When the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, in its first international tour in almost two decades, landed in Israel last week for a tour of the country, few could have suspected that the performances would have such an impact on not only the Israeli audiences, but the dancers themselves. Italian-born PBT dancer Luca Sbrizzi called the trip “magnificent.” Dancer Robert Moore said the Israeli crowds were “one of the most responsive audiences I’ve ever experienced.”
The reaction coming from the seats was measured more simply: a roaring, standing ovation at the conclusion of PBT’s Wednesday night performance, as one of six international dance companies to fly into the small country for the nationally-known festival, which drew 250,000 visitors from Aug. 7 to 9.
The tour marked a new benchmark in the ever-growing relationship between Pittsburgh and Karmiel, sister cities through the Partnership 2Gether initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Agency in Israel. While cultural exchanges have long existed between the two cities, including a trip of young Pittsburgh professionals to Karmiel in 2010, reported from the ground by the Chronicle, the PBT’s inclusion in the Karmiel Dance Festival notes the first major intracity bond to reach outside the immediate Jewish community.
“The idea of bringing a group from Pittsburgh to perform at the festival started as far back as the beginning of the partnership [in 1994],” said Marcie Lang, representative for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in Karmiel.
When the plan was jolted into motion in November 2011, “we heard it would take more than a year’s preparation,” said Moore. “But [festival organizers] wanted to do it the Israeli way: ‘Let’s get this done now.’ And they had the trip planned in just a few months.”
Though as of last spring, the trip loomed in the not-too-distant future, “We were still in season at that point, so we were very focused,” said Sbrizzi. “But I got more excited right as our season ended. We actually had time to think about traveling — how was it going to be? So when we began preparing [for the trip], it was all I could think about, like, ‘Let’s go! Let’s get on it!’”
Over 20 PBT dancers landed in Tel Aviv for the performances, and were quickly whisked to Karmiel to prepare, but not before a bit of culture shock.
“The variety of landscapes amazed me, from the sea to the desert,” said Sbrizzi. “It’s all in here. It’s outstanding.”
Once PBT arrived at the festival, the dancers were taken with, “how so many different types of dance could come together in this enormous festival,” said Sbrizzi. “It shows a pure and passionate love for dance, no matter what kind.”
The Karmiel Dance Festival, now in its 25th year, brings both varied dance companies and a varied audience. In addition to PBT, companies arrived from Brazil, China and France, among others. Moore admired the festival’s openness, the fluidity between professional dancers and fans.
“One company from Brazil [the Ballet Brazil Company] was doing some capoeira [Brazilian fusion of dance and martial arts] and set up a little camp outside on the festival grounds. They were doing their thing in a circle, and people could just come and watch,” he said. “Next to the big venues, people would just dance outside.”
But the task at hand, of course, was PBT’s debut performance in the festival. Filling up the Karmiel Civic Auditorium, PBT danced three pieces: “Maelstrom,” “Sylvia Pas de Deux” and “Step Touch,” the latter combining classical ballet and contemporary doo-wop music.
The company was off and running from the first steps.
“The energy from us was really high,” said Moore. “We had traveled so far to do it. And the audience responded from the first piece to the last piece. They were clapping along the entire performance [of the third piece]. Normally, maybe one or two songs will get the crowd clapping, but they went the whole time.”
PBT’s Marketing Director Aimee Waeltz watched from the theater. “I could feel the energy from the audience,” she said. “It was nothing like when we perform back at home — not that our own audience doesn’t appreciate us. The Israelis were so thrilled, so excited. You could feel the vibe in the room, and the dancers responded to that. They performed like they never had before. They gave 120 percent, instead of the normal 110.”
After the Karmiel Dance Festival, the company performed to another packed crowd in Rishon LeZion before a well-deserved weekend of travel throughout Israel, which saw the dancers experiencing the Dead Sea, Nazareth and Jerusalem. It was only then that they felt truly immersed in the experience of visiting Israel.
“When I travel, I like to sense the energy of the place,” said Sbrizzi. “The energy here is pretty electric. The people here have such willpower; they are so determined, so mentally strong. I can see it in them.”
Spiritually, Sbrizzi connected with Nazareth.
“The whole city had a wonderful feeling — so calm and peaceful. It felt like a meditation to me. As soon as I stepped inside the Basilica of the Annunciation [built where, according to Christian tradition, the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus], I had goose bumps,” he said. “We got to explore and visit places that I had read about since I was a little kid. This tour has been a once in a lifetime experience, and I will take that with me forever.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)