Lea Bergstein and the Hebrew Dance: Migrating Gestures and Conceptions

//Lea Bergstein and the Hebrew Dance: Migrating Gestures and Conceptions

Lukas Czech PhD Candidate, University of Salzburg

In my PhD research, I investigate the artistic work and professional life of the dancer-choreographer Lea Bergstein (1902-1989). I first got to know some of Bergstein’s choreographies during a visit in Israel in 2007, when my family from kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in the Haifa region invited me to join the yearly ceremony of the cutting of the first crop, the Omer Festival. Since 1946, members of the local community perform Bergstein’s dances, which are an integral part of the festival and today belong to the canon of Israeli folk dance. The enthusiastic choreographies and the festive character of the outdoor agricultural ritual touched me deeply. However, what struck me most that evening was, how strangely familiar these dances occurred to me—the visitor from Vienna. How could it be, that the performative character of a supposedly truly local folk dance was so close to my central European aesthetic and cultural perceptions?

Years later, the peculiar familiarity and closeness I had felt that evening, were the starting point for my doctoral research at Tel Aviv University. Studying Bergstein’s biography and work under a scientific perspective, I investigate her artistic career and work as developing from her professional education and up until her own major creations, like the Omer Festival at kibbutz Ramat Yohanan. Having received her professional training as a dancer amongst the vanguards of European Modern Dance in the early 1920s, Bergstein’s work in British Mandatory Palestine (1920-1948) was entangled with then prevalent efforts to generate a distinct Hebrew culture. This new Hebrew culture intended to strictly separate itself from any foreign culture as well as Jewish exilic life and emphasised an autochthonous relation to the notion of the biblical Land of Israel(See: Itamar Even-Zohar, 2008). Zionist aspirations to express and represent the renewal of the Jewish nation, many of Bergstein’s choreographies are an outstanding example of the emerging kibbutz ritual culture and appear as the performative embodiment of the strongly idealised image of the new, sturdy and healthy, Eretz-Israeli Jew. Against the background of Bergstein’s migration from Vienna to British Mandate Palestine in 1925, I started to search for modes of cultural transmission and particular continuities inscribed in Bergstein’s oeuvre, in spite the strongly nationalistic and ideologically charged context of her work.

One of the central methodological keys I use to decipher and grasp the aesthetic and conceptional relatedness between Bergstein’s work in Palestine (and later Israel) and her roots in Europe, is to trace the—what I call—pedagogic genealogy influential on her creative output. Therefore I closely investigated the time of her professional education and early career in Vienna and Germany in the early 1920s as well as the work of her teachers and contemporaries in Europe. Thereby Bergstein’s studies at Valéria Dienes’ (1879-1978) Viennese studio and at the Vienna Laban School under Margarete Schmidts as well as her participation in Vera Skoronel’s (1906-1932) dance company at the United Stages of the Ruhr Valley (Germany), do place Bergstein in a direct line with famous vanguards of the modern European dance such as Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958) and Mary Wigman (1886-1973). Interestingly, Bergstein by far isn’t the only creator of the early Hebrew dance, who can be put in such proximity with European dance pioneers; and the influence of European modern dance on the dance culture of the Jewish settlement in Palestine is established. (See: Gaby Aldor, 2013). However, the knowledge about its modalities is general and mostly reliant on the respective dancers’ basic biographical data. As for my research, I set out to find concrete evidence for the influence of European modern dance on the new Hebrew dance culture in general and on Bergstein’s work in particular.

I framed the immediate years before and after Bergstein’s migration as a crucial period and fundamental for my investigation. In regards to sources and documentation, particularly the temporal distance and ephemeral peculiarities of the medium were challenging. While some of Bergstein’s original choreographies are accessible through their continuous performance, like those of the Omer Festival, they were also subject to deliberate and unconscious changes throughout the last decades. Beyond that, Bergstein left behind an extensive private collection that proved to be of tremendous value for my research, as it covers almost the entire span of her personal and professional life. Thereby the cross-examination of numerous handwritten notes, recordings and books filled with her own comments and thoughts, for example, allowed me to relate Bergstein’s philosophical conception of dance to Isadora Duncan’s interpretations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) influential notions on dance as most immediate and natural expression of body and soul. Particularly valuable, though, were photographs depicting Bergstein in various dances throughout the 1920s. While these pictures don’t allow comprehensive conclusions about the general quality of these dances, they do offer a glimpse of Bergstein’s self aestheticisation at particular moments along her artistic career. Visiting numerous archives throughout Israel and Europe, I got hold of visual material also portraying Bergstein’s teachers and colleagues. I eventually managed to carve out characteristic and aesthetically similar physical expressions and even identical positions immediately relating Bergstein to some of her (European) contemporaries. Also, I could show, that particular poses remained part of Bergstein’s bodily vocabulary and repertoire for decades and became part of some of the dances which today are referred to as particularly Israeli.

Bergstein indeed devoted her artistic work to the search for an authentic bodily expression of the new Hebrew society, by means of a truly original (local) dance and willingly adapted her artistic expression to the changed socio-cultural and political context of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. Bergstein’s body and mind though, clearly functioned as agent and archive of incorporated cultural knowledge implemented (deliberately or not) in her creations, which then could be understood also through the prism of diaspora or exilic art. The drastic notions of cultural continuity and the peculiar similarities to European modern dance, thereby particularly question the notion of a distinct Hebrew cultural expression through dance. Understanding Bergstein as situated between (at least) two worlds, two cultures and two languages, and—on the backdrop of her migration—as “transcultural subject” (Silvia Spitta, 1995: 24), the migrating gestures and conceptions apparent in her work then and above all, suggest human cultural production as (trans-)cultural and diverse (rather than nationalised and local!) continuum.

By |2020-12-09T11:29:03+00:00December 9th, 2020|PhD Conference|