Grass is Green is at the Rothstein Theatre on April 25. (photo from Una Productions)
B.C. Movement Arts and Chutzpah!PLUS present the Canadian première of Grass is Green in Vancouver and several other B.C. locations, starting April 25.
Grass is Green is an evening-length work from San Francisco- and New York City-based UNA Productions. Performed by six dancers and drag queen/cellist/pianist Rose Nylons, Grass is Green considers cycles of destruction and renewal both within humanity and the land of which humanity is a part. The highly physical and exuberant work embodies a cycle of rebirth, representations of queer intimacy, and moments of communal joy, grief and connectivity.
The choreographer of Grass is Green is Chuck Wilt, in collaboration with the performers, who are Wilt, Nylons, Kira Fargas, Dominica Greene, Dasol Kim, Rebecca Margolick and Hadassah Perry. The music is by Nylons, Donna Summer, Sylvester, DJ Koze and Nils Frahm, Julia Wolfe and Matthew Welch, and Michael Nyman.
Grass is Green is the first partnership of B.C. Movement Arts (BCMA) and the Chutzpah! Festival. BCMA was founded by artistic and executive director Mary-Louise Albert, the former director of Chutzpah!, which is now led by artistic managing director Jessica Gutteridge, who has been at the helm since 2020.
Grass is Green takes place at the Rothstein Theatre on April 25, 7:30 p.m. For tickets, go to chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5117.
It moves on to Sointula April 27-28, Alert Bay April 29, Port Hardy April 30 and Campbell River May 2. For more details on and tickets for these shows, visit bcmovementarts.com or call 604-970-3206.
Ben Caplan opens this year’s Chutzpah! Festival Nov. 21. (photo from Chutzpah!)
In the last issue of the Jewish Independent, Chutzpah! Festival artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge, festival host and stand-up performer Iris Bahr and event comedy closers Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, were featured. This week, the JI offers a glimpse into the rest of the lineup, by order of appearance.
Musician Ben Caplan opens the festival on Nov. 21 with a recorded performance. Before the recent COVID restrictions, the show was to be presented live from the Rothstein Theatre.
Caplan was on stage here back in January, bringing Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – which is based on the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees coming to Canada in 1908 – to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). This show, Caplan will be performing songs from his album Old Stock, which is adapted from this music-theatre work.
“The story of Chaim and Chaya, and, by extension, that of a great number of immigrants and refugees who have come to Canada, is full of a great many hardships and tribulations,” said Caplan when asked what lessons from their experience might be relevant in COVID times. “Their story is not free from conflict, both with the outer world, with each other and with themselves. What we see in their story is that, through perseverance, they are able to cross the narrow bridge of their precarity into a sweeter time. It is a nice reminder that no matter how dark things get, there are always brighter moments ahead.”
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Last Chutzpah! Festival, former Vancouverite Tamara Micner performed her one-woman show Holocaust Brunch here. On Nov. 22, she’s offering a first peek at a new work-in-progress from her current hometown, London, England.
“Old Friends is very much in the early days – I would say it’s in kindergarten,” admitted Micner. “I’ve been working on it this year and the Chutzpah! Festival streaming will be the first time I perform some of the piece with a public audience. I don’t know exactly what the performance will look like or exactly what will be in it. It’s ‘nervciting’! I look forward to sharing some of the work with Chutzpah! audiences and doing a Q&A afterwards to speak more about the show. I’m hoping and aiming to present the full show in 2021.”
A key inspiration for Old Friends is the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and their relationship.
“I find Simon and Garfunkel’s music comforting and uplifting…. The combination of Paul’s songwriting, Art’s voice and their harmonies are beautiful,” said Micner. “I also find the themes in their music resonant at this time – including loneliness, isolation, hope and a yearning for connection…. I’m also intrigued by the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship and the Jewishness in that – how we have a tendency to cling to each other, leave each other, not talk for years, but not be able to fully stay apart or let go. There’s a lot to mine in that, I think – where that comes from, what it’s about and how we can free ourselves from that cycle.”
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Also on Nov. 22, New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen shares her new work-in-progress.
“Shtumer Shabes [Silent Shabbat] opens in the year 2000,” said Kafrissen. “A performance studies grad student named Jess is writing about the heyday of Yiddish theatre in Poland in the 1930s. Jess is studying what she calls the ‘hybrid potentialities of interwar Yiddish performance practices.’ How did Jews use their art to embody binaries like Yiddish and Polish, Jew and Catholic, urban and rural, capitalist and socialist? She argues that The Dybbuk is the ultimate expression of that hybridity.
“As the play opens, Jess stumbles into the chance to interview an honest-to-goodness Warsaw Yiddish diva. It turns out that Sonja, a 90-something veteran of the Polish-Yiddish stage, is living in her neighbourhood. Jess comes to believe that Sonja possesses a ‘lost’ play script: Shtumer Shabes. Her encounter with Sonja is also her opportunity to write history. But Jess is confronted by the elusiveness of ‘plain facts’ and the cost of writing history. For me, the encounter between Jess and Sonja represents two competing ways of understanding the past, through scholarship and through art.”
Imagining Sonja’s world wasn’t hard for Kafrissen, as she knows well Yiddish theatre, past and present, and the standard Yiddish reference sources. However, she did struggle with her protectiveness of the Yiddish past and her obligation as a journalist “to the people and productions I’ve been reading about, an obligation to tell their stories accurately and respectfully.”
“But, at some point, my inner journalist has to be thanked politely and shown the door,” she said. “If you’re going to write historically informed fiction (which is what I consider this piece), you have to be comfortable going beyond the facts. It gets even trickier because part of Sonja’s backstory … is flashback to the war, when she was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. I know enough about the Warsaw Ghetto to invent a plausible scenario. But depicting it feels daunting. The potential for kitsch or melodrama is high. My characters grapple with extremely sensitive issues, including allegations of collaboration with the Germans. It was important to me that if I was going to include such provocative topics, I had to stick closely to historical fact and stay within the realm of the possible. My characters would not be saints or holy martyrs, but real people, caught in the worst possible circumstances.”
Cast as Sonja is Shane Baker, who Kafrissen has known since she worked with him in 2009 on his one-man show The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville.
“I quickly became a big admirer of Shane’s work,” she said. “He can go from the highest brow, as with his translation of Waiting for Godot into Yiddish, all the way to the lowest brow, as with his vaudeville show…. In the last few years, Shane had been working on a drag character called Miss Mitzi Manna. She was inspired in part by his close friendships with the last generation of Yiddish theatre grandes dames. So, when I got a 14th Street Y LABA Fellowship in 2019, I decided to write a play with a role for Shane in drag as my yearlong fellowship project. I knew from the beginning that the role wasn’t written for Mitzi Manna per se, but Shane’s development of the character was a huge inspiration. Writing the role of Sonja with a drag character in mind opened up a kind of playfulness and experimentation for me. Drag is such a dramatically rich device. It heightens our awareness of the artifice of theatre and interrogates the mimetic nature of theatre itself.”
