Yehuda Hyman learned all about his dreamy and displaced mom over a period of years. As a child he was fascinated by her exotic tales. In “Mar Vista,” a non-linear recreation of his childhood in theatre and dance, he is the only child of his parents in a seaside Los Angeles neighborhood with, in their case, no view of the sea.
His mom’s wistful resilience contrasts with his father’s post-holocaust gloom. It is in the uneasy balance between the two — she is from Istanbul, he is from Poland, she is a dream weaver, he is resigned to the worn-out couch — that we find the makings of Yehuda, a versatile and riveting performance artist.
The dance/theater piece, brought to stage by the six member Mystical Feet company that Hyman directs, is a story of Hyman’s family going back three generations. It took the dancer/choreographer many years to develop the autobiographically-inspired material. He first worked on it as a playwright, later incorporating the eclectic movement and dance that heighten its expressivity. Developed at LABA where it was presented in three parts, the show premieres as a full length performance piece on December 1st.
Hyman and his supporting cast of young actors and dancers use words, minimal staging, mime, and above all music and dance to transport us over continents and back in time, to conjure nightclubs and suburban streets, a drab living room and a first arrival in Istanbul. His mother’s excitement upon first viewing the sea in Turkey is telegraphed by Hyman stretching out his arms and pivoting into a sustained dervish whirl. His words are as evocative as his body language. He shares an intimate knowledge of his mom. “She hates that I’m thinking of her death. Or does she? My mother was a very sexy woman. She likes that I told you that.”
Over time, he discovers that his mother once had many lovers. When she was 18, she crossed a bridge to carry on a passionate affair with a Catholic priest for whom she intended to become a nun; this is the lost love she pines for all her life. His parents met when they were no longer very young. Hyman lingers on the uncomfortable fact that his romantic mother never really loved his taciturn father. The challenge in telling this story is not the revelations about his mom, but accommodating his father’s pain.
Hyman and his mother were intensely close, slipping away from their working-class Los Angeles neighborhood to all-day cinema outings, she enchanting him with her magical stories, and defending him, when necessary, from the ruffians who taunt his effeminate ways. But mostly, the two of them danced. Hyman so fluidly inhabits a wide range of dance styles — Latin, Middle Eastern, Flamenco, Hasidic, Graham-inflected modern, heel-slapping Cossack — we understand this was his mother’s idiom of alternate lives, some left behind, others only imagined.
There are striking, recurring images — the protective hand of the hamsa, a finger dipped in red wine, his repressed father’s repeated championing of the voice of Eddie Fisher. When his father first takes his mother out on a date, she runs into a man who jilted her. His father insists they go somewhere else. He wants to calm her down and share a Cincinnati highball, a mixture of bourbon and ginger ale — an apt cocktail if you follow the instructions “not to stir and not to shake.” His mother may pine for another, but the son grows into a fuller understanding of the sustaining maturity of his long silent dad.
Hyman finds the perfect expression of his parents’ less than perfect union. His father, who is a tailor, makes a dress for his mother. The dress caresses her body, holding her in all the right places, but never too tightly. Best of all, when she dances, the skirt flares out reminding her that “there is always the possibility of the sea.”
A dancer who trained with Bejart and appeared on Broadway, Hyman brings all the parts of himself together. While not intending to be “deliberately Jewish,” it is in the gradual discovery of his parents’ history as mid-century Jews that we discover not only this artist as a young man, but the fabric of our own lives.
“The Mar Vista,” will be performed by Mystical Feet at the 14th Street Y, from December 1st to 18th, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the memoir “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return” (Blue Thread) and contributes essays on culture and religion to many publications.