahun Alemu, a 20 year-old Theater student. “It’s exciting singing the words that have been passed down from generation to generation for more than a thousand years.”
“Over the course of the last few months, I have invited artists from all over to watch our rehearsals,” says Eshel. “We’ve had wonderful feedback.” As a result, the Esketa Dance Theater has been invited to perform at the Carmiel Festival, the International Theater Conference in Tel Aviv, and the Jerusalem Dance and Music Academy. In addition, they have been warmly welcomed by Haim Shiran, the Director of Tel Aviv’s Ethnic Inbal Center. In fact, it was a representative of the Joint Distribution Committee that invited the

troupe to perform in Paris following a performance at the Center.
The story of the success of these students, as a group, is amazing. Equally captivating are the students’ personal stories—their lives in Ethiopia, their journeys to Israel, and their experiences as new immigrants. “Comparing the two countries is like comparing an elephant to a mouse,” says Zena about Israel and Ethiopia.

Their mastery of the Hebrew language and comfort with Israeli society and culture are apparent. Like the majority of the younger generation of Ethiopian immigrants, they use only Hebrew in everyday conversation rather than their native Amharic. According to Ruth Eshel, professors say that the students have progressed academically and have improved self-esteem since joining the dance troupe.
“I’ve changed,” Yosi Tegenia says. The 20-year-old Political Science student says that performing in public and talking to people about his dancing experiences have increased his self-confidence. “I used to be much more shy,” he says.
“Ruth has taught us all so much,” he continues as the group nods their heads in agreement. “She gives us power, she motivates us. She is like our mother. We love her.” This group’s progress so far indeed resembles a fairy tale but it is real.
Rehearsal: Eskesta Dance Theater. From top to bottom: Tesfahun Alemu, Zena Adhneni, Reveital Fakado.

Back to Table of Contents