What Happened To Jewish Dance?
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What Happened To Jewish Dance?

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

It was an inauspicious debut, to be sure, when I finally allowed myself to be dragged onto the stage on a recent Saturday afternoon for the Father-Daughter number in my youngest daughter, Leah’s, end-of-year dance recital in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Desperately trying to mirror the movements of the 49 other equally sheepish dads, I went down on one knee and held out my hand to a blissful 7-year-old who pirouetted, preened and posed as if she were appearing with Mikhail Baryshnikov. By the time I had to do it again that evening with her 11-year-old sister, Sarah, I felt ready to audition for “Dancing With the Stars.”

While there was nothing particularly Jewish about the Father-Daughter Dance, the experience made me wonder why I’ve written so little about dance in the more than 15 years that I’ve covered theater for this paper. Even in New York, Jewish themes seem to be much less prevalent in dance than in other branches of the performing arts.

What happened to Jewish dance? Jewish choreographers and dancers were, for much of the 20th century, at the heart of New York’s cultural life. Among the most influential modern dance pioneers were Jewish artists like Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, Helen Tamiris, Pearl Lang and Benjamin Zemach, all of whom took inspiration from Jewish history, myth and tradition. Their output ranged from Maslow’s Chanukah Festivals at Madison Square Garden in the 1950s and ’60s (in which a young Alvin Ailey appeared), to the myriad of works that sprang from the studios of the 92nd Street Y from the 1930s to the 1960s, and works by other folk and modern dance pioneers like Fred Berk and Lillian Shapero.

Liz Lerman is a choreographer and dancer who is renowned for bringing a Jewish sensibility to her work. “You can’t talk about the history of modern dance in America,” she told me, “without stepping all over Jewish artists.” One of her own most provocative dances, “The Good Jew?” which premiered in 1991, brought in figures ranging from the matriarch Sarah to the Baal Shem Tov. Six years later, Lerman premiered “The Shehechianu Project,” about the profound lessons that human beings can learn from history; it incorporates Hebrew letters, images of Jewish ritual objects, movements taken from Jewish prayer practices, and kabbalistic concepts.

Nevertheless, Lerman views the dance world as typically more interested in cultivating underprivileged minority choreographers than Jewish ones. (Because Israel has a world-class dance scene, many choreographers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, train there, she said, but they “bring back technique, rather than content.”) Still, she hopes to create a dance based on Jewish economic success in America, perhaps based on the model of Antero Pietila’s “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” a sobering 2010 book about relations between Jews and African-Americans in Baltimore.

New York-based choreographer Ariel Grossman’s 2014 work, “The Book of Esther,” imagines the biblical story from the perspective of Esther’s predecessor, Vashti; Grossman views her reinterpretation of the tale as a kind of midrash in its own right. Using the biblical text, she mused, furnishes a “place of structure to build from,” which attracts some audience members who are Jewish but do not tend to attend dance performances — “they wouldn’t necessarily come if I hadn’t tapped into that aspect of it.”

Rebecca Rossen, who teaches dance history at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of “Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance” (Oxford, 2014). She told me that African-American choreographers have taken up themes related to the Jewish experience, especially the Holocaust. In 2007, Donald Byrd (from the Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle) and Robert Battle (the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York) coincidentally created pieces about Erwin Schulhoff, a Czechoslovakian Jewish composer and pianist who died in the Shoah. “They were both fascinated,” Rossen explained, “by the life story of an artist cut short by violence.” And just this year, black choreographer Bill T. Jones presented “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane,” based on testimony by a 95-year-old French Jewish nurse, Dora Amelan, who survived the Nazi occupation of Belgium and France.

Yet Rossen conceded that dance does often lag behind theater and music in its visibility in our culture. “The politics and economics of the arts world prioritizes text-based art forms,” she noted. This is especially true of Jewish dance, she observed, since Jews are, at least stereotypically, “people of the book and not of the body.”

Ted Merwin teaches Jewish culture at Dickinson College. He is the author, most recently, of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”

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