A staged reading of Shtumer Shabes was supposed to have taken place last in April. “Unfortunately,” said Kafrissen, “that coincided with the world as we knew it collapsing. As I get ready to present excerpts from the play for the Chutzpah! Festival, I can see a tiny sliver of silver lining. Even with the pandemic, I’ve managed to sneak in some actor time in the last couple months, as well as getting thoughtful feedback on the script from folks both within my artistic circle and outside. The script is now so much better than the version I had in the spring, so I tell myself maybe it’s better that I didn’t present that earlier draft to the world.”
The Dybbuk by S. Ansky infuses Shtumer Shabes: Jess is obsessed with The Dybbuk and it’s why she went to grad school; and “Sonja’s career on the Warsaw Yiddish stage was tied up with the phenomenal, real world success of The Dybbuk,” said Kafrissen. “It was with a Dybbuk monologue that she auditioned for Yiddish drama school and the role of Leah (the young woman possessed by the dybbuk) was always her dream.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary both of Ansky’s death in November 1920 and the première of the Yiddish version of the play a month later. “I love the idea of having our Chutzpah! program serve as Sonja’s final tribute to Ansky and his creation,” said Kafrissen.
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Death … and life are at the centre of Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, which is described as “a cultural narrative [that] unfolds against the backdrop of a meal at a long dining table where three characters suffer from unbearable loneliness and battle their way between life and death. Each character travels between their individual materialistic being and their consciousness, revealing their essential humanity in relation to existence and the quest for happiness.” A pre-recorded performance of the work will be shown at the Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 23.
In the summer of 2019, Rothschild was selected as one of the first artists-in-residence at Suzanne Dellal Centre. She started Pigulim there and continued researching it in “other places in the world with different scenarios and different cast members.” This year, back at the centre, the piece premièred in its video version.
Pigul (pigulim, pl.) “describes a law from the Jewish tradition,” explained Rothschild. “It refers to a sacrifice that was prohibited to be eaten because of a forbidden thought that the priest (kohain) had in the moment he was making the sacrifice. It can mean abomination or loathsome, and it’s not a word used in everyday Hebrew. The idea that a thought can change reality has a direct connection to what I tried to present in Pigulim. If the thought one can have determines the reality of another entity, how much from our consciousness is being present in our reality and our society?
“Another aspect of choosing this particular name is another gap that unravels between the sound of the word and its meaning. Pigulim has a nice way of rolling in the mouth. The letters are round and when you pronounce it, it almost sounds like a name of a rare flower – but the meaning of it is the opposite. It contains strong emotions and gravity. Once more, it holds this gap between what we experience and the reality.”
This gap – “a certain detachment between our body and mind” – is something with which we must live, said Rothschild, and its loneliness is not changed by “how many people are surrounding you in the space.”
“As I see it and experience it, it is a state of being, not only of certain individuals but as a mass society,” she said. “I have learnt, through working with others, more about how this gap appears and how we perceive it. We behave inside these structures that are determined for us and, yes, it leaves a gap or an absence that we don’t really understand, or we will forever try to make sense of.”
However, there is more than just absence. “I did find out that we share more than we think,” she said. “We share beauty, laughter, sadness and grief. We cry from the same things and we worry and we fear. But we also love. And that is an overwhelming thing to share.”
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Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus – whose solo concert will be live-streamed on Nov. 24 – is about to release his third album with the Guy Mintus Trio: A Gershwin Playground.
Mintus’s study of piano didn’t follow a traditional path. “I didn’t start with classical piano,” he said. “I started on a little keyboard my parents got me, not an acoustic piano even, and I was studying a very mixed repertoire of adapted arrangements for beginning keyboard players. Among that repertoire were the Beatles, Israeli pop songs, Fiddler on the Roof and … two [George] Gershwin tunes: ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘Summertime.’ When I started playing those, my father handed me the Porgy and Bess album of Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong]. That totally blew my mind and I started trying to emulate the arrangements on my keyboard (which had the ability to switch between different sound samples).
“To me, these songs are timeless – musically and lyrically. They’re very rich and have a strong musical character but yet they remain very open and flexible to let you in and bring yourself into them. The lyrics also mostly speak of things that will always be relevant. It’s not by accident that generations and generations of jazz musicians have been interpreting Gershwin.”
One aspect of the music’s continued importance is that, “unfortunately, we’re constantly reminded by these horrific events that keep happening that racism is still very much around; that the colour of your skin can easily become a disadvantage right off the bat,” said Mintus. “When I’m thinking of Gershwin, I’m also considering his background as a Jewish-American composer coming from a family of immigrants. Of all things he could be fascinated by, he was fascinated by Black American music and ended up writing the first jazz opera bringing this marginalized music to the heart of the consensus. More than that, he wouldn’t allow Porgy and Bess to be premièred at the Met Opera because, at the time, they wouldn’t allow Black performers. He made it mandatory that, if Porgy and Bess is ever performed, main roles have to be performed by Black people. Now, Porgy and Bess has its controversies in regards to race and representation but I believe in the essence of its coming from a place of great respect to the incredible culture its getting inspiration from.
“I think that the Jewish and African-American communities actually share quite a lot in common,” he continued. “There’s certainly a collective trauma we’re each dealing with. To me, Gershwin was standing right in the middle of that – in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (which is on the album, as well, in a solo version) you literally have a meeting point between klezmer and the blues. I want to echo that connection, which is still very relevant to me, through my own lens as an Israeli who lived, studied and worked in New York. It’s important to give back, acknowledge and show respect where it’s due. Last July, the trio and I did an online fundraiser concert called Gershwin Global. It was in order to raise funds for the Jazz Foundation, who takes care of elderly musicians and emergency cases. This music comes from people who gave their lives to it – if we benefit from it, we’ve got to find a way to also give back to its source.”
The new album will be launched on Nov. 27 and, given COVID, touring it is not an option. Nonetheless, Mintus said it is worthwhile to put it out anyway. “Life goes on, music goes on and, in my opinion, it’s as relevant, if not more, to release new music in this period,” he said.
With the internet, there are many ways to connect with people all over the world, he added. “This poses a creative challenge how to find interesting, experiential ways to share this music with the world; how to share the story behind the album. Each single has a unique artwork, there are videos, a bunch of online live events that are planned – all of this is going to be available through my Facebook page (facebook.com/guymintusmusic). The fact that I’m not switching countries so often as normal allows me a different kind of focus and attention on how to turn this release process into the most fun, meaningful and creative process it can be.”
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Chutzpah! artist-in-residence this year is choreographer Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance). The world première of his Hourglass, which is presented by RBC, will be performed and live-streamed from the Rothstein Theatre on Nov. 25.
“Both the residency and this opportunity to present at Chutzpah! are the best things that could have happened to me during a time when artists are facing difficult challenges,” Cohen told the Independent. “I believe with all my heart in the strength and importance of the arts for a healthy society. It is not a luxury but a necessity, especially within a specific culture. Judaism is not just a common history or a set of beliefs, but a diverse culture that needs to be ever-evolving, reinterpreted and recreated, respecting and learning from our common past while creating a shared future. Having Jessica [Mann Gutteridge] share some of the same core values, and acknowledge the importance of going forward with the festival this year, has been such an empowering force for me and my collaborators during these past few months.”
