The Tarpan Strikes Back

Collaboration Helps To Polish Up Some Dance Moves

By Gordon Haber

Published April 07, 2010, issue of April 16, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

American Jews can be strangely incurious about the actual daily life of their ancestors. This seems to hold especially true for those of Eastern European descent, who see the vast area between Germany and Russia as a giant killing field — thus reducing 1,000 years of culture to two words: “Never again.”

I saw this attitude quite often when I lived in Poland. American Jews would visit the death camps, get angry and leave, usually without learning much about what life was like in what used to be the largest Jewish community in the world. Nor did many bother to find out what life is like there now.

For these reasons, I’m usually wary when Jewish artists tackle prewar Poland. I get nervous that I’m going to be told, yet again, to see the Old Country in terms of only pain and loss.

Thankfully, this kind of reductionism was not in evidence in “Tov,” the latest piece from Los Angeles-based choreographer Rosanna Gamson which closed March 27 after its week-long run at REDCAT. “Tov,” in fact, is the result of Gamson’s collaboration with the Chorea Theatre Association, an experimental group from Lodz, Poland. The resulting piece can be described as a rough allegory about Polish Jewry — rough because through a deft combination of singing, dance and spoken word, the allegory is less told than evoked. And rough because instead of being oversimplified, “Tov” has, perhaps, a surfeit of symbols.

The main conceit is the tarpan, an extinct breed of horse that prewar German zoologists attempted to revive because they saw it (believe it or not) as an “Aryan” animal. Also referenced are Gamson’s own ancestors, who were horse traders in the northern city of Szczecin (pronounced, “shcheh-cheen”). The piece also refers to another supposed ancestor, the Tannaitic sage Nachum Ish Gamzu, who was famous for saying, no matter what disaster had befallen him, “Gam zu l’tovah — “This, too, is for the good.”

“Tov” opens with four performers seated around a table and harmonizing a lovely Bulgarian song. Meanwhile, dancers gather on nearby benches, chatting sotto voce. At the other side of the space, snow falls in one corner. A red-haired girl (Delilah Gamson, daughter of the choreographer) revels in the flakes until a paternal figure appears (Chorea’s Tomasz Rodowicz); a kind of loving struggle ensues as he tries to get her out of the cold.

  • Image 1
  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4
  • Image 5
  • Image 6
  • Image 7
  • Image 8

Such moments in “Tov,” complex in their combinations of language, music and movement, are simply beautiful. But too often the metaphors pile up to the point of distraction. Clearly, the tarpan is a clever way of integrating the choreographer’s personal history with the larger issues of extinction, Nazi “science” and the fate of Polish Jewry. But the choreography so frequently evokes wild horses that the viewer may find it repetitious, even self-indulgent.

Salt, similarly, is also an important symbol in “Tov”: It flows from boxes and bowls, from hand to hand, and is liberally sprinkled around the stage, forming lines and borders. Salt is also poured around the bodies of supine dancers, suggesting the chalk outlines of crime scenes, which are then effaced in a solo (by the brilliant Alexandria Yalj) that once again evokes a wild horse. But what, exactly, is Gamson suggesting with this? Salt, in Jewish and Slavic culture, has a multiplicity of meanings — so many, in fact, that its uses in “Tov,” while visually effective, obscure the aims of the performance.

In this kind of theater piece, one looks for an emotional or physical narrative, a way of gleaning ideas that may be beyond words. The viewer wants to be absorbed in sound and movement and to worry about an allegorical purpose — if there is one — later. So I’m not saying that “Tov” needed a set of symbols as straightforward as those of “Piers Plowman.” Instead, I am suggesting that the references create too many concrete associations, making “Tov” both too specific and too vague.

The association of the Holocaust with Rabbi Nachum

Ish Gamzu’s extreme optimism was also discomfiting to me. I suppose it’s possible to be intrigued by the relationship between disaster and unshakeable faith. Nevertheless, there is something facile in the reference. My earlier remarks, I hope, will make it clear that I don’t see the Holocaust as a sacred subject. I’m just not sure how much it helps us to apply the sage’s words in this particular case.

But I don’t wish to be harsh. Clearly, Gamson is fiercely talented, and much of “Tov” is genuinely moving, with moments of real beauty. Gamson is also to be commended for investigating the complexities of her heritage and, by collaborating with Chorea, for recognizing the cultural vibrancy of contemporary Poland.

Obviously, an American Jew can never look at Poland (or Lithuania or Russia) in the same way that, say, an Italian-American looks at Italy. Still, “Tov” highlights just how much we miss out on when we associate Poland with only antisemitism and the Holocaust. In addition to its intriguing combination of theater and dance, the piece is unusual in that it acknowledges loss without being preoccupied by it. There may be a surfeit of ideas in “Tov.” But the piece never reduces a millennium of history to its final, bloody moments.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

Watch a preview for “Tov” below:

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.