D.C. DanceWatcher

People of the Book Can Dance: Conference on Jewish Experience Through the Lens of Dance

Posted in Dance, Dance theater, Jewish theater and dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on February 20, 2011

“Modern Jewish Experience Through the Lens of Dance”
The Melton Center for Jewish Studies and Department of Dance
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
February 13-14, 2011
By Lisa Traiger

© 2011 Lisa Traiger
Published February 20, 2011

Two weekends ago, in a non-descript auditorium on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus, Jewish Studies opened the door to a new field of research – Dance Studies. The groundbreaking academic conference, cosponsored by the Jewish studies and the dance departments at OSU, demonstrated that our Jewish scholars have much to learn and ruminate on from those who frequently divide their time between historic and bookish research and dancing, creating, rehearsing and performing. “Modern Jewish Experience Through the Lens of Dance” is not the first conference to explore dance from a Jewish perspective, but it’s the first with an academic imprimatur – the Melton Center for Jewish Studies.

OSU Jewish dance berk[1] 

“It turns out that here at Ohio State in the dance department various people worked on Jewish choreographers,” said Matt Goldish, director of the Melton Center, and an expert on Sephardic Jewish culture and Jewish messianism. “This was a revelation to us. I didn’t think that was a field. Most of what we do is research by philosophers, historians, the usual types of things found in Jewish studies. It’s amazing to find this whole field that we didn’t really know anything about.”

By dint of the work of doctoral student Hannah Kosstrin, who was a 2009-10 Melton fellow studying mid-20th century choreographer Anna Sokolow, Goldish and the Melton Center have been invited to the dance, so to speak. Goldish, who not only was the only kippah– and tzitzit-wearing [head-covering and ritual fringes of Orthodox Jewish men] participant in the room, at times he was the only man present during the paper sessions, which included presentations on “Ideas, Work and Events that Anchor Us,” “Changing Jewish Identity in the U.S.,” and the most-talked-about panel, “Jewish? Israeli? Identity in Contemporary Dance.” Today Goldish, who hasn’t given up his day job researching Shabbatai Zvi, teaching and directing the Melton Center, has enough knowledge of Jewish and Israeli dance to ruminate on whether gaga, the movement language created by Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company director Ohad Naharin, is Jewish, Israeli, both or neither. “I’m struck by the fundamental question here: What makes some art Jewish and other art, by Jewish artists, secular,” Goldish shared during a break between sessions. “In hearing these questions asked about dance, I’m reminded that these are same questions we’ve asked about music, literature, painting and sculpture.” It seems that the tent of Jewish studies is, indeed, expansive enough to welcome dance.

This modest conference, which aside from the opening performance/lecture demonstration that attracted more than 100 viewers from the Columbus area, plus the conference participants, never drew more than 30 scholars and researchers in the room at one time. Earlier conferences addressed Jewish dance, including the groundbreaking1986 gathering at New York’s 92nd Street Y, which brought together over four days dozens of major choreographers, performers, critics, and dance historians and scholars, from the then-nascent field of dance studies to examine a body of choreography that draws from root Jewish sources, including biblical themes, historic events, diverse communities of Jews from the diaspora and contemporary issues that distill Jewish ideals and creative expression. That conference begat another, in Boston in 1991, as well as a symposium on Yiddish dance in 2007 and various other smaller gatherings around the country examining the Bible in dance and Jewish wedding dances. But none of those programs introduced dance fully into oft-guarded academic circles of Jewish Studies, where departments at North American universities pride themselves on their eclectic collections of experts in ancient Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, modern Jewish history, Holocaust studies, sociology, Yiddish literature, Sephardic cultural studies, and more. In recent years, the Association for Jewish Studies, which was founded in 1969, has featured a handful of scholars presenting on aspects of dance at its annual conferences. But at Ohio State Feb. 13-14, 2011, many of the top scholars working on research in Jewish and Israeli dance – among them Judith Brin Ingber (Minneapolis, independent), Kosstrin (Reed College, Ore.), Rebecca Rossen (University of Texas, Austin) – gathered to take definitive steps into the Jewish studies academy.

Ingber, a long-time independent scholar who laid the groundwork for the younger scholars working today in the areas of Jewish dance and the Jewish body, set the stage by naming the biblical Miriam as our first Jewish choreographer. Ingber, who since the 1970s interviewed and observed many of Israel’s founding generation of folk dancers, theorizes on images of the Jewish body and its evolution from a bedraggled, small-framed, hooked-nose caricature of an Ashkenazi Jew, to the re-born image of Jewish strength, confidence and pride that came with the creation of the modern state Israel. Dance, Ingber pointed out, in the new Jewish state for some was an expression of their spirit, their neshama; for others it was a means to repair the world, tikkun olam; and for still others it was a manifestation of community building, particularly on the kibbutz, the Israeli collective farm projects.