Hourglass is an exploration of aging set to music by Philip Glass. It is a duet with former Ballet BC company dancer Racheal Prince and returning Ballet BC company dancer Brandon Lee Alley.
“As dance artists,” said Cohen, “our focus is on our most intimate tool and instrument: the human body. When that body is extremely intelligent and qualified, as Racheal’s and Brandon’s bodies are, true magic happens on stage. It’s like an ancient fairytale told to you as a child: it represents both the past and the future, it’s exciting and haunting, and it teaches you something valuable through the most basic elements of storytelling. No need for fireworks or special effects.
“For this edition of the festival, we are presenting 30 minutes of dance to four out of 20 études composed by Glass played by the conductor and celebrated pianist Leslie Dala (Vancouver Opera, Bach Choir). Leslie was actually the one who first presented the idea of this project to me, and dancing and working with him has been a most gratifying experience. There are linear elements in the piece, but Glass’s music marries the abstract and the linear, the romantic and the intellectual, in a way that not many composers are able to do, and that’s what makes it so unique.
“Racheal and Brandon, who are young yet mature and highly experienced dancers, can embody different physical states in such a fascinating way,” said Cohen. “They had a significant role in our exploration of the theme of aging and time.”
Being a real-life couple means that Prince and Alley have been able to rehearse together safely during COVID, and the Rothstein Theatre is large enough for them to work with Cohen at a safe distance. “Since Leslie is also dancing (!) in the piece,” added Cohen, “we had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe, which is, of course, the priority. This has definitely been a great learning experience, and an immensely gratifying one.”
The Chutzpah! Festival runs Nov. 21-28. For tickets, which start at $18, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
The new artistic managing director of Chutzpah!, Jessica Mann Gutteridge, faced unique challenges in presenting the festival. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“This has been a challenging time for all communities. I hope that this year’s Chutzpah! Festival can bring a sense of joy, and the communal spirit that comes from sharing performing arts experiences with others, whether at the theatre or from the comfort of home,” said artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge in a recent interview with the Jewish Independent.
This will be the first-ever Chutzpah! The Lisa Nemetz International Jewish Performing Arts Festival that people will be able to watch at home. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the performances will be available online, Nov. 21-28, with a few opportunities to attend small-audience shows that are being live-streamed from the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. Not only will this be the first Chutzpah! presented digitally in the festival’s 20-year history, but it will be the first directed by Gutteridge.
“I knew that I had an exciting and challenging year ahead of me when I took the helm of Chutzpah! from Mary-Louise Albert, who was artistic director before me for 15 years,” said Gutteridge. “I really could not have anticipated how much the world would change just three weeks later, when the pandemic shuttered the Rothstein Theatre and the entire performing arts sector. The first month or so was spent focusing on our staff’s well-being and helping the many users of our theatre to reschedule and replan all the events that had to be canceled.
“The first thing I did for the Chutzpah! Festival was to take some time to think,” she said. “My board was wonderfully supportive from Day 1 and assured me that whatever scale I felt was right would be all right with them – even if I wanted to postpone for a year. I spent a great deal of time just thinking about the purposes of the festival, how it serves the community and the relationships we have with our audiences and community of artists. Even before COVID, when I was thinking about what my first festival might look like in a transition time, I felt inspired to bring together artists who had performed in the festival in the past with new artists who I hoped would join us in the future. So, I began by reaching out to artists from both groups so that we could just start to get to know each other, and find out how everyone was responding to this unprecedented situation.”
By early summer, said Gutteridge, it became clear that the health-related restrictions with respect to the pandemic would still be in place in November, “so I began to think about how we might incorporate digital presentations into the festival, and to talk to artists who were exploring this form of performance in their work.
“I was thrilled to learn that Iris Bahr, who was in the 2019 festival, is not only a brilliant actor and stand-up comic, but is also a podcaster who interviews other artists and public intellectuals with much wit and insight. I invited her to perform her solo stand-up, but also to function as our festival host and conduct live interviews with all the festival artists,” said Gutteridge. “Because Iris divides her time between Israel, New York and Los Angeles, we knew she would have to appear digitally and, though this adds another layer of technical complexity, I think it’s such a special opportunity that the present moment brings us – to join artists from across the world and have a chance to learn more about how the pandemic is changing and shaping their creative work.”
The festival’s online-only shows will include Bahr’s stand-up comedy performance (click here for story); New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen’s Shtumer Shabes (Silent Sabbath) and former Vancouverite-current Londoner (England) Tamara Micner’s Old Friends, both of which are works-in-progress; a concert by Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus; and Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim.
There will be two shows live-streamed from the Rothstein, where limited audiences will be permitted. Ben Caplan will perform music from Old Stock, which is adapted from his music-theatre piece Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story (see jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). And Chutzpah! artist-in-residence Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance) presents the world première of Hourglass. Closing out the festival are Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini (click here for story), who will be live-streaming from Brooklyn, joined by yet-to-be-announced local comedians performing at the Rothstein.
The lineup is a fraction of what it would have been if not for COVID, but Gutteridge thought it important to proceed with the event.
“Well, for starters, I’m stubborn and I like a challenge!” she said of the decision. “I also knew that we were well-positioned with staff and support to execute a creative and fulfilling festival, even though it would not look much like past festivals. In talking to colleagues inside and outside the JCC, and hearing from our community via a survey in July, I understood that there was a lot of enthusiasm to keep experiencing the kind of performing arts presentations that Chutzpah! has offered for 20 years now. And, looking ahead to dark November nights, I think we can offer a communal experience that will bring some much-needed joy.”
In addition to focusing on quality entertainment, health and safety has been at the forefront of the planning.
“We have worked carefully with health and performing arts sector experts to make sure that we are providing the safest possible experiences for audiences, staff and artists, including at our physically distanced, intimate live events at the Rothstein Theatre,” said Gutteridge. “I’m also very impressed by how our artists have risen to the challenge. Rokhl Kafrissen, the playwright of Shtumer Shabes, has been working with her cast via Zoom since April, when they presented a workshop of the play in lieu of the debut performance they were scheduled to have at LABA in New York. Our audiences will have a chance to meet the artists and see excerpts from the play, with context about the work’s meaning and creation, all performed from the artists’ individual locations. It’s a special opportunity for our audiences to peek inside the creative process.
“Idan Cohen’s Hourglass, a new dance piece with live piano accompaniment, is being created this fall at the Rothstein Theatre as part of our creative residency program. With 318 seats and a large stage, the theatre is large enough for physical distancing, and Idan is working with a skeleton crew – often just himself and the two dancers at work. The dancers, Brandon Lee Alley and Racheal Prince, are partners offstage as well as on, so they are already in a household bubble. The other dance piece, Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, comes to us from the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv, where the performance was previously recorded in a studio theatre, so that health and safety protocols could be observed and the dancers could form their own bubble.”
