When choreographer Ronen Koresh goes to an Israeli-style restaurant, whether at home in Philadelphia or in Tel Aviv, he orders mezze. “We’ll start with a variety of salads: the red salad, the green salad,” he said, “Then you order eggplant salad and tahini, some hummus and olives. That’s the start. It just keeps coming.”
Mezze, meaning many flavors, is also the name of his Philadelphia-based contemporary dance company’s program being performed Friday evening at the Columbia Festival of the Arts at the Jim Rouse Theater for the Performing Arts.
“It’s a compilation of works that I find are a wonderful representation of the company in the last five years,” Koresh said last week. The Israeli-born choreographer’s troupe, which he runs with his two brothers, Alon and Nir, just celebrated its 25th year and is settling into a nearly $2 million state-of-the-art building on Rittenhouse Square that it purchased two years ago. For Koresh, “Five years is significant. For some dance companies, that’s a lifetime. I took some of my works from the last five years and compiled them together: It’s little dishes that are all very different from one another.”
Koresh, who grew up outside of Tel Aviv in the then-small town of Yehud, said that his mother was an avid Israeli folk dancer. He didn’t start dancing until his teen years when he tried his hand at disco to look cool at parties. But soon he found his way to serious dance studies and during his army service stayed close to home so he could study at some of Tel Aviv’s top studios.
After the army, he decided that he needed to further his dance education and left for New York, where he studied at the acclaimed Alvin Ailey dance studio, before moving to Philadelphia to dance with the jazz-based company Waves, which was run by a fellow Israeli expatriate.
Going off on his own in 1991 to found Koresh Dance Company, Koresh discovered his own choreographic voice. His dances deal with elemental human emotions, deep personal relationships and profoundly felt human issues. Koresh’s 10 company members perform with unbridled physical prowess, technical deftness and sheer grace. But more so, the dancers demonstrate a total commitment to Koresh’s choreographic vision.
“You see it clearly: the passion, the variety, the range of the company, the range of the dancers, how they’re able to go from something very physical that is very sensuous to something that’s very romantic to something that is very dramatic,” he said.
On the Columbia program, an excerpt from “Gates” uses an ancient Yemenite song and a traditional Armenian song. Koresh explains, “I like to put in juxtaposition to classical music by using Middle Eastern and world music. It creates this exotic feel. It’s like traveling to new places in the world through music and through the dancing.” Alongside that work, the searing “Sense of Human” uses both well-known music, including excerpts from French chanteuse Edith Piaf, plus original music by Gregory Smith and Nick Kendall.
This flavorful evening of tastes of Koresh closes with the choreographer’s signature work, “Bolero,” a tour de force for his full company using the famously sensuous score. Both quirky and sexy, the dancers pace themselves during the boldly seductive build up.
Koresh has observed Israel’s burgeoning modern dance from afar as it has gained currency on world stages with the visceral works of fellow Israeli choreographers like Batsheva Dance Company’s acclaimed Ohad Naharin, and independent artists like Itzik Galili, Barak Marshall and Sharon Eyal.
“In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, a lot of experimental dance was happening [in the U.S.],” Koresh said, “but it was quite boring. It was very slow. People were rolling around on stage, throwing things at one another. Choreographers were forgetting the aesthetics of the art form itself and the urgency and the passion and the physicality that dance always had.”
That’s why, he said, Israeli modern dance has become such a hot commodity in recent years. He noted, “The Israeli temperament as a society is no different than the Israeli modern dance you see on the stage. It is urgent. It is explosive. It is without apology. And, like every good Israeli, they all think they have the right opinion. Which is a good thing; people should feel strongly about what they believe in. I think that dance needs that kind of attack.”