Ronen Koresh has tears in his eyes. Dancer Melissa Rector has just finished a run-through of a searing solo from Koresh’s “Theater of Public Secrets,” dancing both on and around a table. The cozy second-floor dance studio with the burgundy curtains is silent, the dozen onlookers — dancers and visitors — stunned by raw emotion made palpable. “Take five,” Koresh croaks, before he momentarily turns away.
The Israeli-born, Philadelphia-based Koresh is equally known and acclaimed for his intense, inventive choreography and his finely rehearsed dancers. His work is demanding physically, and even more so emotionally. Behind the scenes, he has a reputation for highly charged rehearsals with his 10-member Koresh Dance Company. Occasionally praise gushes forth; more frequently abrasive criticism. But when the tears come, they’re an acknowledgment that his handpicked dancers have realized his choreographic vision, and the resulting work soars.
On December 1, Koresh will celebrate his company’s 20th anniversary at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, in the heart of Philadelphia’s theater district. It is a fitting celebration for a choreographer who has changed the perception of dance in that city. The retrospective program features a selection of classic Koresh works and more recent choreography, including an excerpt from 2008’s poignant “Theater of Public Secrets.”
It’s an unexpected milestone for the once-shy youngster from Yehud, then a small town outside Tel Aviv. “I didn’t know how to act in a social gathering… at a party with disco dancing,” Koresh admits. So, his counselor pulled him aside and gave him a few dance pointers. It wasn’t as though he didn’t have the dance genes: His mother was an avid Israeli folk dancer, and Yemenite dances were a staple at family gatherings. In fact, Koresh told the Forward, “I think I inherited it from my grandfather. He was a great dancer.”
When the disco bug bit Israel, Koresh was ready — and as a teenager he appeared on popular TV dance shows and at festivals. A cousin double-dared him to take real dance classes, and he found his way to a studio that offered a then-in-vogue style of American jazz. Soon, Koresh was invited into the training ensemble of Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s premiere modern dance troupe, which had early ties to American modern dance icon Martha Graham.
At 18, he convinced the army to allow him to serve in a support capacity close to home so he could continue to study dance in the afternoons and evenings. The entertainment units of the Israel Defense Forces — the only way Koresh could continue to dance — had mostly been disbanded, yet he still managed to perform during his army stint. “Then some of my friends decided to go to New York,” Koresh said. “I said I’ll go for six months or a year and come back and join Batsheva.” He enrolled as an international student at the famed Alvin Ailey studio, but realized there would be no place for him in the Ailey company. Visiting Philadelphia, he met and joined up with another Israeli dancer and choreographer, who worked there. Koresh set down roots in the city, dancing with Shimon Braun’s Waves Jazz Dance Company.