Tickets for the festival start at $18 and are available online at chutzpahfestival.com or by phone at 604-257-5145.
Iris Bahr pulls double duty at the 2020 Chutzpah! Festival, as host and performer. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Comedien, writer, actor, director, producer and podcaster Iris Bahr will both host this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Nov. 21-28, and perform her stand-up live Nov. 26.
Known for her eclectic characters, Bahr will call on many of them as she converses with the other festival artists as part of her hosting duties.
“I’ll be conducting these conversations either as myself or as some of my characters, depending on the artist I’m speaking to,” Bahr told the Independent. “My alter egos include Shosh, the salty Israeli who has become popular on Instagram, Rae Lynn Caspar White, my ‘Southern redneck intellectual,’ and Shuli, my Orthodox character who is beyond excited to ‘dive into the arts’ for the first time.”
Many JI readers will know Bahr’s stand-up from having seen her perform at last year’s Chutzpah! The show will be somewhat different this time around.
“My stand-up will involve more crowd work and storytelling versus just straight-on stand-up to camera,” she said. “I have found that to be a more captivating and enjoyable experience for everyone involved when the audience can also engage and experience each other’s presence, it’s the closest we can get to a communal live theatrical experience in these challenging times.”
Eman El-Husseini, left, and Jess Salomon with furry family member Esther Honey El-Husseini. (photo by Mike Bryck)
Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, close out this year’s Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 28. They will live-stream from Brooklyn, and local comedians will join the event from the Rothstein Theatre.
In performance, the married Jewish-Palestinian lesbian comedy duo leans into the things that make them unique. Their chemistry is not only evident on stage, but even comes out in an email interview, where the pair play off one another like, well, a couple who knows and loves each other well.
JI: You met when you were each performing solo routines and continued in that vein, I think, even after you were married. When and why did you team up professionally as well?
Jess: It didn’t really come from us. We weren’t out in comedy until we got engaged so it was only after that, that we started making jokes about our relationship. Sometimes, we’d follow each other on a show and it became obvious who we were talking about. Like how many Jewish-Muslim-Palestinian Canadian couples that moved to America from Canada are there? Another comedy couple might be able to be on a show together and say my boyfriend did this or my girlfriend did that, and no one would connect that they were referring to one another. So, we built in this reveal and, eventually, people started asking if we were going to share the stage together. We didn’t want to, but it’s a sacrifice we make for the fans!
Eman: The first time we shared the stage was at a gig in an old synagogue turned community centre in L.A. I went on first and introduced Jess for her performance. We bantered, unprepared, on stage for about 10 minutes. We had no idea a reviewer from Tablet was in the audience and, although we individually performed for about 30 minutes separately, that 10 minutes of banter stole the show…. We didn’t think much of it but, a year later, 2018, we were in our hometown of Montreal for the Just for Laughs Festival. The BBC World Service was in town to put on a comedy show. They called us and asked if we’d want to record a set together and we said, ‘absolutely not.’ First of all, they have a huge listenership and we wouldn’t be able to polish an act under such short notice and, second, no one wants or should want to work with their spouse. But, the British have a way to persuade, it must be the accent.
At the same time, because we were back in our hometown, Just for Laughs offered us two shows to do whatever we wanted. We decided to perform individually for 20 minutes and then 20 minutes together. We almost got divorced but the audience loved it! We sold out both nights and added a third. Who would have thought a duo act would be so sought after? We’ve been working together ever since, and we are still married! I think, at this point, if we ever separated, we’d have to be closeted about getting divorced.
JI: From where do you get the strength and confidence to be a stand-up comedian?
Eman: I have no idea why and how I’ve stuck with this career after my first set. I bombed so hard and, until today, continue to bomb at times, but there is truly an addictive element to making someone laugh. Even if it’s a single person in a room. Laughter is so genuine and isn’t easily had. I mean, even in our day-to-day life Jess and I will share with each other how we made a stranger laugh shopping for groceries or walking the dog. It’s so rewarding.
Jess: Making strangers laugh and then talking about it is 100% an Eman thing. Right now, we’re in an argument over a speech therapist I’m convinced she hired just to entertain while she insists she has a speech impediment that must be fixed.
Eman: I feel like my strength and confidence comes from my parents. Although my sister and I have a brother, I managed to be the favourite.
Jess: You do have a masculine energy they might be responding to.
Eman: A big reason I wanted to be a stand-up comic is because of how misrepresented and underrepresented Arabs, Muslims and particularly Palestinians are in the media. More often than not, I am the first Palestinian someone meets in real life. I feel like an ambassador of sorts, dispelling stereotypes about my people. Exposure is such a powerful tool in getting through to people and if you can make them laugh that’s a big bonus. Even if people are immediately turned off by what I represent, they are still curious to hear what I have to say. I remember headlining a show in Niagara Falls once. I had to be on stage for 45 minutes. Twenty minutes in, I realized I haven’t made a single person laugh….
Jess: I love that it took you 20 minutes! That’s confidence.
Eman: They were conservative-leaning so, I called them out, ‘Guys! I know you don’t like what I’m saying but I can tell you like me.’ That eviscerated the room! From that moment forward I knew I could never quit comedy even if I wanted to.
Jess: I tried to do a joke about the no smoking sign on the plane and quickly realized there were at least a few comics who had done the same joke. That’s when I realized it’s better when I pull from personal experience. Even if I’m not an ambassador like Eman. I’m not the first Jewish comedian people have seen.
JI: How and when did your new Crave Canada special, Marriage of Convenience, come about?
Jess: After performing in Montreal for Just for Laughs and the BBC in 2018, we kept working on our duo act and growing our audience on Instagram for our comics (@theelsalomons). We sent a tape of what grew into an hour-long show to Just for Laughs and that’s how we got booked for the Crave special.
Eman: We realized people preferred us together than individually, which is insulting considering we had about a decade each of solo experience. It’s understandable, there are so many stand-up comics but rarely any duo acts.
Jess: There’s no one I’d rather lose my individual identity for.
JI: What is the origin of the cartoons?
Eman: Jess came up with the idea. We would get such a huge response on social media when we’d write these back-and-forth status updates about each other.
Jess: Huge is relative.
Eman: People asking when the sitcom was coming out.
Jess: And, knowing that it would take awhile for us to find the time to write a pilot that was pitch-ready and be in a place where we could sell a series, a weekly cartoon on Instagram seemed like a manageable place to start to develop the character version of ourselves and, hopefully, an audience. We also have a close family friend, Jesse Brown, who just happens to be an incredible illustrator that wanted to work on this with us. So that’s how it was born.
Eman: The El-Salomons was the hashtag for our wedding, and Jesse drew us for our invitations … my mother-in-law saw them and said, “He made you look thin.”
Jess: Actually, yes, that is how it was born.
* * *
Chutzpah! starts Nov. 21. For the full lineup and tickets, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
AvevA and her band perform at the Rickshaw Theatre Nov. 14. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“I’m really looking forward to performing for a new audience in Vancouver, and to seeing Vancouver for the first time,” Israeli-Ethiopian singer-songwriter AvevA Dese – who goes by her first name – told the Independent.
