Composing During Covid: Master Class with Dege Feder, March 10, 2021

On Wednesday, March 10, 2021, Ethiopian-Israeli multimedia artist Dege Feder Zoomed in to The Ohio State University Department of Dance to teach a master class and to talk about her experience as an artist working in Israel during Covid. Feder’s movement practice blends the torso articulations of Ethiopian Eskesta dancing, a pan-Ethiopian dance practice focused on swiftly shimmering, rolling, and bouncing isolations of the shoulders, sternum, and belly, with improvisational-compositional explorations of Israeli contemporary dance. As the artistic director of Beta Dance Company, she makes dances about women’s kinship and collective power.

Feder led Ohio State workshop participants through an improvisational exploration, Eskesta instruction, and a compositional exercise, all based in her practices of movement and making. She began class with an improvisation working through the full capacity of each body part: head, neck, shoulders, belly, hips, arms, legs, followed by a lesson in Eskesta with double drops of the shoulders playing against upward belly rolls and ribcage quakes. Then she directed us to make short compositions based on material we had learned in the first part of class. The popular Ethiopian line dance with which Feder ended class reinforced the pan-Ethiopian connections of the practices she taught us.

Feder was born in Gondar, Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel as part of Operation Moses, the Israeli government’s clandestine operation to bring Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, to Israel in the mid-1980s. She joined the Eskesta (later Beta) Dance Troupe, an Ethiopian-Israeli dance company founded by Ruth Eshel, when she was a student at the University of Haifa; since 2013, Feder has directed the company now known as Beta Dance Company and has also toured internationally as a solo performer. Ohio State audiences may remember Feder’s powerful solo Jalo! that takes up an Ethiopian men’s warrior call to highlight the plight of refugees that she performed in Barnett Theater in February 2020 in the weeks before Covid hit Ohio.

As she has navigated Israel’s patterns of Covid lockdowns, Feder has found different ways to keep her artistry afloat. There is no question that Covid has shuttered theatrical dance performance opportunities and streaming performances do not always go as planned. In the midst of these navigations, Feder has found an appreciation for intimate, garden-sized performances.

After making dances in her living room for months, she decided to make a dance based around a chair to represent the limitations of living and working under Covid conditions. “The Corona took your freedom, took your feet, took your legs, took your hands, your spirit, everything,” she told us in a conversation after class. The new solo, she explains, is about limitations both in terms of body and in terms of space. She looks forward to Covid restrictions being lifted in the future so she can return to the theater.

Audience engagement, Feder admitted, has been the most difficult part of Covid restrictions. “When I perform without an audience, it is sad and lonely,” she said. “You don’t have a dialogue or spiritual conversation with the audience. You are just by yourself.” For Feder, performing is about sharing her knowledge with other people and making spiritual connections with audience members. She has recently found these connections in small, intimate performances, and she looks forward to a time after vaccination when she can return to larger performance venues. While her time working during Covid has presented challenges, she has found inspiration through the restrictions. They, in turn, have created new spaces for her to share her work.