It’s the 55th anniversary of the Israel Festival, and this year’s roster is filled with shows ranging from classical music and indie rock to experimental theater and songfests.

The 2016 festival, from May 24 to June 11, 2016 in venues across Jerusalem, will showcase original Israeli performances as well as performers and writers from Austria, Italy, Belgium, France, Portugal, the Czech Republic, the United States and China.

Executive Director Eyal Sher and Artistic Director Itzik Giuli, who took over the reins of the venerable festival last year, have planned a menu of innovative entertainment in many different indoor and outdoor spaces.

Sher, a screenwriter, producer and director, tells ISRAEL21c that when he was growing up in Jerusalem the Israel Festival was the only opportunity to see international artists. In today’s global cultural ecosystem, he and Giuli have sought to redefine and reignite the Israel Festival’s leading role by booking unusual and cutting-edge acts.

“We look at what’s happening in the world and bring the most advanced, contemporary, edgy, original shows that are not yet part of the mainstream and that you won’t see elsewhere in Israel,” he says. “We get support from the government and the municipality so we can be a little more daring and experimental.”

One trend they spotted was what Sher calls “the fallout of barriers between disciplines; a new language that is a combination of dance, theater, performance, music and video. We seek artists using this new language in the most interesting and innovative way. It’s not just ‘Let’s bring something from China,’ but ‘Let’s bring something from China that matches this agenda.’”

Festival highlights

The Israel Festival opens at 9pm on May 24 at Safra Square – the seat of Jerusalem’s municipality — with a salute to the late Shoshana Damari, considered the first lady of Israeli song for her pivotal role in creating an Israeli genre of music fusing the musical traditions of immigrants from East and West.

Free lectures, music and dance performances, video and film screenings and theatrical shows for children will be offered in Zion Square every afternoon and evening from May 29 to June 6.

Below are descriptions of some of the festival’s more English-friendly shows.

Belgian artist Jan Fabre and his troupe of 27 actors will present their critically acclaimed 24-hour performance piece, “Mount Olympus: To Glorify the Cult of Tragedy,” starting June 9 at 5pm in the Jerusalem Theatre lobby and moving to additional venues.

“Mount Olympus” – with minimal dialogue in French, English, German and Belgian — draws viewers into tales of rivalries, vendettas, infidelities, rape, murder, betrayal, war, catharsis and healing among Greek mythological characters such as Medea, Antigone, Oedipus and Odysseus.

“Mount Olympus” explores Greek tragedy in a new way. Photo by Wonge Bergmann
“Mount Olympus” explores Greek tragedy in a new way. Photo by Wonge Bergmann

The French director Philippe Quesne is presenting the comic avant-garde show “The Melancholy of the Dragons,” in which six aging rock musicians get stranded in a snowy forest on the way to creating an amusement park with a heavy-metal theme. A woman who comes across the musicians is treated to an unexpected show involving soap bubbles, a puppy, huge plastic bags and music from the Middle Ages (June 2, 8pm in English; and June 3, 1pm in French with Hebrew subtitles, Jerusalem Theater).

From China comes director Wang Chong’s “Thunderstorm 2.0,” which the Beijing News ranked as one of the 10 best shows in China over the past 30 years. The performance is a modern multimedia retelling of a well-known Chinese play about the decline of a wealthy family plagued by dark secrets. A film crew on stage films the actors, creating two simultaneous centers of attention for the audience (June 4, 9:15pm; June 5, 8:30pm, Jerusalem Theater).


“More Than Naked,” a work by Austrian choreographer Doris Uhlich, features 12 nude dancers in a celebration of the human body in all its imperfections (May 27, noon and 3pm, Jerusalem Theater).

The Italian choreographer Alessandro Sciarroni, winner of Danza & Danza magazine’s Best New Artist award for 2012, will present “Folk-s, will you still love me tomorrow?” against the backdrop of Bavarian folk dance, Romantic-era music, synth-pop and British hip-hop (May 30, 9:30pm; May 31, 8:30pm, Masie House).

“Of Ivory and Flesh: Statues also Suffer,” by Portuguese choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas, draws inspiration from works such as the legend of Pygmalion and portrays human emotions awakening among a “tribe” of dancers portraying mannequins learning to deal with feelings such as pain and desire (June 2, 10pm, Jerusalem Theater).

"Of Ivory and Flesh: Statues also Suffer” photo by Hervé Centre.
“Of Ivory and Flesh: Statues also Suffer” photo by Hervé Centre.

Prof. Gaby Shefler will play arrangements of songs by Naomi Shemer, Rahel the Poet and other beloved Israeli songwriters on the carillon, a unique instrument composed of 35 bronze bells ranging in weight from eight kilograms to two tons, in the YMCA’s bell tower. The free performance will be broadcast live on the tower itself for spectators seated on the YMCA terraces and lawn (June 8, 8pm).

From the contemporary club scene, Parisians Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud are bringing “Altered Natives Say Yes to Another Excess: Twerk,” starring five dancers and two DJs in what is described as “a frenetic, colorful, sexual and even brutal performance” (May 28, 9pm, Beit Shmuel).

“Altered Natives Say Yes to Another Excess: Twerk,” will be presented on May 28. Photo by Emile Zeizig
“Altered Natives Say Yes to Another Excess: Twerk,” will be presented on May 28. Photo by Emile Zeizig

Following a 40-year-old tradition of the Israel Festival, there will be three weekends of classical music concerts at the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Ein Kerem on May 27 at noon, May 28 at 11am, June 3 at noon, June 10 at noon and June 11 at 11am. Two series will be presented: The Symphonic Piano, a selection of symphonic works adapted for piano; and a concert series of works by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by young pianists

For kids, four debut performances of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” will be staged at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo by the Jerusalem Street Orchestra on the lawn opposite the flamingo and waterfowl section, free with purchase of a zoo ticket. The twist will be a contemporary focus on protecting the environment (5:30 and 6:30pm shows on May 26, June 2 and June 5).

American conductor Murry Sidlin and musicians from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance will present the premiere of “Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezín Composer,” combining video, acting and narration with the performance of 15 works by composers who were imprisoned and perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp (June 2, 8:30pm, Jerusalem Theater).

“From East to West” at the Jerusalem Theater will combine the talents of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, playing songs from Russia to Yemen, Vienna to Cairo (May 31, 8:30pm).

Most Israel Festival shows require a ticket purchase, mainly ranging between NIS 20 and NIS 150, with discounts for seniors, students, soldiers and blocks of four tickets or more.

For more information, click here.