“I was born and raised in northern Israel,” says ZviDance founder Zvi Gotheiner, whose modern dance company appears this weekend for the second time in Cincinnati as part of ZviDance/Dabke, presented by Contemporary Dance Theater. The 2012 work for four couples, which premiered to strong reviews from prominent critics, draws from the rich dance and music traditions of the Levant.
“Dabke is [essentially] a line dance,” says Zvi (everyone seems to call him Zvi) by phone from New York City, where he has lived, danced and choreographed since 1988.
He first learned to do the energetic community dance on a kibbutz, one of the traditional Israeli settlements organized under collectivist principles, where he was brought up.
“It’s done mainly in a circle, holding hands or shoulders,” he says. “The group is performing simple patterns of steps while the dance leaders are doing improvisation with fancy footwork. Traditionally it’s done by men.” Nobody knows where the original dance came from.
“Scholars say it arrived through the Turks, through centuries, but it is different,” he says. “It reminds you a bit of Greek or Irish dancing.” Today it’s common all over the broader Middle East and often performed at weddings.
Zvi says that being brought up on a kibbutz seemed like nothing special at the time.
“We had no idea we were living differently,” he says. “We were raised separate from our parents. We had dormitories. Kids my age lived together. We were all provided with as much as we wanted, nothing was forced on us, we lived very close to nature and we celebrated the holidays with culture and folk dancing.
“I remember I could not wait for Friday nights, when we usually danced for hours,” he continues. “Later I saw my first dance concert with Batsheva Dance Company and I knew I had to dance. I never looked back.”
Years later, Zvi first thought of making his own version of Dabke in Stockholm, when he and his partner were at a restaurant. “In no time, my partner and the Lebanese owner of the restaurant became friendly, and started dancing Dabke between the tables,” he says.
The idea was intriguing. “I was seeing my own network of culture — Israeli blended with Lebanese culture — and in Stockholm.”
But ZviDance’s Dabke is no attempt to meticulously recreate the folk dance, according to Zvi, who feels deeply connected to American modern and contemporary dance.
“My sensibility is Israeli,” he says. “I connect my work to that tormented country — whether I want it or not, it is always there.”
Company member Todd Allen also spoke by phone about helping create the work.
“Zvi invited me and another dancer to spend time in upstate New York with him for three weeks,” he says. “We worked from a collection of YouTube videos he had collected. Some were quite intricate and fascinating. It might take us three rehearsal days to learn them.”
According to Allen, it took the cast a long time to not look like “dancers from New York.”
“It was not how we normally move — it was in the way your foot hits the floor, the way your knees bend, the way your hips move.”
After the dancers learned the steps, Zvi suggested that they turn them into their own movement phrase, in the style of Hip Hop or Modern, for instance, from which he crafted Dabke.
“This piece is overtly connected to the Middle East,” Zvi says. “I wanted to do a piece that put a light on the wonderful culture, specifically coming from Israel. Most of the Middle East narrative is seen through the prism of terrorism. I hope Dabke will generate a discussion that will bring people closer. In the end, we are all doing similar things.”
Zvi first thought of the dance during “Arab Spring.” He’s not sure if the celebratory roots of the dance survive that euphoria.
“In a way, the dance was inspired by fun, but other issues came into play,” he says. “One dancer had Muslim women friends struggling with equality, and that seeped into the piece.”
“It’s up to the viewer to decide,” he continues. “The piece is getting darker as things change. It’s not necessarily a happy point. In a way, it reflects grim reality.”
“I don’t know if there is a linear narrative,” Allen adds. “To me, Dabke feels contemporary. It’s not in the past, or a specific place. There are hints of female oppression and female independence in a male dominated society.”
ZVIDANCE/DABKE, presented by Contemporary Dance Theater, takes place Friday and Saturday at the Aronoff Center. Tickets: cdt-dance.org.