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A conversation with Miriam Engel, dancer

by simone June 29 2008
InterviewArtSportsThings to do

Kolben Dancers performing Interface

Miriam Engel, a dancer with the Kolben Dance Company, is a born-again Jerusalemite. Born in the city's Beit HaKerem neighborhood, she thought her passion for dance would exile her to Tel-Aviv. After a summer workshop led her to Kolben, Jerusalem's own highly acclaimed modern-dance troupe, Miriam was able to return to the city she has always called home. Founded in 1995 by Amir Kolben, the Kolben Dance Troupe (previously known as Kombina) incorporates theater, music and multi-media art forms into its performances and has been invited to perform in contemporary dance festivals throughout Europe, Africa and the Americas. Next week, the troupe kicks off the 2008 Summer Nights series before setting sail for Cyrpus, where they will perform at the Gonyeli Dance Festival, before returning to Jerusalem for a free performance at the Gerard Bechar Center.

When did you first begin dancing? Where did you train? Dance runs in my family. My grandmother left her native Bulgaria to train and dance in Germany with Grett Palucca at the Palucca School of Dance in Dresden. I first started dancing when I was three. Shortly after my third birthday I announced to my mother that I wanted to dance, so she started sending me to a dance group near our home in Beit HaKerem.

Although I went to a religious girl's high school, we were offered dance classes. After graduating, I danced for a bit with Vertigo (Kolben's neighbor in Nachalot's Gerard Bechar Center) before moving to Kibbutz Gaaton in the Western Galilee, to study at the Kibbutz's Dance Village [home to the acclaimed Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and the Dance and Ballet School, which offers a four-year accredited study program).

How did you become involved with the Kolben Dance Company? When I finished my studies at Kibbutz Gaaton, I moved to Tel Aviv because that's basically where everything was happening, where the arts scene was. I came back to Jerusalem to visit my parents and ended up taking a summer dance class. My teacher toKolben male dancers performing Interfaceld me that Kolben was looking for dancers, they were holding auditions, so I actually called Amir Kolben himself and asked if he was looking for dancers. He was, and I auditioned, and I got the part.

The truth is, I'd actually heard of Mr. Kolben indirectly years before, when I was in high school. One of my high school teachers danced with him and she taught us a lot his signature moves. So, I was familiar with his style years before I joined the troupe.

Professional dance troupes exist in cities across Israel. What does Kolben's location add to its mission/ performances?Jerusalem is a stormy, conflicted place. You're always dealing with conflict here, be it with the Arabs or the charedim. We have to keep the curtains in our studio closed at all times so that we don't disturb the neighborhood's religious residents. But I think the conflict contributes to our art. Also, in Tel Aviv, you have many dance troupes, a wide variety of performance arts. Here, we're one of a select few, so that makes Kolben stand out.

The arts scene in Jerusalem must fight many uphill battles, including a dearth of municipal funding and an assumption that Tel Aviv is the city for culture. What are the benefits of working and dancing in Jerusalem as opposed to Haifa or Tel Aviv? First, I have to say that we feel these challenges. We really do. We can't use our studio on Shabbat, we have a dearth of funds. I'm just a dancer, I don't work in the troupe's administration, and even I feel these problems.

On the other hand, in Tel Aviv everything is similar. All the troupes and performance groups influence one another. Here we're one of a select few and we stand out. We're cut off from other creative influences, which allows us to develop our own modes of expression.

Jerusalem is like one big neighborhood. Everyone knows everyone else. Tel Aviv is very impersonal and that influences the art there. It’s a feeling more than something that can be expressed with words. Amir (Kolben) often thought of moving the troupe to Tel Aviv because a lot of the dancers live there but in the end he decided to stay here, the magic of the place affects him too much. Our audience here is like family. The crowd is smaller, it’s the same people coming from show to show. We recognize them, they recoMiriam Engel mid-performancegnize us, it's a great support network.

What do you personally feel are the benefits of working and dancing in Jerusalem as opposed to living and working elsewhere? I really feel like we live in a different world here. The terror attacks, the conflict, they all add to what Jerusalem is. The truth is, there is such as thing as a Jerusalemite and once you're a Jerusalemite you can't fit in anywhere else. A Jerusalemite is a Jerusalemite and there's nothing you can do about it.

When I left Jerusalem to study at Kibbutz Gaaton I thought I'd never come back, I thought I'd move to Tel Aviv like most of my contemporaries. But Tel Aviv always felt like a big party that nobody invited me to. There was too much going on, you always felt like you were missing out on something.

How would you say Kolben Dance is inspired by Jerusalem? How are you personally inspired by Jerusalem? Amir Kolben has a very unique, special style, which I think is very influenced by the city in which he works. He always says there are two kinds of dancers in the troupe, those that come in from Tel Aviv, dance here and then go back to their homes in central Israel and those that move to Jerusalem and start new lives here. Those dancers that move here – myself included – are definitely influenced by the place, and in a way more connected to the dances.

For example, we have one dance, called Interface which deals with homosexuality. In the piece, a group of people begin to yell at one of the dancers, telling him what he's doing is forbidden and wrong. I really think that sort of sentiment still exists in Jerusalem whereas it doesn’t really exist in Tel Aviv.

Please tell us about other arts institutions you frequent in the city: your favorite performance ensembles, venues, etc. I need to first mention Machol Shalem (The Shalem Modern Dance Festival), a Festival which was founDancer Miriam Engelded by two Jerusalem residents who wanted to create a framework in which to express Jerusalem's creativity. It started off with just one dance and is now a five day festival. You used to have to go to the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv for this type of culture and they brought it here to Jerusalem, creating a platform for the capital's young artists.

Apart from that, no real "institution" comes to mind. When I think of places I frequent in the city I mostly think of small cafes and bars. I think that's the beauty of Jerusalem, that you can't talk about institutions but you can talk about small, charming watering-holes like the Marakiya, Bolinat – all Jerusalem's young people go there – and of course, Nocturno, which is right near our studio.

Photo of Miriam suspended in air and Miriam's profile courtesy of Giora Engel; photos of Kolben dancers performing 'Interface' courtesy of Masha Waisel.

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