PBT principal dancer reflects on once-in-a-lifetime experiences during tour in Israel

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Editor's note: Alexandra Kochis, a principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, wrote this article after returning from the PBT's Aug. 4-12 trip to the Karmiel Dance Festival in Israel.

Looking back on the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre company's weeklong tour of Israel, it all seems like quite a whirlwind. It was not even six months ago that the possibility of participating in the dance festival was even broached to the dancers. From the outset, I had some ambivalent feelings about traveling to that part of the world, what with all the unrest and conflict. But the promoters were quick to assuage our doubts, bringing in several guest lecturers on everything from the people to the culture and from food to dance.

Our preparations went beyond just rehearsing the three pieces of repertoire we would perform at the Karmiel Dance Festival and in Rishon LeZion just outside Tel Aviv. Although we did that intensively, we also had briefings on language, how to avoid heat stroke, paperwork and immunizations required to travel, adapters we would need to allow our electronics to work, and a million other little things.

This would be the first international tour by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 20 years, and I was excited to be a part of it. I felt the three pieces we were performing -- Mark Morris' "Maelstrom," George Balanchine's "Sylvia Pas de Deux" and Dwight Rhoden's "Step Touch" -- were a perfect fit to showcase the company's diversity of repertoire and also highlight the individuality of our dancers.

Stepping out into the sleek, modern airport in Tel Aviv, it was unbelievable that we were actually in Israel, halfway around the globe. It looked very similar to any city in the U.S., but the road signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English reminded us that we were somewhere very different indeed. It was a 23-hour from Pittsburgh to the hotel in the city of Acre, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

We were all tired and hungry when we arrived, and the hotel had an incredible buffet awaiting us -- bowl after bowl of salads and sauces, roasted chicken and vegetables and spiced-meat patties along with fresh fruit and pastries for dessert. Israeli food, as we would find out as the week wore on, is incredibly fresh and flavorful with many different spices and unexpected pairings and textures. Nearly every restaurant we visited started the meal with a round of complimentary small mezze plates consisting of many different salads and sauces along with the ubiquitous hummus and pita bread. I loved the adventure of exploring each unknown taste.

Taking part in the festival in Karmiel was an experience I will never forget. We rehearsed in a studio in the heart of the festival grounds for two days prior to the opening. We got to see everything take shape and generate an energy of its own as people from all over the country, and the world, started to arrive. One of our Israeli cultural liaisons told us that in the 25 years the festival has been held, it has become a time for people from Karmiel to return home, visit family and catch up with old friends. The festival even worked its reunification magic on my husband [principal dancer Christopher Budzynski] and me as we ran into an old colleague whom we hadn't seen for probably 15 years! He was working in a company in France and performing in the festival. I can't tell you our shock at seeing a familiar face so many miles from home. But it did reinforce the feeling that this was an incredibly special place of convergence for dance and dance lovers.

People camped out in tents in designated areas of the festival grounds for days before the festival officially opened. There were big areas cordoned off for public dancing on what used to be tennis courts. There were food courts and a massive bazaar set up in a former soccer field with tents of vendors hawking everything from handmade jewelry to cheap sunglasses (Ray Dons, anyone?). The sights, sounds, smells and flavors were a heady mix that only served to fuel the fervor of the festival.

One of the memories I will keep for a long time is that of sitting on the vast lawn of the amphitheater, mingling with the 8,000 people who had come out with their lawn chairs and blankets to watch the opening performance under the stars. It made me proud to be a part of this shared passion for art and dance in this far-flung corner of the world.

Our third full day was a busy one as all of the PBT dancers were invited to meet the mayor of Karmiel in the morning and we had our first performance at the festival that evening. The mayor said that although Karmiel had been in existence only for 47 years (a young city in this neck of the woods!) he felt that it could be a model for the rest of Israel, as they had learned to coexist peacefully with the Arabs who lived in the villages in the surrounding hills.

The mayor said that during the war with Lebanon in 2006, nearly 200 missiles fell in and around Karmiel, but almost all of the civilian population chose to stay in the city. It was a clear reminder of how very different my life circumstances are from the people of this region, where war is a familiar part of their lives. He offered to answer any questions we had, and it struck me that perhaps what he wanted us to take back to Pittsburgh was the openness and frankness of the Israeli people.

The performance that evening was fantastic. The dancers were all especially energized, and the audience responded with generous applause throughout the program. They seemed to really appreciate the layered and intelligent musicality of "Maelstrom," especially with the two Israeli musicians on cello and violin performing with our company pianist, Yoland Colin. The technical pyrotechnics of "Sylvia Pas de Deux" warmed them up for our closing piece, "Step Touch," set to the music of the The Drifters and Pittsburgh's own doo-wop group, Pure Gold. We took curtain call after curtain call as the applause continued long after the final strains of music had ended.

After two well-received performances, we had earned a few days of sightseeing. My husband and I whiled away an idyllic afternoon on the beach in Acre. With the glittering minarets and domes of the Old City on the horizon, we tried to teach two young Israelis how to roll their whitewater kayak in the bathtub-warm water of the Mediterranean. We took up kayaking a few years ago after moving to Pittsburgh, and it struck me how incredibly open and trusting these two young men were with two people they had just met. I loved the parting gesture of an older gentleman with whom we spoke on the beach. He bid us farewell and a safe journey, touching both hands to his chest over his heart and then laying them, open, toward us with a humble bow of his head.

Our last day was devoted to a quick tour of Jerusalem and a dip in the Dead Sea. Lying on my back, effortlessly floating in the dense, mineral waters and looking up at the hazy white desert sky, I tried to soak in both the healing qualities of the water and the import of being there, nearly 420 meters below sea level, the closest I would ever come to the center of the Earth.

While I have since washed all traces of the slick, oozing Dead Sea mud from beneath my fingernails, the link I have forged with this strange and beautiful country will stay with me for a long time.


Alexandra Kochis can be reached at inquiry@pittsburghballet.org. For more photos and dancers' reflections from the trip, visit the PBT On Tour blog at pbtontour.wordpress.com. First Published August 29, 2012 4:00 AM


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