Four days before the debut of their newest work, entitled “moving voices inside out,” the four women of Avodah Dance were holding a bumpy run-through in a fourth-floor playroom in Manhattan’s 14th Street Y.
Dancer Sarah Zitnay, her black socks more holes than fabric, seared the edges of adhesive tape with a lighter and then laid the tape across her split big toe to seal and protect it during rehearsal. Leah Ives marked her opening solo near the jungle gym; afternoon light fretted the rooftop HVAC ducts with shadows. The dancers moved, repeated; moved again, revised, and moved again through each part of the dance.
How Avodah rehearses for public performances in New York, in borrowed space and at odd hours, stands in stark contrast to how the dancers create work that is utterly private, save for specifically invited guests.
Three times a year, the artistic director, Julie Gayer Kris, and her company travel to women’s prisons in New York, Delaware and Connecticut for weeklong dance residencies with incarcerated women. Exercises, improvisation and hours of conversation give rise to shared themes and longings — loneliness, isolation, grief, shame, sadness — that, over hours of practice, become movements and, eventually, formal choreography, presented in a performance with and for the prison community.
At some facilities, like Connecticut’s York Correctional Facility, performances for family members give the women inside and their relatives outside an opportunity to erase old images: A last image of a mother being led off in handcuffs, for example, can be replaced by something more joyous.
This work is Avodah’s barefoot and sweaty tikkun olam — repair of the world — a week at a time, year after year, with companies of women largely unseen and silenced. That’s because Avodah takes its name — “service” — literally.
“We have the chance to give women a voice, but through our own language, through dance,” Gayer Kris said. That incarcerated women deserve a voice is the belief that animates Avodah’s prison work: Bringing those voices outside, to the public, is the goal of Avodah’s current project.
Leaving work and family behind in New York City, the dancers enter each facility through metal detectors, bag checks and double doors that seal shut behind them. Often they wait: for officials to clear paperwork; for inmates to be counted before being released to programs; for prison staff to escort them through the facility. They wait, because the work has meaning.
Gayer Kris says that working within the prisons has redefined her as a dancer, a woman and a mother. For one thing, it’s safe to bet that not every modern dancer in New York City receives layette gifts from incarcerated women, as Gayer Kris did when her young son, Mars, was born.
Meredith-Lyn Olivieri, part of Avodah since 2008, says that making dance challenged her parochial sense of the art as exclusive. “I had forgotten dance is for ‘other’ communities, too, for people of all backgrounds and ages,” she said. Working in prison “got at the heart of me.”
Just as Avodah exists in two spaces — inside prison facilities and outside, in the world — it keeps a callused foot in both the Jewish and secular worlds. “We are a Jewish organization,” Gayer Kris said. “But Avodah is not just a dance company doing dance. Text is a big part of what we do; it inspires us. We are immersed in text to develop our pieces.” Avodah’s founder, JoAnne Tucker, called the program Torah in Motion, a blend of movement and midrash. Gayer Kris, who is 40, continued the work when she became artistic director nearly a decade ago.
Avodah’s stance in the Jewish world mirrors Gayer Kris’s own: “I’m not a shul Jew. I’m a text Jew, a culture Jew. I really like study and the ‘values’ aspect of Jewish life.”