Learning about Place

Editor’s note: This month on Stance on Dance, several dance artists have been asked to share a pivotal dance experience that changed their trajectory or the way they think about dance. 


Liat Dror/Nir Ben Gal Company’s Anta Oumri

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco 1998

I had only just begun to explore questions of Jewish identity in my work as a choreographer when I was offered a ticket to see this relatively unknown (in the U.S.) Israeli dance company.  I don’t know why I went – at the time, Israel was about politics and current events for me, not dance.

Then I saw Anta Oumri. Or rather, I should say I felt, heard, saw it. I craved it even as it unfolded before me. It tasted that good.

This was a form of dance theater that seemed familiar to me, and yet not. Think Sasha Waltz but with a mélange of cultures in play. “Anta Oumri” is the title of a song by the blockbuster Egyptian singer Umm Khultuum that translates to “You Are My Soul.” More than any movement sequence or stirring image, (and there were many), it was the tenor of this piece that stirred me to look for more.

Some indelible moments: Liat Dror dancing a slow, languid and exaggerated belly dance. Naked men crawling on the floor, barking. A lone dancer in a claw foot tub, splashing while the world around him fell away. Images of vast landscape, the desert perhaps? Ruefulness, sex, dislocation, innocence. Troubling gender: masculine/feminine seemed different here. Was that an Israeli thing?


This evening of dance theater changed my life. Over the next decade, I traveled to the Middle East to soak up all I could about dance, roaming throughout Israel and Palestine to take class, see shows and interview choreographers. I was invited to come back, and spent years raising the money to do it. I toured Amman, Ramallah, Jerusalem and D’heisheh Refugee Camp with Nina Haft & Company. I arrived asking what is Jewish and what is American about my movement. I returned with deeper questions about what it means to belong somewhere, and what it means to be far from home. These questions about place are what now guide my work.

This journey also galvanized my Jewish identity and my politics. Liat Dror and I have spoken about the obstacles between Israeli and Palestinian dancers and how dance can expose these barriers. Dror and Ben Gal arrived at a comprehensive critique of the mainstream dance world in their country, and subsequently moved from Tel Aviv to live and teach in a converted airplane hangar in the Negev desert. Their place is called Adama, which means earth — as in fertile soil. Their company is called this too. They have always known that place matters.

For more on Nina Haft’s work, visit ninahaftandcompany.com.