Eskesta Dance Theater will bring Ethiopian dance to Milwaukee

When people think of dancing, they usually think first of feet and legs. After that they may think of hands and arms. But shoulders?

Yet movements with the shoulders are among the distinguishing characteristics of dances from the Ethiopian Jewish (or Beta-Israel) community — so much so that the Eskesta Dance Theater, the Ethiopian Jewish dance company of the University of Haifa, has named itself with the Amharic word for that kind of dancing.

This seven-year-old company’s first U.S. tour will include a six-day visit to Milwaukee, Sept. 13-18, that will showcase the group in four free public performances of its program “Dances of the Beta-Israel: Past and Present.”

The company was born from the vision of Israeli dancer/choreographer Ruth Eshel. In 1991, she worked on a project about the Ethiopian Jews for the Israel Library of Dance. Even then she “was already dreaming” about creating an Ethiopian performance dance company, she said in a 1998 interview published in Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review.

So “it was like a miracle” when four Ethiopian Jewish students entered Eshel’s dance composition class at the University of Haifa in 1995. They began meeting twice a week after class and “I began to explore with them all kinds of visions concerning their heritage as Jews….”

Since then, the company has performed throughout Israel and in France, Italy, Germany and Ukraine. The Milwaukee performances will be:

• Sunday, Sept. 15, 10:30 a.m., at the Rubenstein Pavilion in Chai Point.

• Tuesday, Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m., at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s Ritz Theater.

• Wednesday, Sept. 18, noon, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Union’s Fireside Lounge.

• Wednesday, Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m., at America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Honesty and freshness

The company today is different from what it was at its beginning, Eshel explained in an e-mail to The Chronicle. Of the current ten members, “most of them came as children to Israel and were educated here,” she wrote. “Most of the boys and girls have served in the army.”

As a result, they have more of an Israeli character than did the first Ethiopian students, she wrote. The girls especially “are transformed…. They are strong and sure of themselves.”

The company has also changed its artistic approach, Eshel wrote. “The new works are less improvisation. After six years, I know something of Ethiopian dances and [have] analyzed the lexicon of movements. I am more courageous using the raw material to create artistic dance.” These works include “Opus for Shoulders and Heads,” which will be performed here.

The program will also include movements to prayers of the Qesso (spiritual leaders) of the Ethiopian community; a medley of Ethiopian tribal dances, plus artistic dances created by Eshel.

Though the company’s members receive scholarships for participating in Eskesta, most of them are not dance or theater majors. They have to divide their time between Eskesta and their studies and sometimes outside jobs. Eshel wrote that this means “everything takes more time….”

But the company also has strengths that according to Eshel have kept it around when other Ethiopian dance groups in Israel have failed. The members “have their own way of moving and they are very honest in the way they dance,” she wrote. “[T]here is in Eskesta a freshness, a feeling of doing something of value, both artistic and to the community.”

Eskesta is coming to Milwaukee via the efforts of the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, which responded to outreach by the American Society of the University of Haifa.

According to Kim Cooper, the consulate’s director of cultural affairs, they decided to include Milwaukee in the itinerary because “we have good relations with the Jewish community of Milwaukee, we know there is a strong African American Jewish community there,” and “It’s natural to want to showcase all the different facets of Israeli culture and society….”

The Milwaukee visit is being coordinated by the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee and fits with that organization’s “mission to build coalitions across racial, religious and ethnic groups” and its work in “getting Israel’s message out to the larger community,” said chapter executive director Harriet Schachter McKinney.

The schedule the AJC set up is designed as much to give Eskesta members a look at Milwaukee as Milwaukee a look at them. Eskesta members will have a lunch at City Hall hosted by Common Council President Marvin Pratt and a Shabbat lunch with area Jews of color; attend a class with Milwaukee’s Ko-Thi (African) Dance Company; visit area Jewish and public schools; and attend a reception sponsored by the Milwaukee Ethnic Council, among other events.

Co-sponsors of the events include the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Israel Resource Center, the Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee, the African American/Jewish Task Force, America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Harry & Rose Samson Family JCC, MetNet, the Moreshet Network, the Milwaukee Urban League, the Milwaukee Ethnic Council and the UWM Department of Student and Multicultural Affairs and Union Sociocultural Programming.

For more information about volunteering to welcome Eskesta, the performances or the associated events, call the AJC, 414-291-2140.

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