NEW YORK, Nov. 5 (JTA) – In an airy clapboard building in a rustic Connecticut town at the peak of leaf-peeping season, a bare-chested white man – his unruly brown hair shaking as he moves – is praying.
But while his body sways fervently at first, it turns more limp as he grows increasingly distracted by the man curled in a ball on the other side of a black rubber mat.
The first man approaches cautiously, then begins to pokes and prods until the once-dormant man gracefully wrestles him to the floor. After a struggle, the two slowly, and then with growing intensity, pray together.
A cross-legged man seated on the wooden floor adjacent to the mat breaks the silence.
“It seems more and more that this shuckling and davening business is going to be common to all the sections,” he muses, using the Yiddish words for the repeated bowing motions traditional Jews make while praying.
This man, who has been scribbling notes in a bound book for the past few minutes, is Jonathan Wolken, 51, co-founder and artistic director of the avant-garde Pilobolus Dance Theatre.
On an October morning, the troupe – known for its humor, inventiveness and contortionist dance moves that seem impossible – is choreographing a 25-minute piece that must in some way reflect the Jewish experience in America.
It’s an unusual assignment for a troupe that has only one Jewish member – Wolken – and has never focused on Jewish or religious themes at all.
The piece, which will be accompanied by the Klezmatics musical group, has been commissioned by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and funded by the Ford Motor Co., in honor of the foundation’s 40th anniversary.
Following Nov. 10-11 preview performances at the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in Chicago, the piece will premiere at Washington’s Kennedy Center on Nov. 30 and then travel around the country.
The just-rehearsed section is loosely about a dybbuk, the demon from Jewish folklore. Loosely, because in October, Wolken – and co-director Robby Barnett – were unsure and cryptic in discussing the yet-to-be-titled piece.
Wolken says it is “about the role of God,” but then adds, “no matter what it means to us, it’s purposely constructed by us to be ambiguous.”
The only specifics they would offer is that one segment will explore why men and women do not pray together in traditional Judaism, while another is influenced by an Isaac Bashevis Singer story about a wife angry with her husband for letting their children go hungry.
Both directors toss out multiple metaphors to describe how Pilobolus pieces develop. Barnett explains it first as “sort of a kinetic, automatic writing,” then says it is akin to putting tarot cards together to determine a fortune. Wolken sees the creative process as “panning for gold,” then later compares it to putting ingredients together to bake a cake.
Unlike some troupes that use dance to tell a story or to interpret a piece of music, the Pilobolus directors and six dancers spend eight-hour days at their studio thinking about a particular theme, trying things out, talking, then refining.
As for the music, it is being composed simultaneously, rather than beforehand, with composer Frank London of the Klezmatics regularly touching base with the dancers.
“I ran on my direction, they ran on theirs,” London said. “Soon I’m going to have to make my stuff fit their stuff.”
London has been crafting the music in a cluttered walk-up apartment in Manhattan’s East Village.
In mid-October – in his small study crammed with a piano, cassettes, CDs, several musical instruments and his children’s brightly colored Fisher Price toys – London fiddled with his CD player and played strains of the new Klezmer-inspired and cantorial melody-inspired pieces he had created so far and planned to test out for Pilobolus.
But just how does one create an American Jewish work, particularly when American Jewishness is such a broad and varied thing?
Easy enough for the Klezmatics, which – after all – is a group of Jews whose work is often described as a fusion of contemporary sounds and traditional Eastern European music.
Trickier for Pilobolus. But its process is a combination of trial and error, with the directors confident that if they have Jewish issues on their mind while working on it, the Jewish influence will be apparent but not overwrought.
To that end, Wolken – who says he has not thought so extensively about Judaism since graduating from Hebrew high school in Pittsburgh – is rummaging through family memories and reading widely, from I.B. Singer to the Bible.
Although he “passed into nonpractice for a long, long time” when he went to college, Wolken says one of the reasons he was attracted to this project was the opportunity to reconsider Judaism.
“At some point, one is done pushing away and more interested perhaps in gathering in,” he said.
The troupe is also consulting with rabbis, including Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion in suburban Boston and someone widely viewed as a leader in efforts to make synagogues more spiritually nourishing.
Waldoks said he talked to the dancers about mystical teachings and how Judaism “avoids the tug of war between good and evil only,” that it aims toward “balancing of opposites” and “looks toward the central or middle path.”
For the most part, the dancers say they’re enjoying the interaction with Jewish culture.
“I love the music,” said Gaspard Louis, 31, a Haitian immigrant who dances the part of the dybbuk. Klezmer’s rhythm reminds him of Haitian music, he said, noting that it “just soothes the bone and motivates you to move.”
Josie Coyoc, 32, was raised Catholic but considers herself a “New Age spiritualist.” She recalls a trip to Israel a few years ago when, while performing with a different dance company, she visited the Western Wall and spoke with young Israeli soldiers.
She’s hoping by the time the piece is completed, she will have learned more about “what’s specific to” Jewish culture.
At the October rehearsal, Wolken’s memories are stirred as Coyoc and dancer Renee Jaworski try out a segment in which the two circle their arms, similar to the motions Jewish women make over the Shabbat candles.
“My mother used to do that every Friday,” sighs Wolken, a somewhat dreamy expression on his face. “It does something for me.”
Then he snaps back into his role as director.
“It needs another layer, but it’s a start,” he says.