Another Israeli Show Makes it Big

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Mayumana is described by many as Israel's answer to Stomp. The gripping percussion show is now making a name for itself outside of Israel. A recent article in Haaretz, explains how the show has progressed onto the world stage and become popular enough to go on many tours. You can now see the shows around the world, but there is probably nowhere better to see them than in Jaffa at the place where it all began. You can read the article below.

Mayumana has come quite a way to reach the point where it's no longer automatically compared to acts like Stomp, Cirque de Soleil and De La Guarda, and instead has begun to share stages with them.

The Mayumana company, which started out 13 years ago with open auditions before friends in Tel Aviv, has grown into an international success story: It employs 100 people around the world, fills auditoriums even in these recessionary times and stars in major ad campaigns (including for Coca Cola and Fiat). Tomorrow, Mayumana will present it's new show, "Momentum," at the Jerusalem Theater, in the first of four Israel Festival performances, each before an audience numbering 1,000.

In keeping with the spirit of Mayumana, "Momentum" combines movement, live music, drumming, humor and tons of rhythm. For the first time, it also includes advanced technologies, which make it a highly complex undertaking and thus more prone to mishaps. "All it takes is for the lighting director to miss a cue for the whole thing to get messed up," says Eylon Nuphar, a founder of Mayumana and co-creator of the show. "But if we were to sit here and count all the things that could go wrong, we'd be here for two days and miss the Israel Festival," she adds with a chuckle.

And there were mishaps. The first time they performed Momentum, in Spain in December, "nothing worked," says Boaz Berman, who founded the ensemble together with Nuphar and was involved in creating the current show. "It uses computer programs and advanced technology. Everything has to work in perfect synchronicity with the sound and lighting, and the actors receive timing instructions via earphones. Essentially, it's really two shows - the one on the stage and the one backstage."

So what did you do?

"We were on the verge of a nervous breakdown," Berman recalls. "Right at the start of the Spanish tour we performed in front of 1,000 people, and only then did we really understand how complicated it was to work with these technologies and how unprepared we were. After that we brought in professionals who worked 24 hours a day, technical guys from England and Holland. By the time we reached Madrid, the show was good. And a month later, it was fantastic. It took some time to stabilize. We were afraid, because the expectations were very high."

Hear the name Mayumana, and the first thing you think of is drums. Indeed, it all began 17 years ago when Nuphar took drum lessons from Berman. As a teenager, Nuphar, a 38-year-old New York native and daughter of a tap dancer, was a gymnast and long-distance runner. In high school she focused on music and theater, and later went on to study photography and video editing, belly dancing and Oriental music both in Israel and elsewhere.

Berman, 46, was born in Tel Aviv. His mother is a pianist, and as a kid he would tap out rhythms on whatever surface came to hand. He, too, has a wide-ranging background: He studied music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance conservatory, Afro-Cuban drumming in New York, was a member of the Israeli kick-boxing team, competed in surfing competitions in the U.S. and worked as a diving instructor in Tel Aviv. As a young man, he played music with leading Israeli artists such as Yehuda Poliker.

This may explain why the multidisciplinary approach is so key to Mayumana, whose members are dancers who can sing, actors who can dance, and so on.

Shortly after Nuphar and Berman met, they became a couple. In 1996, they decided to form an ensemble that would combine a variety of performing arts skills (hence the name Mayumana - from the Hebrew word meyumanuyot, meaning "skills"). So they gathered some friends together and began practicing in the building that once housed the Limor cinema, next to the Tzavta club in Tel Aviv. "We started with a group of people who we chose, and the two of us were also a part of it, and we started rehearsing," says Berman. "After two or three months we realized that these weren't the people we could continue with. We let them all go except for one, and we held auditions. We auditioned exactly 700 people, out of which we chose six.

"Our goal was to put on a show that would be different from anything else out there. We were so fired up that we were sure we'd succeed. The people who worked with us then did it for free, because they all believed in us. We worked all day every day, and when we had enough material we started doing open presentations to friends on Wednesdays, which evolved from week to week."

At this point, Roy Ofer came on board as Mayumana's producer and he urged them to perform publicly.

Nuphar and Berman may have split up soon before the premiere performance in 1998, which was called "Mayumana," but their joint vision and deep friendship endured. Today, they say that they and their current partners act "like one big family," and often eat Friday night dinner together. The "Mayumana" show was a smash and ran for almost a year at Tzavta, before moving to another venue in Old Jaffa, called Beit Mayumana (previously home to the Gesher Theater).

"As in other matters where we understood relatively early on that we were doing things the right way for us," says Ofer, "we came to the conclusion that we needed our own home theater - even if that was not the conventional way to go. Because going outside means compromising, and we're not prepared to compromise, just to bend. We have our own people who we work with, and we rarely involve people from the outside. On tours abroad, we have our own way of doing things. We don't just perform and leave. We performed in Madrid for eight months, we were in New York for six months, and so on."

Why, in Mayumana, don't you use the term "troupe" or "dance" or "dancers"? Instead you talk about the "company,"movement" and "actors."

"In a troupe, the members all do one specific thing - dancing or drumming or whatever," Berman explains fervently. "With us, everyone does everything, even though on the face of it they're completely disparate - one is a professional dancer, another is the national archery champion, another one's an actor, this one's a contortionist. Our job is to unite them. It's a group of people, not a troupe."

One defining trait of Mayumana, and a reflection of Berman and Nuphar's perfectionism, is a three-hour rehearsal prior to each performance. ("No Broadway ensemble does anything like it," says Berman). They also become closely involved in any ads that they shoot, and insist on a filmed run-through before every television appearance. "From the outset we do things our way," declares Berman. "We don't compromise or cut corners. There was a time when we didn't do any television in Israel, because no one would agree to our demands for a filmed run-through and to speak with the director before the broadcast."

The three partners who run Mayumana devote most of their waking hours to it, but Berman and Nuphar haven't been performing with the group for some time. Berman stopped doing so about a year and a half ago, and Nuphar retired from the stage after she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. Since recovering, she occasionally lectures about her experience with the illness and is also working on a book.

Nuphar and Berman say the division of labor between them is harmonious. Both do everything and when one needs some time off - such as when Berman's wife gave birth last week - the other gladly steps in. "The division of labor varies from project to project, in accordance with what's going on in our lives," says Nuphar.

Berman adds: "For this show, we also wrote the music. We've been going in a more musical direction and really want to develop that."

In addition to the four teams currently at work around the world (one with the Mayumana show, two with Momentum and one on special projects) - which meet every two years for a vacation at Kibbutz Kfar Blum - the group also runs a volunteer-based therapeutic foundation that combines its defining elements of rhythm, movement and music. Groups the foundation works with include the Bet Ashanti shelter for juveniles in distress, the Kfar Izun drug rehabilitation center, and disabled IDF veterans. They've also established a special ensemble in Jaffa, comprising children from the three major religions.

This wide-ranging activity is perhaps especially surprising given that Mayumana is an entirely privately run group. Ofer says they have never requested any funding from the Culture and Sports Ministry because they have never needed it.

Berman notes that, despite this, "At a lot of events abroad, the state hitches a ride on us. The embassy says, 'Here is Mayumana. They're ours,' without them having contributed a cent or any assistance."

Are they resentful? Not really. Proud is more like it.

"We like extreme sport," says Ofer. "Bungee jumping, jumping out of planes and working on Mayumana - with all of them you're dealing with a similar level of adrenaline, and I'm speaking from experience. Still, we've become a proper company by now - there's no comparison between what we once were and what we are today."
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