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Changing the world, one dance step and one book at time

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Israeli artist Netally Schlosser never set out to change the world or anyone’s life. She’s not a humanitarian or a selfless do-gooder. But her work in a small patch of green in one of the seediest neighborhoods in Tel Aviv is challenging her in ways that other artistic projects never have.

Plopped in the middle of the green square of Levinsky Park near the central bus station is shelter No. 740—the white-washed boxy bunker studio of Schlosser’s friend and collaborator Lior Waterman. The shelter studio serves as the base of operations for Schlosser and Waterman as well as Waterman’s independent arts collective, ARTEAM. Together, the artists have been the driving force behind a thriving and innovative cultural hub for and by neighborhood residents.

The area around Levinsky Park is home to refugees and foreign workers. Many are in Israel illegally or on short-term visas and come from places like Sudan, Eritrea, Thailand and the Philippines. Their cultures are vastly different from the sabra state of mind, and interaction between Israelis and these communities can be fraught with misunderstanding.

That’s where Schlosser and Waterman come in. Back in 2009, they helped establish a public library in Levinsky Garden. Designed by an architect who is a member ARTEAM, the library is basically two giant bookcases under an awning attached to Waterman’s bunker studio. The bookcases are transparent and lit up from within, making the books glow at night.

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The books cover a variety of subjects in at least 16 languages, including Amharit, Tagalog, Arabic, French, Spanish and Thai. Hebrew-language books are available for the neighborhood kids, many of whom study at the Bialik-Rogozin School nearby. A documentary about the school recently won an Oscar. Kids and adults from all over neighborhood hang out at the library. Protected by the wide canopy, they read, get homework help from volunteers and generally socialize.

But the library is just the tip of the iceberg for Schlosser, who spoke about the many projects in Levinsky Park to a local group of women in Chicago as part of the FeminIsrael series sponsored by the American Zionist Movement March 10.

An accomplished visual artist, Schlosser said her approach to her art changed through dance collaborations with the Levinsky Park regulars. At first, small shows included tribal dances from Sudan and Nigeria and casual showcases of holiday traditions from Southeast Asia. Then, Schlosser came up with the idea of adopting Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” ballet to a communal performance. Despite scheduling challenges, her team of dancers from the area put on an exuberant performance in May 2010.

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The video Schlosser showed depicts a crowd pressing in on a wooden stage as the improvised troupe troops out for their take on Ravel. The movements are far from the traditional African dances, which were performed earlier as a warm-up for the audience―the motions are more fluid and graceful. But the spirit is the same: exuberance and pride jostle concentration on the faces of the performance, just as in earlier cultural events in the park.

That moment of glory has stayed with Schlosser. The road to the accomplishment was physically and emotionally draining, she said. And she hasn’t yet created anything similar, though smaller cultural gatherings continue to take place in the park, the volunteers continue coaching the community, and the library continues to stock up on books in a slew of languages.

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