Festival Hatzafon hosts their Chai Celebration

Dr. Mintoo Basahti, AIFDA President with Artistic Director Sari Uretsky, MC Neil Grahn, and some of the Aviv dancers and teachers holding flowers in the background. Photo supplied.

By Jenna Vetsch

(AJNews) – The Edmonton Jewish Community Centre held the first rehearsal of the Aviv Dancers – the Israeli dance group founded by Sari Uretsky – back in the spring of 2006. Under the presidency of Stacey Leavitt-Wright, this troupe became the non-profit organization known as the Aviv Israeli Folk Dance Association (AIFDA).

Flash forward to March of 2024, people from the Edmonton community and beyond celebrated the AIFDA’s 18th anniversary – a chai celebration – illustrated in the Festival Hatzafon logo designed by Lisa Hering. Chai is the Hebrew word for life, and it holds significant meaning for the Jewish people. The number 18 is also a symbolic number in the Jewish tradition as it is the sum of the numerical values associated with the letters that make up the word chai. With this understanding, AIFDA knew this year’s festivities needed to be extra special.

Hours were poured into planning, coordinating, and rehearsing, under Artistic Director Sari Uretsky, to ensure Festival Hatzafon (Festival of the North) 2024 showcased the more-than-a-decades worth of history and passion for Israeli dance in Edmonton. The result? A multi-generational event that brought Jewish communities across Canada, as well as a variety of cultural dance groups, together for a memorable experience. Acme Scrap Iron & Metals generously provided the title sponsorship for Festival Hatzafon 2024.

The crowd enjoyed the Israeli Dancing and so much more at the 2024 Festival Hatzafon Chai Celebration held on March 2. Photo supplied.

The celebrations began on the evening of March 2nd, 2024 at the Laurier Heights Community League hall. Dinner was sponsored by Cristine and Barry Slawsky and Mercedes-Benz Heritage Valley. As guests arrived, the room filled with a buzz of excitement. Aviv alumni reconnected with family, friends, and former dance team members. It was a nostalgic evening as people recounted stories and shared fond memories with one another of their time in AIFDA. Guest performers from the Winnipeg and Vancouver Israeli dance groups, Kadima Dance Company and Orr Atid respectively, were in attendance as well.

Once bellies were full and speeches were shared, past and present dancers took to the dance floor. It was beautiful to see dance build bridges right before our eyes, showing how music and dance can take strangers and create bonds in minutes. Traditional and contemporary Israeli circle dance songs played throughout the night to the delight of those at the party. A few hours later, the exciting buzz reduced to a chatter, and the guests filed out into the snowy night for some rest before the next day’s festivities.

On the morning of March 3, AIFDA volunteers, teachers, dancers, parents, and guest performers arrived at the Westbury Theatre, located in the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Arts Barns. The Edmonton Jewish Community Charitable Foundation sponsored the theatre, inviting the community into a beautiful venue for this year’s festival. From 9:00am up until 4:30pm showtime, backstage volunteers, front of house helpers, and Westbury Theatre staff and technical support worked together to create a unique experience for audience members. Sari expressed her gratitude for the Festival Committee’s work and dedication, in addition to the “numerous volunteers working to make the event seamless.”

Prior to the show, guests began arriving at 3 pm to explore the lobby. They could find an Israeli-style shuk setup with vendors and Israeli food for all. The Jewish Federation of Edmonton sponsored a photo booth, which was a huge hit. People could also learn about Jewish Federation’s PJ Library program while enjoying tasty treats, and flip through scrapbooks and photos of AIFDA history while reconnecting with old friends. Among the crowd of attendees were dignitaries Councillor Tim Cartmell and 2SLGBTQ+ Advocate Anna Murphy.

In what felt like a love letter to AIFDA, over 20 alumni of Aviv kicked-off the show with a performance of Sari’s first choreographed number for the group, Tzel Midbar. Whether in-person or via zoom, these dancers practiced over many weeks to bring a nostalgic and joyous performance to the Westbury Theatre stage once again. One alum shared the role Aviv played in their life, saying “it was such an integral part of getting myself settled in Edmonton, making friends here and helping me feel a sense of community.”

MC duo Jayden Leung and Neil Grahn added an element of comedy and quirkiness which had the audience laughing and waiting to see what shenanigans they would get up to next. The show also featured vocalists and musicians Kingsley Leung, Jayden Leung, Sean Sonego, and Erica Solomon. Their performances enhanced the already marvelous 90-minute program.

Festival Hatzafon also welcomed various cultural dance groups to share the stage with Edmonton’s AIFDA dancers, along with Winnipeg’s Kadima and Vancouver’s Orr Atid Israeli dance groups. Kyklos Hellenic Performing Arts Group, the Balada Romanian Folk Dance Ensemble, and the Polonez Polish Folk Arts Ensemble dazzled the audience with their unique performances. The show’s finale included a simple Israeli line dance which all groups learned and danced together, wearing beautiful T-shirts sponsored by Cushman & Wakefield. Sari described the finale as “the icing on the cake” to a beautiful collaboration.

In his closing speech, AIFDA President and Festival Co-Chair, Mintoo Basahti talked about the importance of cross-cultural interactions. AIFDA’s mission is to enrich the cultural mosaic of Edmonton by teaching about Jewish and Israeli culture through the art of dance. Their goal is to spread peace and tolerance to as many people as possible. “Without youth having the opportunity to learn about their heritage and participate in it, they can’t build an appreciation and respect for other groups,” Mintoo remarked. Dancers from the Greek, Romanian, and Polish communities in Edmonton helped enhance this year’s Festival and embodied a key part of AIFDA’s mission. He went on to congratulate each group on helping build a better community for all of us. One audience member commented that “we loved the festival. Thank you for exposing us to this cultural event! I learned a lot.”

In a heartfelt speech, Sari was presented with “A Woman of Valour” award in honour of her 18 years of dedication to AIFDA and the greater community, on behalf of the AIFDA board.

Mintoo expressed how cultural events, such as Festival Hatzafon, are important to the cultural fabric of our community. “They would be impossible without the generous support of our sponsors. We sincerely thank them.” Gratitude towards parent and dancer commitment was also expressed as they are essential to a thriving dance community.

For more information about Israeli dance in Edmonton and highlights from the show, please visit AIFDA’s website at www.aifda.ca.

Jenna Soroka Vetsch is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

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