Israel Festival brings cultural innovation to Jerusalem

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Steven Cohen’s moving tribute, Put Your Heart Under Your Feet… And Walk ©Pierre Panchenault 2

By Mikki Shana


Over 30 000 visitors, Israelis and tourists alike, enjoyed the Israel Festival this year.

Now in its 58th year, the Israel Festival showcases a rich and varied artistic program from Israel and around the world in the fields of dance, music, theater, performance art, video art and installation. 

This is the country’s flagship cultural event, renowned for inspiring and thought-provoking material that cannot be seen anywhere else.  Although the first home of the Israel Festival was Cesarea, the late Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kolleck brought it to the capital in the early eighties where it has been hosted ever since.  

Director of the festival, Eyal Sher, together with artistic director, Itzik Giuli, lead the Israel Festival on a path of artistic innovation. They have set a clear goal — to identify new artistic movements, forms and languages on the global culture and art scene, as well as to find innovative and original interpretations, while conserving the festival’s historical value and its achievements over the past 50 years. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of young audience members, as a result of both the artistic program and the affordable pricing policy. 

“In the arts, we are witnessing a constant attempt to narrow the freedom of artistic expression, but that’s something we do not take into consideration in our programming.  We perceive cultural and creative achievement as a unique means to create space for dialogue and cultural encounter. We are proud to continue a consistent line of artistic programming that conforms to just one criterion: excellence.” says Sher

The festival’s layered program was focused on an inter-cultural search for identity from both familiar and new perspectives. It aimed to express many different cultural identities, while constantly testing the limits of artistic creation, exposing identity politics, questioning conventions of separation between ‘artist’ and ‘viewer’, between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ — while spotlighting the fluidity that exists between these definitions and an inspiring, unique artistic space. 

“Like many festivals around the world” says Sher, “the Festival is not merely a cultural event but an important catalyst, advancing education, empowering community, encouraging tourism and fueling the economy.   But in Jerusalem, its most important role is no doubt facilitating encounter and dialogue”.

The festival continues its tradition of integrating the old with the new. Alongside contemporary content, often characterised by multi-disciplinary forms, the festival featured a number of performances inspired by classic masterpieces of the world, in a range of exciting and surprising adaptations by contemporary artists from Israel and abroad.   Among the innovative and contemporary festival programming are original Israeli productions created especially for the festival by independent artists and groups; highly-acclaimed guest productions from France, Brazil, Switzerland and Poland. This year there were two shows that have their roots in South Africa. 

The Laurence Oliver Award-winning veteran choreographer Robyn Orlin, performed at the Festival. And So You See looks at post-apartheid South Africa. Robyn Orlin questions if the people of South Africa are truly free and whether the promised democratic values, especially gender equality, meet the hopes laid down in the constitution.  

South-African born, France-based performance artist Steven Cohen performed in the Israel for the first time this year, presenting a tribute to his partner Elu in Put Your Heart Under Your Feet… And Walk Self-described as a South African, white, gay, Jewish man, Cohen created a performative hybrid that brings together all these identities.  In a chilling requiem to his partner of twenty years, Cohen performs a brave parting ceremony that celebrates art both as a path of coping with loss and as a resolute choice in a vital and passionate existence.

This year, the Israel Festival launched a Friends Giving Circle to help support its growth and ongoing activity. The Friends Giving Circle will facilitate the gift of high quality art and performance to a wide range of audiences by subsidising tickets and funding free events in public spaces.

The Israel Festival is supported by the Ministry of Culture, the Municipality of Jerusalem, Mifal HaPais lottery, The Jerusalem Foundation, as well as many public and private foundations.  

Sher has already started working on next year’s programme and knows that in no time at all the Festival will be celebrating, with some luck and good planning, the 60th Israel Festival in 2021. “Running a cultural organisation in Jerusalem is a bit like being a pioneer in the early days of the Zionist Movement” says Sher.  “It requires passion and resilience, a bit of naivety, a lot stubbornness and above all, a vision of what we believe this incredible city could be, what it should be, what it deserves to be”.  

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