The Rehovot-based musician will perform at the Rickshaw Theatre Nov. 14 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. She will be coming with a band: Noam Israeli (drums), Nadav Peled (guitar) and Itamar Gov-Ari (keyboard). While in North America, the group will also perform in New York and Los Angeles.
Though AvevA has been singing since she can remember, she started songwriting in her teens. Her participation, in 2012, on the Israeli reality TV show The Voice led her to Rimon School of Music, in Ramat Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. This, in turn, led the musician – who mainly listened to American soul music when she was a kid – to explore her roots. While AvevA was born in Israel, her parents made aliyah in 1984, having escaped civil war and famine in Ethiopia by making the weeks-long journey to a refugee camp in Sudan, from where they were brought to Israel as part of Operation Moses.
“It was a process, trying to get in touch with my roots, my heritage,” she said. “As a child, I wasn’t interested in my heritage because I felt I had to choose either I’m Ethiopian or I’m Israeli. So, I chose Israeli because I wanted to fit in.
“Growing up, I understood that I can be both, but I wasn’t eager to learn and know about my Ethiopian roots – that acutely started through music. When I was at Rimon School of Music, I started singing in an ensemble called Afro-Pop, where the music we played was mostly African music, and I fell in love with it. That same year, I was invited to perform with the Idan Raichel Project, where I performed an Ethiopian song for the first time. I started collaborating with Ethiopian writers, I’ve visited Ethiopia three times in the last four years, and I’m still learning more each day.”
AvevA’s discography includes the EP Who Am I, which was released in November 2016, and the LP In My Thoughts, released in March of this year. “I’m now working on some new songs that I can’t wait to release,” she said. “I hope it will happen in 2020.”
AvevA said she generally begins composing on the guitar. “I’ll start jamming and, when I find something that I like, I just go with it and try to complete that idea into a song.” However, she added, “A song can change a lot in the process of recording and working with a producer. For example, my song ‘Won’t Let You’ wasn’t written before I started working with the producer Isaac DaBom. I had a whole different song that he didn’t think was good enough, so he asked me to rewrite it and that’s how I wrote ‘Won’t Let You.’”
AvevA sings in English and Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia), and some of her songs use Ethiopian scales.
“Ethiopian music is primarily based on a five-tone scale system, known as a pentatonic scale, and the Western scale generally consists of seven notes,” she explained.
AvevA said she feels no pressure to be a “poster girl” for Israel’s openness to diversity. “I don’t feel that pressure,” she stressed. “I share my story and the way that I see things. In Israel, like in any other place, there are beautiful sides and there are ugly sides.”
B.C.-based Leila Neverland, in her trio Mountain Sound, opens for AvevA on Nov. 14, 8 p.m. For tickets to the concert – Rickshaw Theatre is a 19+ venue – and other Chutzpah! shows, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Tamara Micner performs her one-woman play Holocaust Brunch this weekend at Chutzpah! (photo by Sophie le Roux)
“In recent years,” playwright Tamara Micner told the Independent, “I feel there’s been increasing discussion about inherited trauma in indigenous communities and in other minority communities, such as Japanese- and Chinese-Canadian communities. For me, it’s been valuable to remember that, sadly, we as Jews are not alone in inheriting collective trauma. In fact, I also know white, Christian Canadians who have it, too. The tsures we carry is unique in some ways, but we’re definitely in good company.”
Micner, who now lives in London, England, will be returning home to Vancouver for a couple of weeks to perform her new one-woman show, Holocaust Brunch, at the Chutzpah! Festival. It is one of two theatre works that will see their Canadian première at this year’s festival; the other is The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX, directed by Stan Zimmerman, who is based in Los Angeles.
While The Diary of Anne Frank was mounted by Fighting Chance Productions last year (jewishindependent.ca/glimpse-of-life-in-the-annex), Zimmerman’s production features only Latinx actors. This is what makes this version of the play – written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett Based and adapted by Wendy Kesselman – unique.
“I chose to use Latinx actors for the characters in the attic,” Zimmerman told the Independent, “after seeing a CNN report about a Jewish woman in L.A. who arranged to hide a Latina mom and her daughters after her husband was suddenly deported by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement].
“Contrary to initial media reports – that went worldwide – we are not replacing the Nazis with ICE agents [in the play]. We are performing a word-for-word production of the script that Natalie Portman starred in on Broadway in 1997. I’m not saying the situation is exactly the same as the Second World War, but there are parallels – parallels that we can hopefully learn from. Only then can we live by Elie Wiesel’s famous phrase, ‘Never again.’”
Some Jewish community members were concerned about Zimmerman’s casting choice.
“Initially,” he said, “I had a few Jewish friends question my decision to cast Latinx actors in the play. For them, it was more about not wanting to tarnish the legacy of Anne Frank. But, when they saw that we were honouring her memory, they understood the power of this production. I took to heart the insightful words of a young Anne Frank from her diary – ‘Our lives are all different, and yet the same.’”
The concept of “different yet the same” is one of the reasons that Micner was interested in telling the stories of Bluma and Isaac Tischler, who have both passed away. Born in Poland, they “met in medical school in Tajikistan during the war, and went on to become renowned Vancouver doctors.”
“I have known the Tischler family since 1987, when their daughter Yael and I did What Do I Do When I’m Two? together at the JCC,” said Micner, referring to a program at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. “Our parents and grandparents have also known each other for many years.”
That said, Micner explored some of her gaps in understanding, through creating Holocaust Brunch.
“Growing up,” she said, “I felt there was a disconnect between ‘the Holocaust story’ I was taught, which focused on Western Europe and camps, and my own family’s story, which was about living in Eastern Europe (Poland) and surviving the war in the Soviet Union. The Tischlers’ story has those parallels as well, and it feels important to me to talk about a kind of Holocaust story that I haven’t seen told in wider culture, and that some non-Jews I know have never even heard.”
Micner is no stranger to writing plays based on people she knows.
“I have created shows in the past that are inspired by my own family,” she said. “Holocaust Brunch is partly about another family’s story, and started with the Tischlers offering me part of their family’s story to tell in a piece of theatre. I take that offer very seriously as an act of trust and a responsibility, as the creator and performer of the piece. We’ve had several conversations along the way about the central questions and themes of the piece as it has taken shape, and they have seen the show as it has evolved.”
One of the central aspects of the work is looking at trauma from a third-generation perspective.
“I am indeed part of the ‘third generation,’ and Holocaust Brunch explores what it’s like living as a descendant of Holocaust survivors, two generations removed from that history and trauma,” said Micner. “It’s certainly based on some of my experiences and, inevitably, incorporates aspects of other people’s experiences based on conversations I’ve been part of, books and articles I’ve read, and so on. There are many of us who are thinking and talking about these issues.”
In contrast, Zimmerman witnessed a lack of discussion and knowledge about the Holocaust and, specifically, The Diary of Anne Frank.
