When Joanie Block wrote a letter to a young Wellesley resident Olivia Stein on the eve of her Bat Mitzvah she had no idea at the time that it would become the inspiration for a modern dance concert.
This spring, Block will be presenting the debut of her own choreography in “Dear Olivia,” a production in which she will also be performing.
Block said the letter she wrote to Olivia, a friend of one of her sons, explores the meaning of transitions in women’s lives. In “Dear Olivia,” five professional dancers will portray and explore the life span of a woman “under the watchful and guiding eye of a young girl’s spirit.”
What does Olivia think about the evolution from letter to concert? Block said, “I think she’s really tickled. I think she just feels honored, and she’s very excited about it. I originally spoke with her before I moved forward with anything to get her permission. She was nothing but positive.”
Block has been dancing since she was 9 years old. At 15 she was introduced to modern dance and never turned back, she said.
A psychology major at Brandeis University, Block studied modern dance all the way through college.
Although she had planned on getting her master’s degree in psychology, Block had a dilemma: she wanted to continue dancing. She turned to her mother, and remembers her saying, “‘Do what you want to do, honey. If that’s where your heart is that’s where you need to go.’”
This sage advice was music to Block’s ears. At the time, she was thinking, “I can always go back to school, but how many more years am I going to be dancing?”
For 30 years in the Boston area she has been teaching and performing, most recently for 10 years with the late choreographer Dorothy Hershkowitz.
Block teaches adult modern dance classes at “A Fine Dance Studio” in Needham and at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton. Most of her students are women ranging in age from 30 to 60 who have rediscovered their passion for dance.
As an adjunct to the dancing, Block, who describes herself as a “nurturer at heart,” is a certified massage therapist.
“Dear Olivia” has a multi-media element. Interspersed with the dancing are short videos created by Lynn Bikofsky that relate somewhat abstractly about the dance to come.
Billy Novick composed an original score, and sets are by Linda Klein. In addition to Block, the other four dancers who auditioned and were chosen for the production are Yenkuei Chuang, Lucy Considine, Jessica Muise and Melinda Rothstein.
Block also draws inspiration from her two sons, Daniel and Matthew. “They have accompanied me through this entire dance journey since they were little, little boys… I have really been blessed by having their presence and support.”
She is married to Sandy Block, vice president of wine for all Legal Seafood restaurants. Sandy suggested wine-tasting fundraisers for the “Dear Olivia” project, and the Blocks hosted two events at their home, with approximately 50 people at each. Other support has come from Fells Market and Wasik’s Cheese Shop and the Jewish Community Center in Newton, which donated space throughout the entire rehearsal process. Sandy introduced Joanie and the project. The guests also got the opportunity to meet the other dancers, set designer Linda Klein and composer Novick.
Now everyone can look forward to seeing “Dear Olivia” in Cambridge, at the Green Street Theatre, and in Newton at the Jewish Community Center. Performances will be April 27 and 28 in Cambridge and on May 3 in Newton.
Joanie Block on the evolution and production of “Dear Olivia”
Q: How long has “Dear Olivia” been in the works?
A: Over a year ago, I was approached by my friend, artist Linda Klein, who suggested we collaborate on a dance performance for which she would design the sets. I told her about the letter to Olivia and began to consider the translation of my ideas into dance. We started meeting once a week and talked about our experiences as girls, as daughters, and as women, embracing, but also struggling with the aging process. We talked about the power of the little girl’s spirit that is ever present in the core of our being, and how that spirit, when acknowledged, can guide us in our lives.
Q: How rigorous has the rehearsal process been?
A: There are five dancers in the concert, including myself. We rehearse for two to three hours three days a week. Most of the material I choreograph before rehearsals, but as with any artistic process, ideas morph and develop within the rehearsal setting. I have been blessed to work with beautiful dancers who are delightful to work with.
Q: You are going to do a solo in the production. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
A: The concert is structured around five dances, each representing a different stage of a woman’s life. So, how appropriate that I should represent the “middle aged” period, as I am intimately and currently familiar with it! The dance initially reflects the questions and concerns we have about our changing bodies, our mortality, and our legacy. As the dance unfolds, there is a shift that indicates a letting go, an acceptance and ultimate embracing of these middle years and all they have to offer, but as in life, the darkness ebbs and flows and the mood of the dance spirals back.
Q: What was it about modern dance that attracted you?
A: From the age of 9 I studied ballet and I loved it. But when I was 15 I took my first modern class at Bucks Rock, an arts camp in Connecticut, and fell instantly in love with the expressive nature of the movement, which seemed less invested in making everything beautiful and more interested in communicating something internal and authentic. It’s hard to put into words, but modern dance seemed to have an intellectual and psychological component that I was drawn to.
Q: You’ve been dancing for many years. What keeps you dancing?
A: What keeps me dancing is the longing I would feel if I stopped. It’s not really a question; it is just a fact of my being. There was a short time after Dorothy Hershkowitz (the director of the dance group I most recently performed with) died when I stopped dancing. I remember telling Sandy during that time that I didn’t want to go to any cocktail parties because if someone asked me what I did, I couldn’t say that I was a dancer. He turned to me, put his hand on my heart and said, “Yes, you could, because you are a dancer in here and you always will be.” Maybe so, but for now it feels good to not be contemplating that philosophical question.
Q: Besides dancing is there anything else you do to stay fit?
A: Besides eating an extremely healthy organic diet, I think that the key to my physical and emotional well being is having a devoted partner and two loving sons who know me inside out and help me move into spaces that seem daunting but are ultimately enormously fulfilling.