Every year in late May or early June, Jews around the world celebrate Shavuot, commemorating when the Israelites received the ten commandments at the foot of Mount Sinai in the middle of the desert. For the past four years, a crowd of 500 acro enthusiasts have also chosen to spend their Shavuot in the desert at the Israeli Acrobatics convention, tents pitched under the sun, studying an entirely different set of commandments: communication, trust, agility, strength and alignment.
Held at the Hangar Adamah in Mizpe Ramon, a gorgeous area in the south of Israel, this year’s convention brought together a group of Israelis and internationals for four days of acro fun. An Israeli myself, transplanted to New York six years ago, I attended during a trip back for the summer. I knew little about the circus/acro scene in Israel, and was curious to spend a long weekend discovering the similarities and differences between the US and the Israeli communities.
Classes started at 6am and lasted until 8pm. There were four levels available: beginner, intermediate, advanced and professional, as well as classes for children. I went back and forth between intermediate and advanced classes, depending on the teacher and content. Led by skilled teachers from Israel, Europe, and the United States, the courses included a range of disciplines: AcroYoga, acrobalance, aerial, handstands, hand-to-hand, and therapeutic flying. Some of my favorites included Icarian pops/dynamic acro with Thorsten Bohle from Germany; handstands with Yanai Lev-Or from Israel; Washing Machines with Daniel Scott from the USA; Acro with Lux from the USA and Peter and Marieke from the Netherlands.
As the convention progressed I was delighted to see that my country has a strong acro community full of enthusiasm, hard work and dedication. Acro hasn’t existed in Israel for very long, but despite the fact that it became popular merely 2-3 years ago, this was no small event. Classes were more than full, families came together, people shared skills and exchanged ideas. I was happy to discover the convention had a bit of a Burning Man flavor to it too: radical self-expression, self-reliance, gifting… above all, there was an eagerness to learn and evolve.
As several of the American teachers pointed out, the level of amateur acro in Israel is high and quickly rising. I would add that there’s also a creativity and a childish joy in Israeli acro practitioners that I haven’t seen elsewhere. There were acro-olympics (who can hold their handstand the longest?) and a show. I watched a 5-year-old balanced on one hand of his base, followed by an acro act with an 81-year-old man. Yoni, an Israeli acro teacher and performer, performed a duo act in which he and his guitar-playing flyer sang an ode to Mizpe Ramon while flipping through the air.
While the acro part of the convention felt full of people who are either doing this from recreational or yoga perspective for the most part, aerial classes were different. There, in the advanced level, I met students of Sandciel, Israel’s Circus School (who are doing a full-time 3 year program to become circus professionals), as well as people who train in recreational circus programs all over Israel.
I came in excited to learn some new tricks. Ronny Kalev, founder of Shabazi Circus in Kibbutz Ein Shemer, led the class. “Choose any apparatus”, she said (there was dance trapeze, tissu and rope), “perform any move you like, in three different ways. Select three different things you wish to say and express them, not with your face, but with your body. How can you utilize the physicality of the move you’ve chosen to express yourself?”
I was surprised. I’ve had a few aerial teachers in the past, but only one ever worked with me on expression through movement. I believe the ability to perform, to “capture the stage”, to be more important than technical virtuoso, and was overjoyed to see it addressed. Later, when I asked Ronny where she trained, she said in France. The only other aerial teacher who worked on performance with me trained in London. This made sense, as contemporary circus and the concept of circus as art rather than entertainment is more developed in Europe than it is in America. I was delighted to see that Israeli circus folk are viewing and developing circus as an art form.
I soon learned that the attendees were taking the levels as a recommendation. Same went for the notion of safety. In America the importance of safety has been hammered into me; in Israel, it was super casual. People did acro everywhere: on mats, on wood, on concrete. Spotters were optional. Israelis are a confident breed – we believe we can, we like challenges. Don’t dare tell us we can’t. At first, I was alarmed. What if someone falls? Gets injured? I had to resist the urge to chastise them about the dangers.
That blind confidence is something I both dislike and appreciate (and even miss) about my homeland: throwing all caution to the wind, thinking you’ve got this under control at all times. One the one hand it can be dangerous at worst, annoying at best. I had to work with people who didn’t match the level of the class, because they didn’t consider the level. Once, when I was flying, I tried to give a correction to my base. He wouldn’t listen. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve done this before,” he said. “I know.” It’s hard to establish trust without communication and it’s hard to communicate well when ego is involved.
Yet on the other hand there’s a big advantage to this confidence, especially in the fields of circus and acrobatics: Less fear allows you to take more risks. Believing you can makes you rise to the challenge. I found myself in classes that were hard for me, because others believed that I could. When I was scared I pulled myself together and overcame the fear, because I too am an Israeli and I can dip into my inner stash of blind confidence.
I learned this for myself during my first night. In the midst of a dance party, my favorite base and I started practicing in a corner. I confided that I was dying to try hand-to-hand, but that my teachers back in New York discouraged me from trying, because my handstands aren’t very controlled yet.
“Yaaaaaaa-lla”, he droned. “C’mon. Your handstands don’t need to be perfect! I’ll help stabilize you.”
“But what if I fall?!”
I took a deep breath. We grabbed hands. He placed his feet on my shoulders. I jumped into star, found my balance, and pushed hard through my arms. Slowly but surely, his feet left my shoulders, gently placing me in alignment – shoulders over wrists, ribs tucked, hips over shoulder. I kept pushing through my arms, his hands and mine doing the invisible dance of balance. My legs closed from straddle to straight.
It was a beautiful shock: my first ever attempt at hand-to-hand, a success! I was balanced, working hard to hold it, adjusting and pushing and engaging my abs, till I finally descended with a huge smile.
It was a lesson in acro and circus: you can’t always play it safe, sometimes you have to take a leap of faith to reach new grounds. It was also a lesson in culture: just because you aren’t accustomed to something doesn’t make it wrong. As they say, when in Rome… Or rather: When in Israel, have confidence.
Photos courtesy of FLYoga – Acroyoga with Liora.
Stav Meishar is a guest writer for Circus Now and currently traveling abroad, sending us the stories of circus along the way.