“I was quite shocked,” he said, “when the 15-year-old actor playing Anne told us that she did not know who Anne Frank was before auditioning for our production. As a Jew, I grew mad to learn that Anne’s diary is no longer required reading in the California school system. I decided then that it was vital to get as many student groups as possible to see this play, with this cast.”
And it hasn’t been only the cast and audiences who have learned something from the play.
“Although I was a good student at my temple’s Sunday school,” said Zimmerman, “being involved in this play opened my eyes to so many stories about the Holocaust that I never knew before. These important lessons were gained by visits to several museums and meeting many survivors and hearing their stories firsthand.”
He added, “As many of our survivors pass, it is important for us as artists to find creative ways to keep Anne’s story alive.”
One of the ways in which Micner creatively tells her story is with humour. Describing Holocaust Brunch as a “dark comedy,” Micner explained, “I think there’s a history of Ashkenazi Jews using comedy to look at hard things – the oppression we’ve suffered, displacement, antisemitism, poverty and so on. Holocaust Brunch is certainly engaging with that tradition,” she said. “I think there’s also a history of Ashkenazi humour being self-deprecating – as in, making fun of ourselves – and, one of the things I’ve been interested in, is looking at where that comes from and what it would mean for us not to be the butt of our own jokes. Holocaust Brunch is using comedy to look at communal trauma, and how we might be able to heal from that. The show also uses humour to explore stereotypes and assumptions that some non-Jews have about Jews. I think laughter helps us open up and look at hard places.”
For his part, Zimmerman would like audiences who come to see The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX “to feel like they literally stepped into the shoes of these characters – just like the actors have. Then we can all have this highly emotional and very visceral experience that can only be achieved communally with live theatre.”
Holocaust Brunch runs this weekend in the JCCGV’s Wosk Auditorium, Oct. 27, 1 p.m., and Oct. 28, 7 p.m. The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX, co-presented with Howard Blank of Point Blank Productions, is at the Rothstein Theatre Nov. 6, 8 p.m.; Nov. 7, 8 p.m.; Nov. 8, 1 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Nov. 9, 2 p.m. For tickets to these and other Chutzpah! shows, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Left to right: Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke in We Keep Coming Back, which plays March 13 and 14 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. (photo by Jeremy Mimnaugh)
At first, we expected the piece to focus mainly on the past and how sad the absence of Jewish life in Poland is. After going and also spending more time in Poland, we now propose that it is through focusing on the present and future, with an aim at building positive perspectives, that will ultimately lead to transformation and genuine healing,” said Michael Rubenfeld about We Keep Coming Back, which plays at the Chutzpah! Festival March 13 and 14.
Rubenfeld created the multimedia work with Sarah Garton Stanley, as well as his mother, Mary Berchard, and filmmaker and translator Katka Reszke. Rubenfeld and Garton Stanley are co-directors of Selfconscious Theatre. We Keep Coming Back is based on a trip that Rubenfeld and his mother took to Poland in 2013.
“It was always our intention to make a piece of theatre and the trip was connected to a desire to explore intergeneration trauma and, also, more specifically, the problems in my relationship with my mother that stem from unresolved trauma and disconnect from our family’s roots in Poland,” said Rubenfeld. “So, the trip was an experiment of sorts; to see if going to Poland with my mother, visiting her mother and father’s hometowns and going to Auschwitz, would give us the opportunity to mourn together, which might also bring us closer together.”
According to a blog on Selfconscious Theatre’s website, after surviving the Holocaust, “Berchard’s family moved from Poland to Sweden, where she was born. They then immigrated to Canada in 1951, where she grew up and eventually had a son, Michael.”
Rubenfeld and Berchard were in Poland for about two weeks. “My mother has since been back three or four more times, and I now have a home in Poland with my wife,” said Rubenfeld – the couple lives in both Krakow and Toronto. “We’ve toured We Keep Coming Back to Poland three times,” he added.
The project has worked to bring mother and son closer.
“It’s been really nice for us to have a piece that we do together,” said Rubenfeld. “It gives us an excuse to spend time together to do something we know we’re going to enjoy. It’s also given us commonality, which has been really essential for our relationship.
“My mother has always been very supportive, though we don’t always have a lot in common. This project has changed that. We also now have Poland in common, and our mutual interest. My mother really loves it in Poland. She’s also become quite interested in uncovering more about our history and has started researching and archiving our family tree. It’s brought her a lot of happiness and has been a really healing thing – which, in general, has been good for our relationship as well.”
We Keep Coming Back “speaks so openly and honestly about what it means to love a parent, or to be loved by a child, and how so many of the resources for a good and enduring love were torn apart by the Holocaust and all of the horrors, throughout the generations that linger,” said Garton Stanley, who is also associate artistic director of English theatre and interim facilitator for indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
“Honestly, as someone on the ground since the get-go, I was most curious about Michael’s developing love for Poland and how, over the course of the play’s creation, he not only fell in love with a Jewish woman from Poland but that he now lives there,” she said. “Michael and I are very interested in the line between fiction and reality and the space for realizing possible worlds through dramatic form. Michael now speaks some Polish. He’s making deep-rooted reconnections and helping contribute to a vibrant Jewish life in Poland.”
Garton Stanley and Rubenfeld met just over 10 years ago, after she saw him in a show. “He was performing in it with my partner at the time,” she said. “He was amazing. We became fast friends shortly thereafter.”
At Selfconscious Theatre – which they started together – the two have also co-created The Book of Judith; Mother, Mother, Mother; and The Failure Show.
For We Keep Coming Back, Garton Stanley is not only co-creator but the director. “My co-creation,” she explained, “was part facilitator, part conceiver, part devisor, part writer, part mediator, part friend and always enthusiast.”
How Reszke became involved in the production is a little more circuitous and fortuitous.
“Once we decided to take the trip to Poland, we connected with a producer named Evelyn Tauben, who was doing research around contemporary Jewish Poland,” explained Rubenfeld. “Through Evelyn initially, we started learning about the renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland, which, at the time, I knew nothing about. Once learning about it, we determined that it was important to us that we engage with it on our trip, and that’s when Katka came into the picture.
“We knew we needed a translator to join us, and we also knew we wanted to document the process. We joked that it would be incredible if we could find someone who could both translate, film and be a Polish Jew who might want to collaborate with us artistically. On a lark, we Googled ‘Polish, Jewish, filmmaker,’ and that’s how we discovered Katka. We sent her an email, and one thing led to another.”
“Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke,” added Garton Stanley, “are fascinating performers and neither of them has any training in this area. Their stories and their curiosity combine with Michael’s to create a new family. And this feels like one of the piece’s hidden successes.”
As for what has most surprised her about the project, she said, “That we are still doing it and learning from it. And learning from the audiences whose histories intersect with Michael’s, Mary’s and Katka’s own generational challenges and traumas. And that the piece resonates as deeply as it does. It has a beautiful heart and this is always surprising, in the best way.”
