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Troupe brings Jewish culture and history to traditional ballet

NEW YORK, July 7 (JTA) — As a professional dancer performing in classics such as “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake,” Julian Fisher felt cultural pluralism was missing from traditional ballet. After a visit to Israel, Fisher became actively interested in combining his love of dance with his Jewish heritage. The pursuit of his goal — “to really add diversity” to ballet — led him to found the American Jewish Ballet two years ago. “Around Christmas time, all one sees or hears about ballet is ‘The Nutcracker Suite,’ ” said Fisher, the artistic director of the troupe and a self-described “young Jewish kid from Brighton Beach.” “We have the talent and ideas to do something different, something that any Jewish or non-Jewish person would be happy to see.” The first ballet company in the United States entirely devoted to Jewish themes has garnered praise during the past couple of years, but now it is facing a financial crisis. The American Jewish Ballet has performed at the 1998 Piccolo Spoleto Festival — America’s premier annual celebration of the arts — in Charleston, S.C. The ballet’s first program, “Jewish Perspectives,” consists of four dances, each highlighting an aspect of Jewish identity.

“Dilemmas of the Day” This first dance of “Jewish Perspectives,” choreographed by Fisher, chronicles an American Jewish girl’s first trip to Israel. Her first glimpse of the Holy Land is one of political turmoil, dramatized in a dance between an Israeli and a Palestinian soldier, each carrying his respective flag. Israel’s religious freedom is shown through the young girl’s encounter with a priest and Catholic worshipers. “Dilemmas of the Day” makes use of comic elements as well as symbolic music and lighting to highlight the girl’s realization that the Old Testament is enjoyable to read.

“King Solomon’s Decision” The second part of the program depicts the ancient tale of two mothers fighting over one child. Choreographed by company member Andrew Bayne, Fisher portrays King Solomon, whose “decision has set a precedent for justice and law throughout the millenniums,” according to the “Jewish Perspectives” brochure.

“In Remembrance” This section is by far the most haunting. Depicting the grief of a mother who lost her child in the Holocaust, “In Remembrance,” choreographed by Jennifer Vanucchi, juxtaposes the jazz and dancing of 1930s Germany, banned by the Nazis, with a train delivering Jews to a concentration camp. Costumes in this dance are particularly symbolic: Yellow Stars of David are worn on the chests of black leotards; once confined in the camp, dancers wear shredded prison uniforms. Eventually, all the prisoners die, except for one who is liberated as she is about to be shot by a Nazi guard. At the end of the dance, the concentration camp victims appear as angels to help the survivor cope with her altered sense of reality.

“L’Chaim” This final section, choreographed by Allison Hart, celebrates life and love through the rituals of the Jewish marriage. The romantic ending of “The Jewish Wedding” brings a warm closure to the program. The American Jewish Ballet’s second program is no less ambitious in showing how history has shaped much of Jewish identity. It highlights the past 1,500 years of Jewish history in Spain, paying homage to the biblical, historical and intellectual traditions of Jews living in the Iberian Peninsula. The first ballet, “The Zohar,” deals with the mystical book of Kabbalah. “The Edict of 1492” demonstrates the relationship between Jews and the rulers of Spain, particularly Queen Isabella, who expelled the Jews in 1492. However, in the same year, Christopher Columbus launched his ships in search of a new route to India. The plot of “The Edict of 1492 ” uses the Jews’ accomplishments in Spain to show how Jewish and Spanish history are entwined. The third act in the program sets to music the words of three great Jewish poets: Samuel Na-Grid, Maimonides and Judah Ben Halevi. “Ladino (The Celebration),” makes use of Ladino, the native tongue of Spanish Jews, in original music by American Jewish Ballet composer Rachael Sage. The lyrics are entirely in Ladino. Fisher is now working on a new program for the ballet’s next season based on the story of Esther. “Purim” will consist of six scenes, including “a type of Shakespearean tableau” as the opening, a battle between “the archetypal enemies, Mordecai and Haman,” while “the Jewish spirit shall survive again.” Yet whether the American Jewish Ballet will survive to dance the Purim ballet is uncertain, as the young company is facing financial hurdles. According to Fisher, the company is already $3,500 in debt, as “grants cover only 10 to 15 percent of the budget.” Although the troupe has greatly benefitted from the contributions of Harriet Lake, Gerald and Phyllis Golden, and Jane Weitzman, as well as grants from the Harkness Foundation for Dance, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the United Arts of Central Florida, it still needs more financing. “Our budget is $20,000,” Fisher said. “That’s nothing when you employ 12 professional dancers.” Recently, fiscal problems forced the troupe to cancel some performances. It was invited to perform in Cuba but was unable to cover the costs of travel. Some of the American Jewish Ballet’s grant applications to Jewish cultural groups have been rejected, surprising Fisher. “We’ve touched people,” he said. “We are doing something which has never been done before, and we’re incorporating new and young artists.” Fisher said he’s worried about the future of the ballet without stronger financial backing. “The New York Times Magazine recently ran a cover story about how Jews are increasingly assimilating and losing their culture,” Fisher said. The American Jewish Ballet “is doing the exact opposite, yet no one is supporting us.” For more information about the American Jewish Ballet, contact Julian Fisher at (407)578-6486, e-mail info@americanjewishballet.org, or go to its Web page at http://www.americanjewishballet.org.

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