It isn't very often that a dance performance gets protested in Pittsburgh. But local Palestinian-rights advocates are promising to do just that when an Israeli performance group, the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company, visits Pittsburgh on Thu., Feb. 5.
"We're not the only ones," says Jonas Moffat, president of Pitt's Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. "What we're doing here in Pittsburgh is reminiscent of what's been going on since they arrived [in North America]. ... It's people concerned with peace and justice from different groups."
Moffat says that a push for divestment from Israel has gained strength in the wake of the country's recent strikes on Gaza -- retaliation for rocket fire on Israel. Estimates of Palestinian casualties vary widely, ranging from 600 to 1,300 dead, including hundreds of civilians. Fourteen Israelis have died in the rocket fire and subsequent military action.
Organizers are planning to show up before Batsheva's 8 p.m. performance at the Benedum Center (719 Liberty Ave., Downtown) to hand out information and make their case known. The action, Moffat says, is about what Batsheva represents, not what they do on stage.
"It's one thing to come as a dance company," he says. "It's another thing to come as the cultural representative of the Israeli government."
Moffat says protest organizers asked Batsheva to issue a statement saying the group's members "do not support the tactics that have gone on in Gaza."
"Basically, we told them we wouldn't go and protest if there was this statement," Moffat adds. "There's been no response."
"Batsheva Dance Company's core is art and creation, and as such it does not represent governmental policies," Naomi Bloch Fortis, the company's executive and co-artistic director, wrote in an e-mail. "Moreover, we in Batsheva believe that the form of our expression strengthens common human values and inspires our diverse audience."
Batsheva is a world-renowned dance company: A Jan. 28 City Paper story called its upcoming performance "the jewel in the [Pittsburgh] Dance Council's season." The Pittsburgh performance falls in the middle of a U.S. tour that includes stops in Minneapolis, Columbus, and Ann Arbor, Mich.
The company has not always been in lock-step with the Israeli government, though it has received state subsidies. In 1998, Batsheva's artistic director and choreographer Ohad Naharin resigned from the troupe over a dispute with public officials, according to The New York Times. The argument concerned proper attire for dancers. Naharin later rejoined the company, and is the choreographer for Pittsburgh's performance of his 2005 work Three.
Fortis did not respond to follow-up questions on whether Batsheva still receives public financing, or when Naharin rejoined Batsheva. Nor did she respond to Moffat's criticism that Batsheva is an all-Jewish troupe even though "20 percent of the population within Israel is Palestinian (Christian and Muslim)."
Veronica Corpuz, the public-relations director for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which is presenting the show, says that the primary concern of the Trust in scheduling is "quality. Our goal here is to present high-quality programming for our regional audience."
The Dance Council's executive director of programming, Paul Organisak, saw the company perform in Israel, Corpuz says, and "the caliber of the company, their artistry, and really their incredible talent, was the reason he booked the performance."
The potential for controversy, Corpuz says, was not a factor in making the selection: "Many of the visual artists that we present certainly do incorporate the political into their artwork, but yet again, I'll get back to this idea of quality."
In any case, the criticism seems unlikely to diminish. Blogs and indie-media sites from Chicago to Vancouver are calling for demonstrations at Batsheva performances. Moffat admits that a dance company may seem like an odd protest target. But the demonstration, he says, represents one part of a bigger movement -- to protest Israel's treatment of Palestinians through academic, cultural and consumer means.
"If it was some sort of academic representative of the Israeli government" coming to Pittsburgh, he says, "the focus would shift toward that."