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September 11, 2009

Entertaining tradition

Choreographer and dancers invigorate past.

Many Vancouverites may know that musical theatre actor, singer, dancer, choreographer and director Jeff Hyslop is in Vancouver directing Good Boys and True, now playing at the Firehall Arts Centre. They may not know that he's been spending many of his Sundays at the Peretz Centre of Secular Jewish Culture, working with the Kol Halev performance troupe.

"We are in the process of building repertoire right now, with three tentative upcoming shows in 2010," said Sue Cohene, a co-founder and the artistic director of Kol Halev. "We plan to highlight Jeff's new pieces, depending on the themes requested by the organizers."

While she couldn't name the specific shows yet, Cohene did tell the Independent that, "One of the pieces that Jeff is choreographing is a Yiddishe sher dance from the '40s. I videotaped Sylvia Friedman from the Peretz Centre demonstrating how the sher was danced at weddings in the 1940s. Using this information, as well as some other written documentation, Jeff recreated the form of the sher, which looks like a Jewish square dance.

"He now is working on adding in tap dance and other fusion elements to this freilach [joyous] dance."

Cohene pointed out that, "The sher is the third Jewish historical dance that Kol Halev has revived, using the original form, while fusing new elements to allow the dance to reflect our present-day evolution."

This is one of the aspects of Kol Halev that appeals to Hyslop.

Cohene "had been in one of my workshops years ago at Harbor Dance, and she can still do the dance to this day, it's amazing," Hyslop told the Independent about how he became involved with the group. "She kept that in the back of her craw and she always wanted to include me in the circle of choreographers that she uses."

The pair met again at a tap jam in Kerrisdale, said Hyslop. "She came up to me and she said, 'You won't remember me, but I did this class with you and....' So that began the relationship, and I became very interested in their philosophy."

He explained, "They keep alive these traditional dances, and that's not saying that they are exclusive to Jewish people; I mean, they're completely open. I'm Scottish background, so for me, it's just such a learning curve and I'm fascinated. I happen to be a World War Two fanatic as well, because my three uncles were away at the war, so it just was perfect.

"They are a musical theatre troupe, so I'm in– I like their philosophy there. And they– it's a fusion of, you know, here we are doing a traditional sher, which is a wedding dance– the tailor dance, where you thread the needle and then you weave in and out of the formations– but we're in tap shoes. We're incorporating tap. We're doing a Gershwin piece, 'Strike Up the Band,' so it's a tap but it's meshed with Bob Fossey. It's a real nice amalgam of things that is real entertainment, but keeping the traditions alive."

Hyslop not only appreciates the eclectic dance styles, but the mix of people in Kol Halev.

"Some people have had training, others I'm training and bringing in; all levels, all ages," he said. "It's so interesting and vital and there's a sweetness about it that I love because ... I'm about keeping things alive, in dance especially. I'm a real advocate for the style of dance and the Fred Astaires and the Gene Kellys and the Donald O'Connors and that kind of style ... so I just applaud them keeping these dances alive and if I can learn while I do it, it's even better."

While Hyslop has been living in Campbell River for about six years, he said he is planning to reestablish himself in Vancouver. "I really miss the big city," he said. "I really miss my friends. I miss the vitality of a cultural community that you don't have to supply your own culture for, so it's here."

But he has enjoyed Campbell River, where he started the summer Showcase Theatre Festival several years ago but, which, unfortunately, has fallen victim to recent government budget cuts. The festival combined a classical play with its musical counterpart, explained Hyslop, giving Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story as an example. "It was beginning to be very interesting and then, of course, we lost all of our arts funding, so we are no longer there."

But keeping busy isn't a problem for Hyslop, who has been a performer since he was 10 years old.

"I jokingly say this, but I honestly believe that I wanted to sell life insurance and I wanted to be a millionaire by the time I was 35 selling life insurance. This was when I was 10. And then, when I was 10, the University of B.C. MUSSOC [Musical Society] ... was doing a production of Bye Bye Birdie and they needed a 10-year-old kid to play Randolph McAfee.

"I had been pretty ensconced in dance and gymnastics and that was my first year as the mascot for the B.C. Lions football team and blah, blah, blah, and I went and did this role and I got to sing three songs, I got five scenes to speak in and went, 'Oh,' and it really told me what I wanted to do at an early age. I didn't want to do anything else. So, I had the dancing in the bag, I could do that; now I could sing and now I could act and then it just grew from that experience."

The award-winning performer and choreographer described himself as "a working actor. I've always done that, for so many years, without a plan. The lucky exception is when you get a long run, as I've been fortunate to have with the likes of a Phantom [of the Opera] and Kiss of the Spider Woman and A Chorus Line and things like that, but those are the exceptions now, even more so because they're not being done as often."

He attributes his career longevity, in part, to luck.

"I think it's my genes," he said, adding, "I've had really great training and very few injuries, so that has helped." He also noted a recent duet he did with Teryl Rothery– "we have a great version of 'A Train' that we did"– in a performance that also featured "all these youngsters who are just monster tappers, you've just never seen footwork like it, and there we are, holding our own, and the audience just going bananas, lining up, they had to turn people away.

"So, I think it's about still being brave to step in the arena. I do a lot of self-esteem work and I think that's really important: you are who you are and this is what you do and this is what you have to offer and it's all very valid because it makes up a great piece of the puzzle."

Hyslop said he started the self-esteem work in 1976 when he did A Chorus Line. He's taken the format of the audition and applied it to his work in this area. He works with Toastmasters organizations in Campbell River and the city of Campbell River has just asked him to work with individuals 55 and older who are rejoining the workforce and to help them build up their confidence to go into an interview. "I put them all through these audition-type situations, as well as give them lots of technique, and vocal and breathing and physical, and it's all combined. It's been a fantastic realization for me that it transfers to other realms of life."

Hyslop's ability and desire to work with people of all ages and abilities in a variety of settings is very much in tune with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repair of the world). This is another reason why he is such a good choice of choreographer for Kol Halev, which is Hebrew for "Voice of the Heart" and "All the Heart."

"My parents were Holocaust survivors and as a second-generation person this affected me profoundly," explained Cohene. "I feel that Kol Halev provides an opportunity for positive Jewish connection both within the Jewish community as well as with the diverse non-Jewish community. Inclusiveness is a key part of our group, in terms of age, ability and religious and cultural background.

"As we perform and have lighthearted fun, I feel there is also a healing opportunity, tikkun olam, for all who are associated with the group, both performers and those individuals behind the scenes, as well as for our audiences enjoying the performances."

While Kol Halev's shows aren't until 2010, Good Boys and True– about a smart, athletic and popular private school student whose mother must try to discover the truth behind a videotape that threatens to destroy his future– is at the Firehall ( until Sept. 19. For more on Kol Halev, visit