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Is all that jazzy modern dance Jewish?

With a Jewish population of more than a quarter million and a rich dance culture that boasts five internationally known professional companies in as many ethnicities and dance genres, Philadelphia is a likely stage for a Jewish dance company. Jewish dancers, choreographers, presenters, entrepreneurs, critics, and even arts editors of prominent publications have largely shaped the city’s cultural dancescape over the past century. But, in fact, the first truly Jewish dance company, Koresh Dance Company, (KDC) was founded by Israeli Yemenite choreographer Ronen (Roni) Koresh in 1991. On its own, the company most represents Jewish dance in Philadelphia and nationally.

Koresh Dance Company performing at Come Together Festival in 2017. Photograph by Julieanne Harris

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Born with his two brothers of Yemenite parents just outside of Tel Aviv, Roni began competing in dance clubs by age thirteen. His first dance teacher brought him to the attention of Batsheva. There he studied jazz, ballet and Graham technique.

Koresh’s work took some time to mature. While Ohad Naharin’s GaGa discipline was emerging, Koresh was refining his own style. Shared elements can be detected throughout Koresh’s choreography— as if the land of milk and honey and sorrow and tragedy informs its native choreographers. Naharin resided with KDC to mount his “Passomezzo” on it in 2010, and Koresh presented the U.S. premiere of “Things I Told Nobody” by Israeli guest choreographer, Itzik Galili, director of Galili Dance in the Netherlands. His “Sense of Human” illustrates many of these influences while keeping to his characteristic movement modes. The best example of where they all come together is in his masterwork, “Bolero.” It encapsulates the militaristic pre-war impetus of Ravel’s music and is an un-self-conscious, deeply moving and idiosyncratic work.

Roni originally came to the Ailey School in New York to study for a year. An earlier Israeli émigré, choreographer Shimon Braun saw Koresh dancing there and invited him to join his highly successful commercial dance company, the Philadelphia-based WAVES. Roni danced with them throughout the ‘80s.

Koresh Dance Company
Roni Koresh and KDC dancer Melissa Rector. Photograph by Len Irish

After each having served their requisite three years in the Israeli military, Roni and his brothers Alon and Nir regrouped in Philadelphia to focus on KDC, eventually dividing responsibilities amongst themselves. Alon is the executive director of KDC and Nir oversees the Koresh School of Dance, which opened in 1993. The company tours nationally and internationally, and, as one of the four leading companies in residence at theaters along Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts, it performs a winter and spring season at Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

In its early years, KDC found solid footing with audiences, but Koresh did not feel embraced by the dance community. Despite at first feeling marginalized by dancers, funders and some critics for its commercial dance origins, the company persevered, enjoying remarkable growth and transformation. The Koreshes have become popular members among Philly’s dancers. But, Koresh admitted, “I felt like an outlier. I was cocky, sensuous.

“I wanted to make a splash, to connect with audiences. I didn’t want to rely on grants, and, with Alon and Nir, we’ve made it pretty far without as much private funding as other companies depend on. Because what do you do when that dries up?”

Roni Koresh
Roni Koresh. Photograph by Frank Bicking

Koresh taught at University of the Arts from 1986 until recently and had stopped performing onstage in his late 30s when he saw many of his UArts students graduate without jobs in the dance field. He often cherry picked his dancers from among his students, offering them paid work upon graduation. “I decided to create a place for people in the arts,” he told Miriam Seidel in a 2004 Dance Magazine feature, “primarily dance, to make a living in a respectable way.”

“All my life I’ve worked to create jobs. I once told a funder that I pay my dancers $400 a week and he seemed appalled. How weird is that?” he asked. “These are the people who put my work out to the audience. When I started, I told those kids who danced for me, ‘I’ll take you to the Promised Land.’ How can I let them down? They are my family and I can only look as good as they make me look. I’d pay them ten times more if I could.”

Much of his choreography deals with interpersonal issues of abandonment, heartbreak, existential loneliness and the challenges of living in the modern world. Though Koresh doesn’t concentrate exclusively on Jewish or Israeli themes, he doesn’t deny that deep cultural connections play a role in his artistic output. “You can’t remove the heritage you grow up in,” he said. “Everything I do has my Israeli identity in it. We went through struggles that give you an appreciation for everyday life. We like immediate gratification because we know that tomorrow may not come.”

