I’m often asked about what makes a particular book worthy of attention. It’s easy to point to books that illuminate new ideas or inspire different ways of thinking; novels that are unforgettable for their characters or style of storytelling; works with luminous prose; or memoirs of extraordinary or even quite ordinary lives, recounted with large doses of candor and bigheartedness.
And then there are the books that just stay with you, whose mood and voices linger long after the final pages, like Evan Fallenberg’s “When We Danced on Water” (Harper Perennial). Fallenberg is a novelist, translator and teacher of creative writing who lives near Tel Aviv, and the novel is unusual as a serious novel of contemporary Israel, written in English. The poetic novel is read easily in a few sittings, and the light of Tel Aviv, the pure beauty and sensuality of dance and the powerful affirmation of life, are deeply felt.
The story begins in a Tel Aviv coffee bar “so small that it cannot be called a restaurant and barely even a café,” where Teo and Vivi first meet. Teo is 84 and has won the Israel Prize for Life Achievement. A dancer and one of the world’s most influential choreographers, he was born in Poland and as a child had the equivalent of perfect pitch in movement. He would glide down the streets of Warsaw, making leaps and twirls – He was “a boy who could never simply walk from one place to the next by placing one foot in front of the other.”
He studies dance with the Royal Danish Ballet and his dancing is interrupted by the War. Only he and his sister survive – he finds her after the war at the convent where she was hidden and decided to stay, as one of the sisters. He later dances with George Balanchine at the School of American Ballet but leaves for Israel, as he says, because he “couldn’t share Mr. Balanchine’s religiosity about ballet, not after living through the war in Europe.” In Israel, he founds the group that becomes the Tel Aviv Ballet, which he heads for 50 years. Teo lives alone, cared for by a Polish woman he found destitute in Warsaw and brought over to Israel. Still working, he misses his younger body and the way he was able to move. Every morning, he stops at the tiny coffee bar, where Vivi works as a waitress.
Vivi , an artist in her 40s, shares her apartment with a young gay man who spends alternate weekends with his large orthodox family. Glassblowing is Vivi’s latest interest, although she has art supplies in every drawer, equipping prior interests in photography, pottery and sculpture. Teo picks up early on in their conversations that she has been hurt by a man, but she won’t speak of it. She asks to watch his dancers practice one of his works.
Shifting back and forth from present to the past, the novel chronicles the unfolding of their friendship, and the traumas of their pasts. At first, Teo and Vivi speak in theory of art and creativity, and later they slowly come to reveal the most difficult chapters of their stories – in both cases with dramatic tales of earlier days in Berlin. In altogether unexpected ways, they inspire each other.
Written in spare style, “When We Danced on Water” is a novel of history, memory, passion and love.
Fallenberg’s first novel “Light Fell” was awarded the Edmund White Award and an American Library Association award. He is also a distinguished translator, who worked with Meir Shalev on “A Pigeon and A Boy” and also with Ron Leshem (“Beaufort”), and Batya Gur (“Murder in Jerusalem”). A native of Cleveland, he has lived in Israel since 1985, where he is an instructor in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University and director of The Studio for Writers (and Readers) of English.
In order to understand and even inhabit his character Teo, Fallenberg, at the age of 40, took up dance. For two years, he studied with a Tel Aviv ballet teacher and stopped the lessons only when his knees rebelled.
Finally, Teo says, “Here is the truth for you: I wish I could go back to a time before language, when I was one with my surroundings. That business about color and hear I was telling you about, when my body could absorb everything around me and turn it into something beautiful. When I could feel the bright pink of a falling leaf or the flow of the Vistula or the hiss of the radiator and I would express them through movement. When I could dance water, or heat, or even love.
He is wide-eyed now, as lucid as glass. “It was heaven. My body was heaven. It was omnipotent, with its own language. I would give anything to get back there. Just to feel the sensation again. Everything I’ve done since, all this teaching and creating and dancing, they’re all just approximations.”
“You’re lucky, even if you don’t know it. At least you’ve experienced it. Most of us never get the chance,” [Vivi says]