Shamel Pitts Shamel Pitts Shamel Pitts performing with the Batsheva Dance Company. (Photo: Gadi Dagon)

Shamel Pitts brings Brooklyn to Israel

The New York-born Batsheva dancer talks about meeting his mentor and his Tel Aviv event series.

When asked to perform in front of friends and family, some artists tighten up and get nervous. Not Shamel Pitts. When he performed as part of the ensemble of the Batsheva Dance Company in the U.S. this past fall, he got excited when faced with the prospect of performing in front of those who go way back with him.

"I love to come back to the States and perform for Americans because it’s a treat, I never get to do that; I live very far away," Pitts told From The Grapevine. He's lived in Tel Aviv since he joined the famed contemporary dance company in 2009. During the American tour, he performed in front of family members at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not far from where he grew up in the East New York section of the borough.

"To come back and bring my life from Israel to my previous life in the States is very exciting, and emotional for me. Especially for those who haven’t seen me perform ever, and they wonder what the hell am I doing all the way over there, and they have many ideas about what it means for me to be living over there in Israel," he said. "I think somehow it’s a relief for them, and they trust me more, in terms of my decision to live in Israel."

Shamel Pitts Batsheva Shamel Pitts (left) performing with the Batsheva Dance Company. (Photo: Courtesy of Shamel Pitts)

That Pitts, a graduate of Juilliard, has affection for his hometown is obvious. But what's also obvious, after talking to him for any period of time, is that Tel Aviv has become more than just where he lives; it's become his adopted hometown. While his work with Batsheva is still his primary artistic outlet, he's also become well-known on the club scene, sponsoring two different party series that have become popular around the city.

How Pitts went from Brooklyn to Tel Aviv has a lot to do with a man he considers his mentor, Ohad Naharin, the choreographer and artistic director of Batsheva. During Pitts' second year at Juilliard, Naharin was brought in for 10 days to work with Pitts and his class on a piece staged by Batsheva's co-artistic director, Adi Salant, called "Tabula Rasa." The experience was "a revelation" for the dancer.

"I’ve never felt that connected to the essence of why I dance," he said. "Just in terms of the language that he used: Pleasure, passion to move, texture, delicacy with explosive powers, the ability to make fun of yourself, how you can be virtuosic and sophisticated in your movement, and still do it with only 30 percent. All the love that I have for it was in the language that he used." Naharin uses those terms when he trains dancers in Gaga, the "movement language" he invented and teaches worldwide. 

"I pretty much told him that I’m in love with his work, and I would love to join his company and work with him, but he also told me he was very interested." Naharin promised to keep in touch after their work together ended.

After graduating Juilliard, Pitts danced for the Le Ballets Jazz company in Montreal, where the two men crossed paths once again; when Naharin visited Montreal, he reached out to Pitts, and the two spoke over breakfast. "I went to his hotel at around 8 in the morning, and we talked over an hour about many different things: life, and love, and politics, and dance," Pitts said. "Then, during this conversation, he suggested to me to come to Israel, if I could, to see what it’s like to be in Israel and see what it feels like to be around Batsheva. So I came there for five days, which was in January 2009, and at that point, he asked me to come and join the ensemble." Six years later, he's hard-pressed to remember who persuaded whom to join forces. "I don’t know if he convinced me or I convinced him."

As one might expect, the move to Tel Aviv was an adjustment for Pitts, but he soon realized that's where he belonged. "Because of the dancers, because of the work of Ohad, because of the world and environment of art that he created in the studio during my time there, it felt like a place that I needed to be." He felt more stable once Naharin invited him to join the main company in 2010, after a year of working with the ensemble. Unlike his Israeli colleagues who grew up watching Batsheva and Naharin's Gaga method, Pitts needed to strip down some of his classical training in order to get to the heart of what Naharin wanted. "There was something that was already in their DNA, and for me, I think, because I had much more training, and much more education, I sort of had to decipher… I had to clear out some things in order to bring myself more forward, you know?"

When asked how he describes Gaga, which he also teaches as part of Naharin's Gaga training program, he feels it's more than just letting your body move in the moment. "It is important in Gaga to listen to your body and how your body moves you. First you listen, and then you act, which is not the same in a lot of other methods or techniques," he said. "In terms of the class itself, the work, the training of Gaga, it’s very directed. We’re very clear about what we’re doing in every moment. It’s not that every man is going with something that’s disconnected from each other. We have this sort of cohesiveness between us in terms of the direction from Ohad."

Batsheva may be his first love, but Pitts keeps very busy when he's away from the dance company. Almost from the first months he lived in Tel Aviv, Pitts had a desire to recreate the New York club scene that he knew and loved. "It wasn’t part of my agenda, but it’s part of who I am to bring where I come from to where I am," he said. "So it happened seamlessly. I would go out a lot in the nightlife. I would meet lots of different people, and they would feel from me this culture of New York, of Brooklyn, of black, of nightlife, of alternative. So I felt there was space for me there." He's done that via two event series, one created with his Batsheva colleague Billy Barry and another with DJ Litty Lev Cohen, whose dance mixes have been popular in Tel Aviv for some time.

According to Pitts, Cohen is the key to the experiences in both series, as the partygoers "experience the very specialized vibe and atmosphere that Litty continuously creates."

Pitts has also been writing a travelogue while touring with Batsheva, mostly in the form of poetry. "I find words and they’re reflective about where I come from and where I am, and dealing with experiences that I’ve had, and relationships that I’ve had with people," he said. He calls it "BLACK BOX (Little Black Box of RED)," the last word referring to a childhood nickname that people call him to this day. He's also working with photographer Alex Apt on a series about the human body and nature and he's performing a project called "Arrowed" with artist Bobbi Jene Smith, a former Batsheva colleague whom Pitts considers "my sister, my friend, my blood."

Shamel Pitts black box dance recitalA still from Shamel Pitts' black box dance project, which he'll perform on his 30th birthday. (Photo: Alex Apt)

The project he's most excited about, though, is a private dance recital that he'll perform to a small audience in his Tel Aviv apartment on Feb. 19, his 30th birthday. He'll perform from his book of poetry in a spare room of his apartment that he's painting black to create the black-box effect he's looking for. "I invite people into my house, and they would discover this really bizarre room that you would never imagine to be there," he said.

And while he's fleetingly thought about life after Batsheva – he's not sure whether that means he'll stay in Tel Aviv or move back home, because "I really love my culture, and I miss it" – he's just enjoying the moment. "I guess most dancers have consciousness about aging, because this life is very short as a dancer," he said. "But I do these things because I have interest in them, and I’m writing because it feels true. I have no agenda to plan my escape."


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Shamel Pitts brings Brooklyn to Israel
The New York-born Batsheva dancer talks about meeting his mentor and his Tel Aviv event series.