Karen Goodman, an independent dancer, choreographer and scholar from Los Angeles, performed her paper, “Inscribing On Air,” where she spoke and moved about how she first danced her Jewishness in 1992, and has been mining Jewish identity in choreography – her own and others via research and documentation – ever since. In examining why we dance specifically Jewish dances, Goodman noted, “we are at the intersection of dance and religion, for life makes us all ask the meaning of who we are and what we do. The existential questions must be addressed, if not answered. The bottom line is survival. What is needed to continue? What actions should we take to influence or celebrate a positive outcome? The most fundamental and profound way is through our bodies and the lives those bodies lead …. To make movement that expresses the life of a people is a powerful act of sanctification.”
Other scholars examined the works of Anna Sokolow, the American choreographer and contemporary of Martha Graham, who frequently worked in Israel where she founded the Lyric Theater, but also made some seminal American works including the Holocaust-saturated “Kaddish” and “Dreams,” among other works. Kosstrin, a visiting professor at Reed College in Portland, discussed Jewishness, whiteness and assimilation in Sokolow’s 1950s works. Unusual was the presence of two dancer/scholars, Ze’eva Cohen and Lorry May, both of whom danced in Sokolow’s company at different points. May described the act of recreating Sokolow’s 1968 “Steps of Silence,” and the challenges differently trained contemporary dancers face in accessing the weighted, power Sokolow’s choreography demands. Cohen, recently retired from the Princeton University dance department, earlier in her career created her own choreography, which drew on her modern and post-modernist dance encounters in New York during the 1960s and ‘70s as well as her family’s Yemenite roots and movement language. Cohen presented and discussed her 1996 “Negotiations,” (shown on video) dealing with cross-cultural encounters between two women – one white, one black – who were based on the biblical characters of Sarah and Hagar. But she said, “I usually don’t think of myself as a Jewish choreographer; I’m a choreographer.”

Deborah Freides Galili, a recent immigrant to Israel who formerly studied at OSU, continued that line of questioning identity when she dissected the “Israeli” in Israeli contemporary dance. As small and isolated as Israel has been in its modern history, modern dance has become one of the nation’s most notable cultural creations and exports. Israeli dance companies, particularly the world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company and its artistic director Naharin, are touted as the best in the world. But many Israeli dance artists, particularly those who work abroad, but also many who remain in Israel, choose to eschew both the Jewishness and Israeliness of their work. Galili, who founded the website Dance in Israel to aggregate English articles and report on the Israeli contemporary dance scene, discussed a number recent choreographic works and whether their claim of a generic identity in a country so politically, religiously and socially charged as Israel is disingenuous or not. While an artist can make a claim for his work, its public transmission ultimately puts the decision in the hands of the audience. “We watch Israeli dance with a lens colored by our own familiarity with that culture,” Galili said, meaning that Judaism, the Holocaust, kibbutz life, the military, the matzav or current Israeli-Palestinian situation, shades the experience with a variety of meanings.

The fundamental question raised throughout the two-day program, which also included a look at Israeli folk dance pioneer Fred Berk, and American modern choreographers ranging from David Dorfman to Yehuda Hyman to Liz Lerman, was what makes a dance Jewish or Israeli? The answers were diverse and, like any good Jewish gathering, raised further questions. “The beauty,” choreographer Cohen stated, “within Judaism is that it always requires you to ask yourself a question. You are encouraged to keep a free-thinking mind and for that freedom I embrace that.” Ingber said, “The mystery for me is where dance enters Judaism. Dance for me can embody what Judaism is. I respect the whole idea of clal yisael – we are one – and whatever this Jewish magic is … it’s my job not to finish it, but to create and contribute to this ongoing creativity as a Jewish person.”

For dance historian and teacher Harriet Berg, 87, who drove in from Detroit for the conference, in the end there was no question that dance and Judaism belong together: “People always want to say we’re the people of the book. I want to say, no, we’re the people of the dance.”

Photo: Ohio State Univerisity dance students and conference participants in Ruth Goodman’s workshop on reconstructing choreographer Fred Berk’s “Song of the Ghetto,” photo Paige Bailey, courtesy OSU’s Melton Center for Jewish Studies


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