Koresh Dance Company
Melissa Rector, dancer with KDC. Photograph by Len Irish

The Koreshes also host the regional dance community on its home stage, presenting the Come Together Festival annually for the past five years. Over five nights beginning November 14, 40 dance companies perform this year. And the vibe after every show is as celebratory and familial as at a Bar Mitzvah, with the brothers seeming almost avuncular as they schmooze around the lobby.

Koresh uses the festival to promote signature works or works-in-progress. In an early festival, he ended with a section called “Water Ceremony” from a work titled “Come Together.” It looked like a mikvah —a cleansing or blessing ceremony— but lavished in such sensuality that the story of David and Bathsheba came to mind. A ragged, stumbling quartet in another section might be Biblical lepers. A section called “Home,” had the full company out in white dress in a sunny, laid-back sidestepping dance to cascading melodies of Tel Aviv’s wildly popular Touré-Raichel Collective.

Koresh’s desire to entertain audiences comes through in his Luigi technique. Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins are also touchstones for him. But, as Seidel noted, “His larger works also embody his earnest reflections on such big-ticket themes as war— “Exile” is a narrative of an embattled community; the roots of violence show in the Biblical fable of Cain and Abel in “Of God and Evil.” Another key to his sensibility may be Martha Graham with whom he briefly studied: In place of her characters from Greek mythology, he has offered biblical and other archetypes that allow him to explore similarly primal themes.”

Seidel’s observation illuminates Koresh’s stylistically diverse repertoire deriving from all these influences and yielding rich sources of socio-historical, folk, and biblical motifs laced with wit and playfulness, sensuality and menace.

Koresh Dance Company
Koresh Dance Company performs “Aftershock.” Photograph by Frank Bicking

His earliest evening-length epic work, 1991’s “Facing the Sun,” opens with a steam engine’s glaring headlight bearing down on the audience to sounds of a chugging train, the full company of ten faces the horror of the Holocaust while heroically striving to remain committed to their community. The choreography and tattered costumes were extremely literal. Wary and watchful dancers kept in tight assembly in crouching movements progressing and regressing across the stage on a diagonal to sounds of clanging chains and gates and distant trains. He upended a surefire signifier of the era with the women goose-stepping bent-kneed. Finally, single shots take down each dancer before intensifying into machine gun fire.

While passion, speed and desperate eroticism infuse Koresh’s oeuvre, minstrelsy, vaudeville, and slapstick comedy also inflect the repertoire. For Koresh, Jewishness is out there, in there, and, even in shadow, reaching out to engage the world, yet still an open question.

For Koresh, Jewishness is out there, in there, and, even in shadow, reaching out to engage the world, yet still an open question.

In “Twisted Pleasures,” Koresh put aside much of his jazz-based idiom and moved easily into folk dance, but never before with such wit and faithfulness to a primal era. The vaguely Middle Eastern music was overlaid with the typically techno beat which Koresh uses to whip dancers and audiences to a froth. With its tribal eroticism and the feel of a desert encampment, the company danced orgiastically before exhausting themselves into a fitful sleep. Lead dancer Melissa Rector disturbs their dreams and, as in a clairvoyant nightmare, four men rise, arms entwined in a line dance. Near the end, they dance separately from the women, Hasidic style.

So how did Koresh go from outlier to insider? “We all grew up,” he shrugged. “We took the journey alone and together. And that’s how it’s come together.”

It has been fascinating to watch KDC’s evolution from nostalgic, sometimes even homesick motifs, to a total embrasure of, and pride in being a Jewish American. His 2015 “Aftershock” is a love-letter to his adopted homeland. “The juxtaposition between old and new creates interesting landscapes and endless possibilities for expressiveness in my dancers,” said Koresh.

For this year’s Come Together Festival, “We have a great mix of old and new dance companies on the lineup.” Among the groups, he listed Kun Yang Lin’s Asian-influenced KYL/D; Brian Sanders’ JUNK, an aerialist group with Sanders’ early connections to MOMIX; and hip hop’s world-famous Rennie Harris Puremovement. Another Philly-based company, Dancefusion, specializes in recreating works by Anna Sokolow, who frequently dove into Jewish sources, as does Asya Zlatina, a former KDC dancer whose company is also on the program. Guests from outside of Philadelphia include RIOULT Dance NY, Paul Taylor 2, and Peridance Contemporary Dance Company. We even might get a glimpse of Koresh’s new work in progress to songs by Leonard Cohen.

Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Every angel is terrible,” and in many of Koresh’s works, I often see angels, terrifyingly beautiful.

This article is excerpted from a longer paper given at the Jews and Jewishness in Dance Conference at Arizona State University, October 15, 2018.

Merilyn Jackson

Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.



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