August 6, 2008, Updated September 14, 2012

Israeli choreographer Zvi Gotheiner was 17-years-old when he first decided to become a dancer. In 1989 he set up his own dance company in New York and has been wowing US and international audiences ever since.

This summer, Israel-born choreographer Zvi Gotheiner ended his 30th show off Broadway before taking a break from Manhattan’s stages to teach professional dance students in Austria.

The Alice Austen House Project, a location piece by Gotheiner, was inspired by the story and historical Staten Island property of a woman hailed as one of the first female photographers in the world. “She grew up in a very affluent household, but by the end of her life had lost it all,” explains Gotheiner, who moved from Israel to Manhattan to dance in 1987. “It wasn’t until after she died that she was recognized for her brilliant photographic work. Her story is very inspiring to me.”

Gotheiner’s extensive works, performed over the past 21 years on dozens of stages in New York and across Europe by his 10-member dance company, ZviDance, explore the relationship between individuals and their environment. Nowhere, says Gotheiner, is this relationship more complex than in Israel.

“In general, I think Americans have an over-simplified idea of reality in the region,” Gotheiner tells ISRAEL21c. “I understand its complexity.” This understanding is what he hopes to bring to audiences.

Territories is a piece focused on the how the boundaries of race, class, language, culture, gender, and religion, divide people from one another. Checkpoint, an ensemble piece involving eight dancers, drew on Gotheiner’s own immigrant experience, and explores the idea of communities in perpetual transit. Dust, created in collaboration with Israeli singer/dancer Lea Avraham for Central Park’s SummerStage this year, examined the profound influence of Yemenite culture on contemporary Israeli identity.

While none of his works are overtly political, they deal with social issues in what Gotheiner says is a very Israeli way. “My work is less about the design or architecture of dance, and more about immediate, gut response.”

A nation of dance

And dance, he says, is a very natural artistic medium to address such issues in Israel. “Dance, and the language of the body, comprises a big part of Jewish culture, historically,” he says, pointing to both the ritualistic gestures and impassioned dancing of the Hassidic movement. “Dance has also developed into a very strong contemporary art form in Israel,” he says, describing the strong influence of the art’s roots in folk dancing. “Israel is a nation of dance.”

Israeli folk dancing had a particular influence on Gotheiner, who grew up on Kibbutz Mesilot, near Beit She’an, where this form of dance was extremely popular. That said it wasn’t until he was 17 years old, when he first saw Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company perform, that he realized he wanted to dance. “I remember my feet moving while they performed,” he recalls. “I knew then that I wanted to be a professional dancer.”

For the four years that followed, throughout the course of his service with the IDF, Gotheiner took every opportunity to learn, attending two to three dance classes per day. The day he completed his military service, he was drafted again – this time to join Batsheva.

After dancing with them for a year-and-a-half, he received a scholarship from the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation to study for one year in New York and so, in 1978, at the age of 23, he arrived in Manhattan, where he switched tracks from modern dance to ballet. “I fell in love with the city,” he recalls. “I remember walking on Broadway a few days after I arrived, and thinking it was clear to me that I wanted to start my life here.”

The beat of New York

Instead, Gotheiner returned to Israel and opened his first company in Ramle, the Tamar Ramle Dance Company. After two years, it failed. Gotheiner later attempted to revive it in Jerusalem, where it also met a quick demise. It was 1987 and the first Intifada had just begun. “Now the Israeli independent dance scene is booming, but back then there was no fringe; only government-subsidized companies,” explains Gotheiner. Any funding the troupe did receive dried up at the onset of the war and Gotheiner just couldn’t gather enough private funding to survive. “It was time to leave,” he says.

In addition to the artistic push factors in Israel, New York City presented many pull factors. “New York was then and still is today the place to be. You meet lots of great people here – teachers, critics, fellow artists – who move you to grow and develop,” he says. “It’s the beat of this place.”

In 1989 he founded his company, Zvi Gotheiner & Dancers. They performed his first choreographed work, Chairs, in 1992. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although he is sure he belongs in Manhattan, where in addition to running his dance company, he teaches a regular weekly ballet class for professional dancers, Gotheiner says a part of him will always be in Israel. “I am very happy here [in New York], and at the same time I am inextricably a part of [Israel]. My heart is connected to that place,” he says. “And so is my work.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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