Maria Caruso never went to Woodstock, but a week in Israel gave the Pittsburgh resident some sense of the summer concert’s vibe from a half-century ago. Caruso, founding director of Bodiography and La Roche University’s performing arts department chair, recently returned from the Karmiel Dance Festival, Israel’s largest dance celebration. In its 32nd year, the three-day event featured nearly 100 shows performed by approximately 10,000 dancers before 250,000 attendees.
“It was the most amazing experience of my career because of the community and the people,” she said.
Caruso, who attended the 2018 festival as a solo artist, brought nine of her dancers, ranging in age from 21 to 31, to this year’s gathering. The group was asked to deliver the festival’s final performance at Karmiel Cultural Hall, and executed “Doors and Windows,” a Caruso creation of diverse choreographic style.
“Closing the festival in the Cultural Hall was a huge honor,” she said.
Caruso also performed Martha Graham’s iconic modern dance solo “Lamentation.”
“Martha Graham was the original. She was the one and only, a cultural ambassador that brought American modern dance to Israel,” added Caruso, 38.
In 1964, Graham, a one-time Allegheny City resident, and her patron, Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, founded Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv. The endeavor sprung from Rothschild having studied dance with Graham in New York City years earlier.
In 1956, Rothschild joined the Martha Graham Company on its East Asia tour. Because of Rothschild’s influence, the tour included an important stop in Israel. Historians mark that visit as a moment when American dance largely captured interests in the fledgling state. Rothschild later organized two additional Israeli tours. Along with Graham’s subsequent efforts, Rothschild imparted a newfound infrastructure and culture in Israel.
Decades later, dance, whether folk, modern or ballet, still serves as a critical component of Israel’s aesthetic makeup. “It was such a celebration,” said Caruso. Being a part of it was “such a high, such an up moment.”
Seventy-two hours of nonstop dance afforded countless opportunities for performances and classes for both experts and the general public.
She wasn’t surprised that this year’s festival turned out to be so great. Returning from the festival last year and speaking with people at Bodiography’s Squirrel Hill studio, “I felt like nobody believed me how incredible it was,” said Caruso. “I was so awestruck. I was just blown away by the culture, the hospitality, the adoration and celebration of dance at that level.”
It was important to be able to share all that with “my artists who are involved so heavily and so passionately in the Jewish community, and giving them the opportunity to see this connection to this amazing culture and country with so much deep history.”
Neither Caruso nor any of the traveling performers are Jewish, and none of the performers had been to the Jewish state before. Apart from performing in Karmiel, the group toured Jerusalem and Nazareth, and visited the beach in Tel Aviv. They especially liked the food.
“I wish I had food like that all the time,” she said.
Caruso plans to return to Israel regularly and use her influence to inspire other American dance companies to visit Israel. “The food is marvelous. The hospitality is incredible. The people are extraordinary. The respect for dance and art is out of this world.”
And even for those who are not professional artists, the festival is worth going to, she added.
“Whether you dance or not — I didn’t get to go to Woodstock, but to see 250,000 people in a small town overjoyed, just celebrating culture — I would encourage anybody who can go to Israel to experience it. It was such a celebration of life.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.