By Karen McDonough/JNS.org
When Shahar Dori left his Haifa home at age 17 and made a 6,500-mile trip to Montgomery, Ala., to attend a summer ballet program, he was pursuing a dream. But he had no idea where it would lead.
Dori, now 23, is the first Israeli ballet dancer to join the Houston Ballet, where he is earning recognition as a rising talent in the fiercely competitive ballet world. His journey from one port city, Haifa, to another, Houston, is a story of hard work, sacrifice, and the generosity and closeness of the Jewish community.
Dori’s father, Ofer, was an Israeli folk dancer whose love of dancing rubbed off on his son. As a teen, Dori studied hip-hop dance at Haifa’s Wizo Art and Design High School, where a teacher suggested taking ballet to help his technique. Reluctant to do so –– he didn’t want to wear tights—Dori tried ballet and was instantly hooked. One problem, though: he was already 16, which is considered very late to begin such a demanding art form, especially if he wanted to advance.
“I fell in love with how hard ballet was physically and how effortless it needed to look,” Dori said in an interview with JNS.org. “There’s so much artistry in it. When you go onstage and perform and put your heart into it and you’re in the moment, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
At the Wizo school, he performed lead roles in classical ballets, then trained while on a scholarship at Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. He excelled and was recognized with the Keren Sharet award for ballet by the American-Israel Cultural Foundation. With the award, the well-known Israeli modern dancer Ido Tamor chose Dori for a summer scholarship program at Montgomery Ballet in 2009. Though he was coming for the summer, Dori knew he wanted to stay permanently.
Moving to the U.S., however, involved the gut-wrenching decision not to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, a requirement for all Israeli citizens at age 18.
“If I didn’t leave at 17, I would not make it in the ballet world,” Dori said.
“It was a complicated decision,” he added, noting that he is the only member of his family not to serve in the Israeli military.
Following the summer program, Dori become an apprentice at Alabama’s Montgomery Ballet, where he continued training and performing.
At 19, Dori got the break he was seeking. He received a scholarship for a six-week summer intensive program at the Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy, one of the country’s top regional dance companies. The scholarship covered classes and training, but not room and board. That’s when the local Jewish community stepped in to help.
“He was coming to a place where he knew no one and needed a support system,” recalled Maxine Silberstein, the dance and children’s theater director at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston. She and Marilyn Hassid, assistant executive director of the JCC, took Dori under their wings.
“He has such an enthusiasm about being successful, he was determined,” Silberstein said. “We wanted to give him every opportunity.”
The women rallied their friends in the Jewish community, who provided financial assistance to pay for a dorm room at a nearby university. For groceries, Dori received gift cards for the Kroger supermarket chain. Families hosted him for meals on Jewish holidays and helped keep him connected to the community, said Silberstein.
Meanwhile, Dori thrived and went on to audition for Houston Ballet II—the ballet’s junior company—and made it. Within a few months, at age 20, he was given a contract to join the main company.
Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch saw a fiercely determined young man who wanted to make his dream happen.
“Shahar made a real commitment to work hard,” Welch told JNS.org. “When you do that, things come to you. He didn’t give up, that’s what a great dancer is made of. When you start ballet late, you start with a different level of dedication than someone who starts at [age] 7.”
Along the way, Dori has remained close with Silberstein and Hassid, who continue to support him with advice and attend his performances.
“They have done so much for me from day one,” Dori said. “They’re like proud moms. It’s really a special bond.”
Grateful for the help he received, Dori has repaid the kindness by teaching ballet classes and giving small performances at the JCC when his busy schedule allows it.
Experiences like working with contemporary dance choreographer Mark Morris make Dori’s decision to emigrate even more satisfying. A few months ago, Morris was invited to work with Houston Ballet. Dori was chosen to dance in Morris’s piece.
“I thought, ‘This is crazy. I was sitting in a classroom learning about him [a few years ago], now I’m learning directly from him,’” Dori said.
The Israeli dancer is becoming a standout at the company. Last month, he was chosen as the understudy for a plum part, the role of the groom in a major production—choreographer Jiri Kylián’s “Svadebka,” which means Russia for wedding.
“That’s a very big deal,” Welch said. “Shahar is finding his voice and place with us, he’s already in line for a lot of great roles. It’s pivotal to get to learn those roles while young.”
While his father came for the first time to see Dori dance two years ago, his mother, Iris Rimon, hasn’t seen her son dance since high school. When Dori visits Israel this summer, he plans to help his mother and older brother prepare their visa papers to bring them to Houston to see him perform.
Keenly aware of his leadership role, Dori feels compelled to give back beyond the JCC classes he teaches. He recently shared his apartment with an Israeli teen attending the Houston Ballet’s school, where Dori himself was trained, and he enjoyed speaking Hebrew with the young man—something he rarely gets to do while living in Texas.
“I feel like an ambassador and a role model, and that people are looking at me,” Dori said. “If I can do something for the Jewish community here and the Israeli community, I will do it.”
Karen McDonough is a Dallas-based freelance writer and author of “A Ballerina For Our Time, Olga Pavlova.”
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