For more than twenty years, Eytan Avisar has been the creative dynamo behind Keshet Chaim “Rainbow of Live.” Through its programs, the ensemble of dancers has entertained, educated and brought down barriers of intolerance, ignorance and prejudice through the beauty and culture of Jewish and Israeli dance.
DOTA: When and why did you decide to form Keshet Chaim?
EA: I had been living in the United States since l973. I was involved in performing with a local Israeli dance company, which was participating in an annual International Dance Festival at the Music Center. It bothered me that Israel was not represented as professionally as the other countries, and this was my motivation to begin my own group.
DOTA: Keshet Chaim means “Rainbow of Life”? How did the name choice come about?
EA: I was sitting in my backyard with the original group of dancers that would become Keshet Chaim. During our brainstorming session for a name, we wanted to show that Israel and the Jewish people were made up of many “colors”. “Keshet” meaning “rainbow” and “Chaim” means “life”…therefore Keshet Chaim, Rainbow of Life was born.
DOTA: In what ways do Keshet Chaim’s programs advance your philosophies of education through art and entertainment?
EA: I believe that it is important to use our tool of dance to reach people. Through the arts, we can educate people, both young and old, about the Jewish culture. Our educational school programs as well as our adult programs have been very successful in touching people. Our school programs include a lot of interaction with the students through music, dance, drama and the visual arts.
DOTA: In what ways have you been able to connect with many of the diverse communities?
EA: Keshet Chaim has produced many collaborative projects with the community. Recently, we performed for the Israel Christian Nexus to commemorate the Exodus as well as for the Israeli Government Tourist Office for the NRB. (National Religious Broadcasters). We have worked with the secular community through Black Gospel choirs, high school choirs, including them in our productions. Keshet has produced a school concert called “Unity Through Dance” with African-American and Latino dance companies. We have produced “Debka For Peace” with an Arabic company and a show for the Latino-speaking stake of the Mormon Church. In 2002, Keshet Chaim was involved with an exchange project with the Inbal Dance Theatre from Israel that involved a 10-day collaboration including workshops and performances. Just recently, they spent a week at the Hollywood Bowl teaching young pre-school children about Israel and the Jewish culture through the LA Philharmonic program called “SummerSounds at the Hollywood Bowl”.
DOTA: How are Keshet Chaim’s educational programs having an affect on cultural awareness?
EA: I believe in giving people a positive experience about our culture. In this way they will have the awareness and tools to combat other negative things they may hear through the media. Through our school programs, we have many returning teachers that bring new groups of students each year. We always have students write us letters to tell about their experience and we find that they are absorbing more than we ever expected.
DOTA: One of the goals of the company’s projects is to break down ethnic and cultural barriers among the youth through a positive experience of exposure and education about diverse cultures. What have been the results?
EA: The results we are achieving have encouraged us to pursue more and more educational programs. The City of Los Angeles as well as the Israeli Consulate are both wonderful partners in this effort. There is no limit to what we can achieve. Unfortunately, the only limiting factor is financing, as always.
DOTA: How does dance enhance an understanding of cultural traditions?
EA: Dance is a very non-threatening way to reach certain audiences. Through dance-theatre and multi-media presentations, we can tell stories and teach about our culture.
“Neshama, Stories of the Soul”
DOTA: Describe how the interweaving of cultures through dance communicates in the Keshet Chaim repertoire?
EA: There are Jews living in Israel and the Diaspora of many different ethnic backgrounds. We have dances in our repertoire representing all these different cultures that we blend together to create different programs. However, with all our diverse traditions and religious beliefs, we are all connected through our Judaism. Our latest work, “Neshama, Stories of the Soul” is a full evening work that talks about us as the Jewish people as one.
DOTA: Describe some of the dances in the companies’ repertoire. Which was the first one?
EA: The first dance I created was the “Chassidic.” This was a style that was a natural for me; it was part of my being that spoke to all Jews. After a dance for the Ashkenazis, I created an Oriental dance that honored the Sephardic traditions. From there, I created the “Harvest Dance” to honor the holidays of the harvest. “Shorashim,” which means roots was a dance I created in honor of my mother and our Moroccan background. At this point, there was a piece called “Zemer Nuge” which incorporated jazz steps for the first time. It became one the most popular pieces with the dancers. The next period included the production of larger scale stage pieces. These included “From Spain to Jerusalem” about the Ladino Jews, “The Yemenites – Immigrants of the Magic Carpet” and the “Queen of Sheba.” These pieces required a large stage and elaborate lighting. As the company began to travel more, I created the “Negev Cowboy” which combined the Israeli with the American. It has a western cowboy beat to the Israeli song of Tsena Tsena. And of course, there is always a traditional Israeli sabra dance. The latest piece that has been added to the repertoire is “Neshama, Stories of the Soul.” This is a full-length multi-media dance theatre piece that requires lighting, a voice-over, and projections and includes modern and ethnic movement.
DOTA: Describe how Israeli folk dance works as a tool to bridge segments of the Jewish community and awareness in other community cultures?
EA: Young children that learn recreational folk dancing carry that skill with them wherever they go. As they go off to college, they will be comfortable immediately with a new community by attending a folk dance evening. They will have something in common with other students that have attained a similar repertoire of dances, immediately feeling “at home.” We hear examples all the time of students going to visit Israel and dancing with others with their common vocabulary. Dance builds bridges between Jews, non-Jews and different languages.
DOTA: How have children responded to your cultural programs?
EA: Part of our programs includes letter writing from the kids to tell us about their experience. We have hundreds of examples, which let us know which parts of the program “touch” the kids the most. The responses are phenomenal.
Letter from a student to Genie Benson, Administrator for Keshet Chaim
DOTA: What are some of the specific cross-cultural examples that Israeli folk dance has realized some of your company’s goals?
EA: Israeli folk dance brings people of all different ethnic backgrounds together. It helps to develop tolerance through education, one of our company’s main goals.
DOTA: What are your future goals for Keshet Chaim?
EA: I would like for Keshet Chaim to one day become a cultural institution that will encompass all the Jewish arts. This will be a place to teach children and adults all aspects of our culture, including dance, music, visual art, drumming, creative movement and drama. It should be a place where a network is created between different artists working towards a common goal. In terms of our repertoire, I plan to tackle subjects with meaning that will help us learn about who we are. We will continue to expand our educational programs and connections with the secular community.