From Dancing Barres to Prison Bars, Avodah Makes Its Mark

Dance Company Combines Movement and Midrash

Liberation Movement: Avodah Dance conducts performances and workshops in women’s prisons.
Steven Kris
Liberation Movement: Avodah Dance conducts performances and workshops in women’s prisons.

By Helen Zelon

Published July 01, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.
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Beyond Gayer Kris, the three other Avodah dancers, all in their late 20s, are not Jewish.

Judaism may be Avodah’s foundation, but “I don’t think of Avodah as a Jewish ensemble,” Gayer Kris said. “It’s for all communities, not just the Jewish community. But there’s something Jewish to the bones of it: We talk, we argue, we wonder and discover. In that way they’re Jewish, these ladies.”

The “arguments” wrangle the interstices between movement and language — from aphorisms taken from the Torah, like the admonition to treat strangers with respect, to poetry and spoken-word passages chosen to illuminate the movement. When dancers need help understanding texts, experts such as Rabbi Norman Cohen, of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, are called in to help them find their own interpretations.

“We begin with a collage of our experience. Everyone speaks, everyone contributes,” Gayer Kris said.

The process applies to Avodah’s public and prison work, where the dancers meet “veterans” of prior workshops as well as newly recruited dancers, some of whom volunteer after the prior year’s performance and wait their turn until the calendar rolls around again. At the end of each performance, Gayer Kris and her company offer a movement blessing to the dancers, bowing low to a circle of empty chairs.

In addition to movement, ‘moving voices…’ incorporates spoken word by British poet Leah Thorn, who toured seven states and nearly as many women’s prison facilities in 2012 on a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship grant and was struck by the fact that about half the artists working with incarcerated women were Jewish and either daughters or granddaughters of Holocaust survivors. Thorn’s mother grew up near Dusseldorf and came to England as part of the Kindertransport; her father immigrated a generation earlier, in the wake of pogroms.

“I was raised just after the Holocaust, with all the pain and despair,” Thorn said. “I learned outward calm in the chaos, in the face of dehumanization and immense pain. I decided very early on that I didn’t want to be a bystander [as many Germans had been in World War II]. It was the bystanders that allowed the Holocaust to happen.” That desire to engage brought Thorn into prisons in the United Kingdom.

“Creativity is a source of liberation,” Thorn said, high walls, barbed wire and watchful guards notwithstanding.

On the Sunday rehearsal before the performance, Avodah’s dancers had appeared to be in trouble. “Moving voices…’’ is an ambitious work that blends dance, video and spoken words. No neat narrative seemed to stitch the elements into a tidy story. Duets, trios and solos seemed almost arbitrarily sequenced, their meaning opaque. Yet four days later, in the stripped-clean, honey wood sanctuary of HUC-JIR, Avodah presented a polished and evocative tapestry of words and movement. In just a few days’ time, the dancers had stitched together Sunday’s disparate parts into a coherent, provocative whole.

After the performance, Avodah’s drummer, composer and resident musician, Newman Taylor Baker, told a story of uncertainty and faith: the time that one of his percussion instruments disappeared during one of the company’s prison workshops.

“I had a bell that went missing,” he said. “I was sure I had it — but was I sure enough that I had to say something? Should I just say nothing? It’s a major security issue; what if they threatened to cut off the program?”

That threat is far from capricious. According to Joe Lea, a librarian at York Correctional Facility, “Unfortunately, it can all be gone tomorrow. If we get a new warden [who opposes programs], this can be shut down… The women and the staff have no recourse.”

Still, Baker persisted in the hunt for his bell — with the help of the women in the dance workshop and, critically, the women who were part of the larger community, who risked disciplinary action for admitting to the bell’s absence. But no one was punished by the warden or staff. “What resulted was a sense of trust between the inmates and the administration,” Baker said. “I don’t think that bell was ever found. But the program continued. There was real proof that we had created something for the whole prison, not just the women in the classroom,” who had volunteered for dance.

“At any point, strip away the uniform and we would be the same,” Olivieri said. “A human’s in there. All identities are choices.”

“Working in the prison gives me a huge amount of gratitude for my life,” her fellow dancer Leah Ives explained. “The women we work with find hope, give compassion, stay determined to make a change in their lives, generously give a smile and a laugh.

“Hope is something they really have to fight to find. I can’t help but to be in awe of their strength.”

Helen Zelon is a Brooklyn-based writer. For American Theatre, she wrote an article called “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” which provided the basis for a 2005 documentary of the same name.


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