“I believe that, in our desire to never forget what happened during the Holocaust, we have also forgotten that Poland was one of the most important contemporary homelands for the Ashkenazi Jewish people for over 500 years,” said Rubenfeld. “So much of our contemporary culture was bred in this land, and we forget that the Jewish people were happy living in Poland before the war. We are raised to think of Poland as only the place of tragedy. While I understand why, I think that it’s essential to remember and celebrate a time when there was such vibrant Jewish culture. Most was destroyed because of the war, and it’s impossible to not feel sad. But, as we move into the future and the pain continues to recede, it is just as important to remember the incredible prewar Polish Jewish world of Poland. It was very profound.”
For tickets to We Keep Coming Back at the Rothstein Theatre, and for the full Chutzpah! schedule, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Deb Filler performs at the Chutzpah! Festival on March 4. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“I’ve performed all over the world, baked challah bread onstage, done shows everywhere, and this is the first time in all these years I am performing in Vancouver live. Delighted to be coming back to do a show! I hope there’ll be more,” Deb Filler told the Independent.
Filler, who will perform at the Chutzpah! Festival on March 4, lived in Vancouver for six months, starting in late 1979.
“I was tempted to stay but never did,” said the comedian, actor, musician, teacher and writer originally from New Zealand. “My career in North America started there. I had an agent and things were going well but New York called, Stella Adler and Uta Hagen, the great acting teachers I studied with. So, I drove across country and the rest as they say….”
While Filler left Vancouver for New York, she has lived in Toronto since 1995.
“I came for a film that was being made of my work, Punch Me in the Stomach, and I stayed and I fell in love,” she said. “Toronto is a terrific city for fun, culture. And it’s close to Europe and New York. I was in New York before that for 15 years, so I guess I’m a bit of a rightie not a leftie – coastie. Not politically, that’s for sure!”
Filler will be bringing her show I Did It My Way in Yiddish (in English) to the Rothstein Theatre for one performance only – March 4, 1 p.m. Described as a journey around the world, “jam-packed” with music (Filler on her guitar) “and a raft of loveable characters she creates,” the initial work was commissioned by the Jewish Community Centre London, called the JW3, as it is located on Finchley Road, NW3. The centre’s tagline is “The postal code for Jewish life.”
“It’s a fantastic modern facility in North London with cafés, art studios, a theatre, meeting places, gallery, classrooms, a school, a film space, a real cultural hub,” said Filler, who had worked with them before the commission. “I’d gotten a great response several times in the past and they were keen for me to come back for their U.K. Jewish Comedy Festival so asked me to perform a new show. I knew – because the stories I tell about meeting and befriending Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Cohen and another Jewish musician called Lenny – that London audiences would respond like audiences have all over the world. So, when they asked, I was delighted to agree, and now the show has been in New York, L.A., Sydney, Toronto, and is coming to Vancouver and D.C.”
Since the commission, the show has changed a bit.
“We made a short dramatic film of one of the stories, which is sometimes screened during the show as a multimedia segment, which Chutzpah! requested. Also, the name has changed to describe the show better than The Three Lennys.”
A March 2017 article on broadwayworld.com describes a bit of the show: “As Deb drives for a car service in New York City, she takes us on a truly incredible ride with Leonard Cohen, reducing the venerable Canadian folksinger to tears of laughter. Her story of meeting Leonard Bernstein as a teen, bringing him fresh challah bread from her father, a survivor of the Holocaust who heard Bernstein play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in a displaced persons camp after the war, is extraordinary. What happens next is truly unbelievable.”
One of the things that will happen next for Filler is a trip to Europe. “I’m being invited to Landsberg in Germany as guest of the reunion there of my father’s displaced persons camp, where Leonard Bernstein played and my dad saw him in 1948…. I’m also working on My German Roots Are Showing, which I read in London with actor Miriam Margolyes as my mother. She is fantastic!”
In a conversation a few years ago on Auckland’s Newsbeat (newsbeat.kiwi) with journalist Keren Cook, Filler spoke about Jewish humour and how her family provided a rich environment and offered many resources for her creative expression.
When the Independent asked her about how she takes into account her relatives’ feelings, Filler said, “There are red lines, nothing too personal, but my family are wonderful and amongst my biggest fans, so it’s been a pleasure to perform for them. One relative loved my show Punch Me in the Stomach, but somebody put a worm in her ear and she got defensive so I’ve taken her out of future shows to safeguard any feelings she may have about being exposed. It’s all done with love and admiration, and a bit of comedy of course. So, sometimes one must exaggerate for the laugh. But it’s all good.”
Filler taught at Brown University for 14 years in Providence, R.I., and she teaches at Humber College in Toronto and at Toi Whakaari (New Zealand Drama School), in addition to having private students. “I’ve recently started directing,” she said, “and just had a wonderful show open in Auckland for Pride Festival, called Random Shagger. It’s doing really well.”
She advises aspiring comics about to pick up the mic for the first time, “Be strong! Be brave! Have confidence in your persona. And do it for yourself, not for drunken college students who tend to populate comedy club audiences.”
For tickets to I Did It My Way in Yiddish (in English) and the full Chutzpah! Festival lineup, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Salomé: Woman of Valor will have its world première at the Chutzpah! Festival March 8-10. (image by Anya Ross, graphics by John Greenaway)
There have been many interpretations of Salomé – thought to be the woman whose alluring dance persuaded King Herod to honour her request that he have John the Baptist beheaded – but none quite like that of Salomé: Woman of Valor, which has its world première at Chutzpah! March 8-10.
The creation of this complex, multilayered work that combines poetry, music, dance and film was led by composer and trumpeter Frank London and poet and performer Adeena Karasick. It features live music by London, percussionist Deep Singh and keyboard player Shai Bachar. The poetry is written and performed by Karasick, the dance choreographed and performed by Rebecca Margolick and Jessie Zaritt, and the video analyzing Charles Bryant’s 1923 silent film Salomé was made by Elizabeth Mak. The whole production is directed by Alex Aron.
“Frank was intrigued by the Salomé story due to the visual cornucopia of the Bryant film, and because it is a story where dance was at the centre, motivating the complex chain of events, and thus ripe for reinvention as a contemporary dance-theatre piece incorporating Bryant’s imagery,” Karasick told the Independent about why the work focuses on Salomé and not another Jewish historical or literary woman. “However, he was only aware of the [Oscar] Wilde retelling of the Salomé story and thus not really interested in her narrative. He came to me to see if I could reenvision her story in a more compelling way.”
It has always bothered her, said Karasick, how, within Christian mythology and entrenched in history by writers like Wilde, Gustave Flaubert and Stéphane Mallarmé and artists such as Gustav Klimt, Gustave Moreau and Aubrey Beardsley, “Salomé was seen as yet another Jewish temptress/Christian killer – but, in fact, there isn’t any evidence to substantiate this claim. According to apocrypha and Josephus’s Antiquities, she came from Jewish royalty and there is no evidence she murdered John the Baptist or even danced for Herod,” said Karasick.
“The only historical reference that [Herod’s wife] Herodias’s daughter’s name was Salomé is from Flavius Josephus, who makes no other claims about her – not that she danced for Herod, not that she demanded John’s head, but only that she went on to marry twice and live peacefully. The other apocryphal reference is that a daughter danced for Herod, which caused him to lose his mind and kill John the Baptist. Thus, the conflagrated Salomé that appears in the Wilde play, [Richard] Strauss opera and all subsequent productions, is an amalgamated construct, so we felt it was our duty to set the record straight.”
