"As for me, my approach has never been that of a social worker, or a therapist," says Moshe Efrati, discussing Kol Demama, the uniquely integrated company of deaf and hearing dancers from Israel that makes its Kennedy Center debut tomorrow evening. "I have always come at this project as a dancer, as a choreographer. I told myself, if I can really get to know these people as people, they can help me. I wasn't out to show that they can dance 'like us.' I wanted to uncover what they have, inside themselves, to give us."
Jerusalem-born Efrati, 50, founded Kol Demama in 1978 and has remained its artistic director and choreographer. The company has performed three times in Europe, as well as throughout Israel, but the current tour of the United States and Mexico -- begun in Houston last week and ending at New York's City Center Nov. 25 -- marks the troupe's first visit to this country. At the Terrace Theater, Kol Demama's 18 dancers will present three evening programs, Monday through Wednesday, and in addition will offer a free lecture-demonstration-performance Tuesday at 11 a.m.
Efrati was enjoying a burgeoning career as a dancer himself at the time he first became involved in working with the deaf. He'd studied in Israel and with such teachers as Martha Graham and Antony Tudor in the United States in the early '60s. Then he returned to Israel to become a founding member of the Batsheva Dance Company.
In 1965, he was approached by the Association of the Deaf in Israel, and asked to undertake an artistic experiment with deaf youngsters. "At first," says Efrati, "it wasn't dancers I was working with, but kids -- a few groups of children from 14 to about 18. They wanted to use their bodies, to move. It was extremely difficult at first. In fact, I reached a point of being fed up and decided to leave, when they came to me and said, if you'd just have one group, not several, things might go better."
Efrati stuck it out, continuing to meet with a single group of 15, at first twice a week, then four times a week -- he was still performing with Batsheva the whole while. He came to a crucial decision: "I decided I had to find a way of working with the deaf that would enable them to express themselves on a stage in movement, a way that wouldn't depend on visual cues or signs, so they wouldn't always have to be facing a director or another dancer. At first I didn't know where I was going, but then I hit upon a method of using vibration as a system of choreographic signals."
In the early stages, Efrati would knock on a wood floor, and the dancers would sense the vibrations through their feet, learning to respond to choreographic directions -- steps, poses, orientations, dynamics, rhythms -- conveyed in this manner. "I had learned some sign language," he says, "but they wanted to get beyond that -- they wanted to spring free of their cage, to be in our world, our place. So I continued to develop the vibration system, expanding it in new ways."
In 1967, Efrati took the step of forming Demama, a company of deaf dancers, with the encouragement and financial support of Baroness Bethsabee de Rothschild, founder of Batsheva. He continued his own dancing, and also started choreographing, in 1969, for Batsheva and other troupes, both in and outside Israel. Then in 1974, he established his own troupe of hearing dancers, the Efrati Company. The final step came four years later when he fused the two troupes -- hearing and deaf -- into Kol Demama. "Kol" is Hebrew for "sound"; "Demama" means "silence."
Efrati's vibration system evolved even further to make such a fusion possible. "In general," Efrati explains, "when hearing dancers are on stage, there is music; when deaf dancers are on stage, there is silence, and I give vibrational cues from the wings. But much of the time, both are on stage and there are many means of communication. Sometimes a deaf dancer will lead a hearing one. We use body cues, gestures, even facial expressions, all of which, like the vibration itself, become part of the choreography. Eye contact is an important link between the dancers. But we also use voices. In one passage in the dance 'Attachments,' for example, there's a duet between a deaf dancer and a hearing woman. She takes her choreographic cues from his voice, which is on the sound track, but which he can't hear. He takes his cues from her body, from her movement."
Efrati often commissions Israeli composers to write specially designed scores for the troupe, incorporating the silences and sonic cues on which the integration of the dancing depends. He also uses preexisting scores -- by Bach, Purcell, Tartini and other composers -- expressly arranged for his choreography. But it's the choreographic theme or subject that comes first in his work. The music is added afterward, and derives from the subject -- not the other way around, as is common in more conventional kinds of choreography.
Efrati takes much pride in the fact that audiences cannot tell the deaf dancers from the hearing in the performances of Kol Demama. He marvels, too, at the special powers of the deaf dancers. "They are never distracted," he says, "they have an extreme power of concentration. As for the hearing dancers in the troupe, they must be like two dancers in one, attending to their own movement but also never losing contact with their deaf colleagues. On stage, though, it's not a matter of deaf and hearing -- it's a meeting of two worlds, communicating by means of a common idea or emotion. It's one family."