An Interview with Nir Ben Gal
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Nir Ben Gal and his wife Liat Dror live and work in the desert of Israel. Their company and school are called Adama. This interview is part of Where Dance Is, a series of interviews with high level dance artists working in places not well known for dance.
Liat Dror and Nir Ben Gal
Where do you live and work?
We live in a little town called Mitzpe Ramon with 5,000 people in it. It’s in the middle of the Negev desert in southern Israel. The nearest place is half an hour drive. We moved here in 2000, so fifteen years ago.
How and why did you end up in Mitzpe Ramon?
Before coming here, we were a successful dance company based in Tel Aviv and we performed all over the world. We were looking for a place where we could do some work beyond performing, teaching and producing. We wanted to do some work from the inside. We looked for a place close to nature and where we could not worry about being successful all the time. When you live in a city and you have to produce and perform all the time, there is no time for trying things and searching and doing inquiry without looking for results. Here in Mitzpe Ramon, because life is cheap and we’re very far away, we have the opportunity to work inside, as I call it. We can make horrible things without anyone reacting and wondering where we went wrong. We can look for new ways to work. If I look at what we’ve learned since we came here, it’s amazing.
Liat and I grew up in a kibbutz, which is also a little place, and for us to go to big cities like New York, Paris and London was mind blowing. For ten years we did that. To go into the desert and work the earth and grow vegetables as part of our dance education was a completely new way of learning about the body and balance.
What does your day-to-day dance practice look like?
Sunday, Monday and Tuesday we have a school. People come from all over the world. These are also the days the company works. The rest of the week we host groups and workshops. Three times a year we do big festivals for dance, music and theater. And once a month we have an open school for two days where people can come dance with us. It’s a lot of activity; around 2,000 people come visit per month. We finish the year with 25,000 to 27,000 visitors per year. It’s incredible when you think about the context of Israel and a place like this.
What are the positive and negative aspects of being so remote?
I’ve found that everything that might be counted as a bad thing is actually a good thing and a good teacher. For example, if there is no ink in the printer cartridge, then you can’t buy it here. The closest place you can get it is an hour and a half drive. How does the office work when you need to print and you can’t? In Tel Aviv, all you have to do is pick up the phone and pay the money. It doesn’t work like that here, but it makes you invent a way of thinking and working that makes you realize you don’t need what you thought you did. I’ve found there are more options because we don’t have a lot of options.
The only thing we have to fight is that in people’s minds, if you are in New York or Tel Aviv, you are successful. If you are living in the middle of nowhere, people assume something is wrong simply because they would not want to live there. The people who are in charge of culture in Israel look at us a little bit like something is wrong. That’s the biggest thing I’m fighting, to tell people we have a gift and a treasure. If you’re sitting in Tel Aviv though, you can’t see it.
What impact have you seen on your local community over the past 15 years?
In Israel, when people immigrated they were assigned to cities, so people didn’t choose to live in Mitzpe Ramon. The bus simply took them upon their arrival in Israel. They got money from the government and had to stay. Most locals didn’t think this was the most incredible place on earth because they didn’t choose this place. We specifically chose it, so in the beginning the community wondered what we were doing in such a horrible place. That was the beginning.
Then, as more people came because they love the desert and quiet, the atmosphere of art and the fact they are not shot at here, slowly the people in the town changed their minds. Young people came, so the prices of apartments went up. The locals could sell their apartments at a profit and go where they wanted. So now it’s mostly people who choose to live here.
When we first came, the hangar we rent was in an empty industrial area. Nobody wanted it. Then we came and rented it, and now after 15 years there are five or six hotels, restaurants, cafes and jazz clubs just in this area. The people who we rent from complain now that we are not paying enough. As I see it, that’s the power of art. Artists came to this empty place to work here, and it had a great influence and really changed the town. Now they want to open a shopping center. We’re all cringing; we came here because we didn’t want a shopping center, but that’s the point at which we’ve arrived — people can make money here now. The process is inevitable.
In thinking specifically of Israeli politics, it would seem to me that by living and making dance in the middle of the desert, you’re expressing a political statement on some level. Can you speak more to that?
It is definitely a political statement. In the horribly violent situation we are in here in Israel and what’s happening in the Arab world, to go into the desert and do art and dance and teach myself and others to behave gently and with grace, it’s a way of saying I’m investing my time, my money and my life into bringing good into the world.
A big problem in the world is people don’t listen to others who don’t think like them, but it’s a particularly big problem in Israel. If someone thinks differently than me, I can kill them; that’s the spirit in Israel right now. I’m saying that stereotypically. It’s a political statement to live in my country in the south, which has a lot of security problems, and say this is where I want to be and this is where I’m needed. I could live in France or the United States. But we made a decision to stay in Israel and live in the desert. It’s what I believe is necessary.
Any other thoughts?
Most people think big things happen in big cities. They think of places like New York, London, Tokyo and Tel Aviv as full of dancers and many opportunities to dance. In the end though, I can drink the same cup of coffee in any of those cities. But here I drink tea I grew in the garden. In big cities, there are a lot of options, but when you go outside of those places and you’re forced to find other options, that’s where you find treasure. There’s nothing wrong with big cities. I’m just saying in order to learn something, you have to go away from what you know.