In fact, added Karasick, there are three women named Salomé in Jewish history: Salomé, daughter of Herodias and Herod II (circa 14-71 CE); Queen Salomé, her great-aunt (65 BCE-10 CE); and Salomé Alexandra (139-67 BCE).
“Her great-aunt, Salomé I, was the powerful sister and force behind Herod the Great, king of Judea and Second Temple rebuilder,” said Karasick, while Salomé Alexandra (also known as Shelomtzion) was one of only two women who reigned over Judea.
“I wanted my Salomé, Salomé of Valor, to carry the weight of both her genetic lineage and the cultural heredity of her name, embodying the legacy and power of the women that came before her,” said Karasick.
Karasick, who was born in Winnipeg, grew up in Vancouver, earning her bachelor’s from the University of British Columbia. She did her master’s at York University and her PhD at Concordia University. Among other things, she teaches literature and critical theory at Pratt Institute in New York, is co-founding artistic director of KlezKanada and performs her work around the world. The author of nine books – with a 10th, Checking In, published by Talonbooks, on the way – she has been awarded for her contributions to feminist thinking and, last year, the Adeena Karasick Archive was established at Special Collections, Simon Fraser University.
London – a member of the Klezmatics and the group Hasidic New Wave, who has performed with countless musicians and made numerous recordings of his own – saw Karasick perform in New York in 2011. He then hired her, she said, “along with Jake Marmer to design and lead the poetry retreat at KlezKanada…. We hadn’t yet collaborated before this, but I was always compelled by his music and the breadth of all he created as a masterful revolutionary himself, not only as a spectacularly fierce trumpet player but virtuosic composer, reinvigorating klezmer music, transcendentally intermixing it with aspects of world music, jazz, Chassidic new wave, punk – and always felt it would be a thrilling and highly symbiotic artistic match.”
When Frank approached her about the Salomé project, said Karasick, they both “fell in love with the Bryant film but were so perplexed” about Salomé’s “reputation in cultural history.”
So, Karasick started researching, “poring through the multiple and conflict[ing] narratives – through Josephus and the apocrypha, locating the many discrepancies between Christian and Jewish mythologies, speaking with specialists in the field, and became fascinated with how there are so many ‘truths,’ stories, misreadings, and how imperative it is to question these grand narratives, problematize traditional cultural, moral and religious perspectives.
“For millennia,” she said, “Jews have been portrayed as the murderers of gods and prophets in other people’s mythologies, so Salomé: Woman of Valor deconstructs this mythology, exposing how she was not a demonic murderess, and opens up the possibilities for infinite retelling and how truth itself is always a construct of veiling and unveiling.”
About the magnitude of the project, Karasick said, “As the author of nine books invested in issues of ethnicity, gender and ways to construct meaning, as professor of poetry and critical theory, gender images in the media, and poetics and performance, Salomé: Woman of Valor is a logical progression in my 30-year career, and has allowed me to integrate my experiences in one work – something that I have never done before.
“Due to the scope of this show,” she said, “I’m able to weave together the multiple styles of writing that I’ve experimented with over the years – sound poetry, homophonic translations, post-language conceptualism, kabbalistic and feminist revisionist practices, all syntactically playful, polyphonic, ironic and rhythmically complex – a fusion of my esthetic passions and expertise; opening a space of female empowerment.”
While London has been involved in many projects, Karasick said Salomé might be the first for him with performance poetry at the centre.
“We created Salomé: Woman of Valor as an integration of performance poetry, dance, music and video exploring the dialectic between narrative and abstraction – it is a quantum leap forward in collaborative artistic development, challenging my conceptual processes of making an artwork,” she said. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
Salomé: Woman of Valor is already being presented in an array of venues and contexts, said Karasick. “Its form and content make it appropriate to be presented at jazz, dance, poetry, new theatre, literary and electronic literature festivals; in performing arts centres, universities, avant garde text-based multimedia events, as well as events focusing on new media and cross arts,” she said.
“With its feminist and mystical kabbalistic take on Jewish historical subject matter and a live score which draws from East European Jewish music (klezmer) with jazz, Arabic and Indian musics, our Salomé is especially attractive to Jewish culture festivals and to presenters of Jewish music, language, dance and art.”
The libretto has been published in Italian and in English, and selections of it have been published in Bengali, Arabic, Yiddish and German. It is “being taught in universities worldwide in departments of global literature, Jewish studies and humanities and media studies,” she said.
The artists bringing Salomé: Woman of Valor to Vancouver are all “at the forefront of their respective fields,” said Karasick, “and so I feel so fortunate to be working with such powerful creators, all revolutionaries in their own ways. Frank works with Shai Bachar and Deep Singh on a number of musical projects – Deep and Frank started the internationally acclaimed bhangra-klezmer fusion band Sharabi; and [Frank] co-developed Night in the Old Marketplace with Alex Aron, so bringing her on board as a director seemed a natural fit.
“Over the five years of envisioning the piece, we tried on a number of dance styles, ranging from tribal belly dance to sword dance/swallowers, and, with the advice of (Merce Cunningham protégé) Gus Solomons, Jr., settled on the avant garde modern dance of Israeli superstar Jesse Zarrit and the stunningly poetic Rebecca Margolick, with a shout-out to the Dadaist Loïe Fuller stylings by Jodi Sperling.”
Mak’s video on Bryant’s silent film, notes the project’s promotional material, is “punctuated with Jim Andrews’ stunning vispo [visual poetry], with special video appearances by … Tony Torn as Herod, lit by Nicole Lang.”
“Together,” said Karasick, “we’re expanding our work in ways only dreamed possible; have created an intellectually provocative, audio-visual sensorium, informed by our (Frank’s and my) ongoing obsession with excess, desire and pushing boundaries.”
And it’s an interest, if not obsession, with many others, as well. The Kickstarter campaign for Salomé surpassed its goal of $20,000, about half of the project’s budget.
“The show has been garnering a lot of love and support from colleagues and patrons,” said Karasick, “perhaps due to ways that it addresses the social and political necessity to speak the unspoken, resist stereotypes, misrepresentation and outdated myths, and fosters a thinking that leads to a hybridized syncretic culture, one that honours the intermixing of blood, belief, rhythm, texture and being. Content-wise, it addresses outdated notions of identity and ethnicity, and carves out a space where difference and otherness can be celebrated. We feel incredibly grateful, and hope that we can keep growing it. Broadway, here we come!”
But, first, the Chutzpah! Festival. They have also been invited to Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival and the Boston Jewish Music Festival, said Karasick, who will continue to tour with the Salomé books. “Frank,” she said, “will record and release the music as a CD. We hope to see it at major festivals and venues worldwide.”
The presentations of Salomé at Chutzpah! are presented in association with the Dance Centre, where the performances will take place. For tickets and the full festival lineup, visit chutzpahfestival.com.