Can These Bones Live? Can They Dance?
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Can These Bones Live? Can They Dance?

“Dry Bones Resurrection of the Living,” Sydney Schiff’s hour-long piece, performed recently at the Judson Church, sees dance as a spiritual quest.

Schiff was inspired by her difficulty with Orthodox men’s resistance to seeing women dance. She does not attempt to divorce dance from the female body but she has worked very seriously for a number of years to show that women dancing can be about more than the arousal of desire.

The piece features three women in intricate contrapuntal duos, solos and threesomes. They dance at different speeds on different levels – one reaching out, while the other crumples to the floor and the third sits down on a pew-like bench. The movement is alternatively lyrical, celebratory and staccato; they use their whole bodies and then emphasize isolating parts.

The composition is about self-renewal. Schiff tells The Jewish Week that she intentionally uses dancers of different faiths and has them go off and then move in unison, in order “ to emphasize religious diversity while, at the same time communicating that underneath we are all made of the same stuff.” What’s more, she has her dancers finely attune to one another so that they can improvise responsively. This, Schiff explains in an unexpected association, “becomes a metaphor for the spontaneous exchanges in a Beit Midrash”.

Schiff’s process is a complex one, having to do with translating sacred letters and texts into movement. She opens the piece by showing the audience how dance can translate words, by pointing out which gestures are derived from the letters contained in the word “resurrection.”

The musical score is a highlight of the evening, a special arrangement of themes from Dvorak’s Symphony of the New World, interspersed with an amalgam of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones and the old folksong called “Dem Bones.” Schiff explains, “There is an old world tradition, but we take ownership of it in a new world.”

She admits to not persuading certain male members of the community that what she does is worthy, but true to the artist’s path, she will keep on exploring.

Susan Reimer-Torn is author of the recently published memoir, “Maybe Not Such a Nice Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.”

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