Going the Distance

The International Movement of Sharir Dance Company

It's a long way from Israel to Austin," says Rina Schenfeld, and she should know. The accomplished choreographer and dancer, who makes her home in Tel Aviv, has just made the journey from the former to the latter, for the first time flying here directly from Israel instead of breaking up the trip with a stop in New York City. Schenfeld had been concerned about that direct route, fearing that the trip's length would be so wearing on her that she would find it difficult to prepare for her performance this weekend in the final program of Sharir Dance Company's 14th season. As it turned out, fortunately, she suffered no ill effects from the journey. Still, that doesn't diminish the distance between the two locations, a distance that has more than one meaning when considering the current state of the Sharir company.

This year has seen Yacov Sharir and his dance troupe performing away more than at home in the UT Performing Arts Center's complex of theatres. The Sharir Dance Company (SDC) opened the season in the PAC's McCullough Theatre and is closing it around the corner and down the street in the B. Iden Payne Theatre, but for the second program -- the premiere of a new work by co-Artistic Director José Luis Bustamante -- the company leaped into a new and refreshingly different venue: a Belmont Hall racquetball court. Then, of course, SDC made its regular appearance in the annual Austin Festival of Dance over at the Paramount Theatre. But more significant are a couple of longer excursions that the company made: one to Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and another to Tel Aviv, Israel. The members of the company have been acquiring plenty of personal experience logging those intercontinental miles of which Schenfeld speaks.

In September of 1996, SDC traveled to Rotterdam for the Future Moves Festival, a week-long symposium in which artists and technicians from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Israel, and The Netherlands convened to share their knowledge and achievements in dance using new technologies. There, the company presented Hollow Ground/Cyborg Dances, a piece by Yacov Sharir combining three-dimensional animation, digitized video, and live human performers, with Sharir also making presentations about his work utilizing computers and choreography. Less than a month after Future Moves, SDC was in Tel Aviv, taking part in the Suzanne Dellal International Dance Competition. This past year, this annual celebration of dance featured pieces by 13 choreographers from nine countries across the globe, of which SDC's Bustamante was one. The company performed his Dervishing, a dance inspired by the whirling dervishes of the Melevi order. That SDC made two such ventures onto the world stage in such a brief period of time is one indication of the level this Austin company has reached in the global dance community.

Of course, the international presence achieved by SDC has not come overnight. In the arena of dance utilizing technology, Yacov Sharir has long been on the vanguard. For several years, he's been investigating the possibilities of choreography created within a computer, using animated human figures and digitized video to generate movement and transferring that movement from cyberspace to the real world, sometimes projecting it onto screens, sometimes setting it on human dancers, and sometimes, as with the piece presented in Rotterdam, doing both, creating a sort of science-fiction duet between flesh and electronic dancers. His pioneering efforts in this area have earned Sharir invitations to both national and international arts conferences since 1993. And both he and Bustamante have had their work featured in the Suzanne Dellal Competition before. In 1992, each presented a piece with the SDC: The Egg by Sharir and Sedition, Seduction, by Bustamante. Going back further, there is Sharir's history in the Batsheva Dance Company, a world-class troupe which Schenfeld helped found and in which she was a principal dancer for 15 years. Sharir danced with Batsheva for nine years, during which he received a strong grounding in what constitutes a dance company of global capabilities.

In creating his own company 15 years ago, Sharir set his sights on that level. "It was always an aim of the company to get to a level of national and international quality," he acknowledges. It's a valuable goal, not simply for the widespread recognition it delivers but for the creative, well, nutrition it provides. Art feeds the spirit, and different kinds of art can nourish the spirit in diverse ways, just as different kinds of food nourish our bodies in diverse ways. When an SDC brings to this community a Rina Schenfeld -- a creator whose decades of experience and artistic exploration have cultivated an art of crystalline complexity and deep poetry -- the experience can be uncommonly enriching for both artists and audiences. "When you bring the best artists and expose the audience to the best artists, they will expect that level of work from the local artists," Sharir insists. Furthermore, the local artists will be inspired to achieve that degree of excellence they've seen in the best, in part to interact with those artists at the height of the craft. "To get to that level," says Sharir, "in order to exchange ideas and bring that mutual food to each other... it's like feeding each other at the very highest level." In her simple, elegant way, Schenfeld makes the same observation: "What's enjoyable in traveling is a change in information. You get something out of meeting other people, other audiences. It's very good for you."

Yacov Sharir is proud of the distance his company has traveled in the past 14 seasons. Though he is rather matter-of-fact when describing the "increase in curiosity about and demand for our work," you can detect an underlying tone of gratification. It's more evident when he is asked to assess the level of the company right now, and he speaks confidently of "leading the field" in the exploration of new technology in dance, of seeing the work of his peers at these far-flung forums such as Future Moves and realizing that SDC is "ahead of the pack." "As far as new dance," he says plainly, "I feel we have reached the national level. After the Austin Festival of Dance, I got a lot of comments from people about how good our company looked among the national companies that performed. And these were comments from dancers from New York and San Francisco and so on. It's very good to interact on that level, I feel that it's important for us." When pressed to describe how he feels hearing such praise, Sharir admits, "It feels good. Peer review is the best review you can get."

And yet, as if that mild expression of satisfaction were some dangerous sign of complacency, this choreographer quickly adds that his company has not arrived at some imagined destination of success. "It's not a place we have reached," he insists. "It's a place we have to reach for every day. You can't take it for granted. You can't say, `Today we had a great show, so tomorrow we're going to have a great show.' Every day you start from zero."

It is a long way from Israel to Austin, and Yacov Sharir knows it too well. But Sharir Dance Company is proving it can travel that distance, even if it means making the trip every day.

Sharir Dance Company, with special guest Rina Schenfeld, will perform May 2-4, Fri & Sat, 8pm, Sun, 2pm, in the B. Iden Payne Theatre on the UT campus. Call 471-1444.

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