Dancing for Peace in the Holy Land

An ongoing collaboration between young performers from Montecatini (Florence) and Bethelehem.

In places torn apart by armed conflict propelled by economic and military pressures, the peoples afflicted can be victims of mutual prejudice as much as everything else. These prejudices foster hostilities among the civil populations, but they can also be dissolved by meeting on “neutral territory”, on a cultural and social, as well as geographic level. There is territory where the human spirit can open up to authentic connections to experience freedom from hatred and fears, and find new approaches to reconciliation. This is the space occupied by the “Harmony among Peoples” project promoted by the Armonia Dancelab Cultural Association (*), using dance as a meeting place for peace. It is the social outreach of the Laboratorio Accademico Danza, based in Montecatini Terme, near Florence, Italy, founded by its artistic director, Antonella Lombardo. We asked her how the Association came about.

“After teaching dance for 20 years, I realised that young people seem to approach this discipline solely as a means to obtain personal success. I wanted to allow them to experience how dance can give meaning to life, independent of how “successful” or not their careers may be, how dance can contribute to improving other people’s lives and can actually sow seeds of peace. This desire led to the idea of international “campus” events first at at Montecatini, then in Bethlehem in the Holy Land.”

Tell us how it happened.
“We began by inviting young dance students from different parts of the world to stay with us in Italy, in order to share with them a vision of art which embraces the capacity to unite people from different social, political, ethnic and religious backgrounds, because it speaks a universal language. Inviting Palestinian and Israeli youngsters, we came into contact with the Custodia Terrae Sanctae and the John Paul II Foundation, who six years ago invited us to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to run an ‘arts campus’ for children living in refugee camps in the Palestinian territories.”

What happens in a “campus”?
“In our campus the young people have to work hard! They start at 9:00 in the morning right through to 18:00 in the evening, experiencing various styles of dance. Sharing a house together with the Italian students, they prepare the evening meals together and enjoy celebrating together. They all work on a choreography called Peace Dance which shows how, for example, Israeli and Palestinian youth, who live in a daily context of conflict, are able to create a climate of harmony in their personal relationships and onstage. This is true for participants from all countries, who bring their own artistic sensitivities and culture to the campus.”

How was your experience in Bethlehem?
“When we arrived, we found children with almost no knowledge of art. Some of them had never even seen a felt-tipped pen before. Our two week campus represented for them – prisoners in the open air – a space of freedom, a way to travel in their minds beyond the terrible wall separating them from the Israelis. Our teachers are Palestinian and Israeli young people who have attended our campus in Italy. The experience of the past six years has proved so fruitful that the Custodia Terrae Sanctae has asked us to open a permanent school in Bethlehem, which we hope will be possible next year.”

When is the next Italian campus and how can someone take part?
“It will take place in Montecatini from 27 August to 5 September 2020. Young people will attend from different parts of the world, including Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Israel. It’s designed for young people who are hoping to become professional artists and who share the idea that art can be a universal instrument of harmony among peoples. In that way, we hope each one of them can promote this change of mentality wherever they go on to work, in theatres, schools, art centres etc. Those interested can contact info@dancelab.it.”
These campus events are part of a broader project, the Festival of Harmony among Peoples, promoted by the Association …
“The Festival has been running for 15 years. This year it takes place in Tuscany, supported by the entire Val di Nievole region and cities including Florence, Assisi and Palermo. It involves a series of linked events, launching on 14 March in the imposing “Salone dei 500” in Florence’s famous Palazzo Vecchio. The date marks the anniversary of the death of Focolare foundress Chiara Lubich and the program will acknowledge her contribution to bringing harmony in the world. It also commemorates 20 years since she was awarded honorary citizenship of Florence, and the 100th anniversary of her birth.”

Other forthcoming events?
“Throughout the year we’re running programs in schools to develop a piece of work on the theme of disarmament. Our hope is to enable the voice of young people to reach the heads of state of countries involved in the production and trade of arms, to try to put a dent in them. Another program which is proving very popular with youth uses music as a moment of reflection the theme of ‘encounter’. Other cultural gatherings and inter-cultural meals are planned for Montecatini and Palermo.”
The Festival and the campus are all offered free to participants. This is surely a big challenge…
“From the start I wanted to keep this experience distinct from the usual dance programs delivered by schools for profit. The children come to us not only to study dance but because they have chosen to live for peace and to be bridge-builders of peace.”

Claudia Di Lorenzi


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