Young Israeli choreographer brings hot dance group to U.S.

Israeli choreographer Shlomi Elimelech, center, rehearses with Tzuza Dance Troupe members

Israeli choreographer Shlomi Elimelech, 21, started Tzuza Dance Troupe, which performed to a standing-room-only crowd at Tucson’s Israel Festival on April 25, when he was just 16.

Tzuza now has schools in two cities with more than 500 students and recently took second place in an Israeli dance competition against 60 other troupes.

Elimelech, who grew up in a typical soccer-loving family in Kiryat Malachi, says his attraction to dance led to some tough times — though not, he says, on the level of “Billy Elliott,” the Oscar-nominated British movie that is now a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

His parents always supported him, Elimelech told the AJP in an interview at the Tucson Jewish Community Center the morning after the festival. Elimelech was captivated by a modern dance performance he saw when he was 8, but he didn’t start dancing until a choreographer came to his elementary school to work with students for their sixth grade end-of-year party. Moving on to private lessons, he soon earned a reputation and danced with several Israeli groups, traveling around the world.

At 16, the Kiryat Malachi native decided he was ready to start his own troupe and knocked on the mayor’s door with his proposal. The mayor told him to get out, he says, so he returned with his father, securing a place to teach but no financial support.

Within a year Tzuza, which means “motion,” had grown from 20 to 60 students, earning support from the mayor — and from the TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoe­nix, Seattle) Partnership, which links the three North American Jewish Federations with the economically challenged city of Kiryat Malachi and the Hof Ashkelon region.

Ira Kerem, the Israeli coordinator of TIPS, who came to Tucson last month with Tzuza, explains that the partnership wanted to support and empower youth. When TIPS representatives asked kids in the region what they wanted, he says, their highest priority was support for the performing arts. Along with Tzuza, he says, the partnership helps fund musical, production and theater groups.

Tzuza has changed the city’s image, says Kerem. Instead of being embarrassed to be from Kiryat Malachi, he says, now kids are proud.

And when Moshe Babel-Pour, director of Tucson’s Israel Center, saw Tzuza in Israel three years ago, he told Kerem, “I want this group to come to Tucson.”

Tzuza is a great representative of the power of the TIPS partnership, says Babel-Pour. “Our investment in these kids a few years ago has now borne fruit.”

The 16 Tzuza dancers, ages 15-26, who performed here also spent time in Phoenix and Seattle, notes Kerem, thereby reducing travel costs. While in Tucson, they visited a dance class at University High School and danced with fourth-year students in the University of Arizona’s dance program, more than holding their own, says Kerem.

Incorporating moves from jazz, ballet and hip hop into his dances, Elimelech says his favorite choreographer is Alvin Ailey — although he also likes Brian Friedman of TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” But the Israeli prefers to set trends rather than follow them, he says, even taking moves out of his routines if he sees other troupes doing similar moves. Always thinking of expansion, he hopes to have 1,000 students within the next two years, and says he’d like to create a summer camp, and eventually a Tzuza branch, in the United States.

Tzuza’s high-energy performance on April 25 — even more astounding considering they’d performed a full show in Phoenix that morning —was certainly enthusiastically received.

“When they hit the stage, it’s like fire — they become electric,” says Elimelech.

The performance ended with a soulful dance set to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which might be considered a daring choice for an Israeli troupe, given the lyrics “imagine there’s no countries … and no religion, too.”

But Elimelech’s focus, he says, was on the song’s overall message of hope. When the two soloists — dressed as an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian — embrace, he says, it signifies “that the whole world can live together.” At the end, when the rest of the dancers take the stage in a variety of ethnic costumes, says Elimelech, it emphasizes that his interpretation is about respecting differences, not eliminating them.

For him, the song means, “We can live together, we don’t have to be enemies, we don’t have to be at war.

“Israel is always criticized,” he adds, “but Israel could be a leader in bringing people together.”