The dance company Selmadanse will bring “Streaming Shabbat” to Cambridge and Newton next month.“C reating dances is not a linear process,” said choreographer and dancer Joanie Block. “It’s a mysterious journey.”
Block, in a telephone interview, was discussing the origins of her new work, a suite of dances titled “Streaming Shabbat,” which she will premiere in October during a series of concerts at Green Street Studios in Cambridge and the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton.
Block, founder and Artistic Director of the dance company Selmadanse, explained that the inspiration came late at night: “Something shook me awake. … I sat upright and when I came to consciousness, what was left in my head was this memory from 18 years ago.” In 1995, she had undergone surgery for ovarian cancer. The memory was of a gift her husband had given her to calm her during her hospitalization, a photograph of their family holding hands over a Shabbat dinner.
Block recounted her realization that Shabbat was a subject for dance: “Wait a minute ± if it’s so deeply inside me that it’s coming to me in my dreams, other women [must] have experiences that are this powerful.” That epiphany led to an exploration of biblical, Talmudic, Kabbalistic, historical and literary texts, during which she decided to portray three stories in dance.
The first story was of Bruriah, a woman considered to be a sage in the Talmud. There is a midrash that describes how upon discovering that her two sons had died on the Shabbat, she delayed telling her husband, Rabbi Meir, until she had found a way to comfort him. “Any wife who is devoted,” noted Block, “can relate to the need to … present things to her spouse so that her spouse has … the easiest path,” even when experiencing “every mother’s nightmare.”
Block added, “Her commitment to the ritual, her commitment to her Judaism, is equally strong.” When translated into dance, she said, “It begins as a solo of a woman preparing for Shabbat, and then it becomes a dance of three, with a trio between her and her children and … then it becomes a duet with her and her husband.”
To Block, it is the mixture of elements ± Bruriah’s process of moving emotionally through the joy that surrounds the Shabbat, the grief over her sons’ deaths, and the anxiety in which Bruriah needs to confront the question of how and when she is going to tell her husband ± that make it “as powerful, and full, and rich a story as one can find anywhere.”
The second story was one told by Avraham Englender, about a woman named Miriam, a prisoner in a concentration camp. Block noted that Miriam has lost her entire family, but a friend “had come upon wax and string that could be fashioned into Shabbat candles ± [when] Shabbat was upon her, [Miriam] created these makeshift candles.” However, she added, “as she was just lighting these candles, she heard the footsteps coming toward her. She froze in that moment that may have ± I call it ‘that underwater moment’ that was only a few seconds but feels like it lasts for eternity ± she hears her mother’s voice behind her, singing the blessing.”
The third story is Block’s own experience of the Shabbat during her hospitalization, the memory of which inspired “Streaming Shabbat.”
The concert is not just those three dances, however. It opens with a dance “about the concept of light … about pregnancy, the light before the light. I knew that light existed in the Bible before the sun and the stars and the moon.”
Cantor Larel Zar-Kessler of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury pointed her to a Kabbalistic teaching. “It really set the stage for me,” recounted Block. “In need of relationship, G-d withdrew his essence, withdrew His light, to create space,” But, she added, “The light was so great that the vessels couldn’t contain the light, so they shattered. Our job, as humanity, is to gather the light and bring it back to unity.”
She said the first dance, therefore, is “five people who are one but who are also infinite. We are the light and we are the shards of light.” And the concert ends with another ensemble piece “about light in all its fullness.”
Introducing each of the three stories is a duet, which Block likened to “a Greek chorus … foreshadowing the movement.” She explained that “what I’ve done is extrapolated movement from each of the main stories and incorporated them into each of the short duets.” The intent is to introduce the audience to the movement vocabulary of each story.
“As a choreographer,” said Block, “I believe very strongly that stories and ideas, emotions expressed through dance, can elicit feelings that ± for some ± language can’t always touch or stimulate.”
The process of rehearsal, however, was not just about teaching her dancers the movement.
“Not everybody in my dance [company] is Jewish,” noted Block, “but anyone can tell another person a story. … It’s taking the time for them to absorb what you’re telling them so that they have the freedom and space to find within themselves the emotional underpinning.
“We sat together not as dancers initially but as people ± before we even began on any choreography.”
Block said that while art is no replacement for ritual, “When we do experience any form [of art], what we take away from that can bring multiple layers, and depth, to our prayer and ritual experiences at home ± in the synagogue and elsewhere.”
Selmadanse will perform “Streaming Shabbat” at Green Street Studios on Oct 4 and 5 at 8 p.m., and at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center on Oct. 26 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 27 at 4 p.m. Visit www.selmadanse.com for more information.