When Leonard Nimoy’s book of photography, “Shekhina,” was published in 2002, it created a ruckus. His depiction of alluringly glamorous women — some wearing tefillin in all their naked glory — as the essence of the feminine manifestation of God struck some as revolutionary and others as salacious. The book sold well, and even inspired a ballet by a New York choreographer. Shekhina, presented by Elisa Monte Dance, will premiere at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan on February 10, running through February 15.
Nimoy, who admired Monte’s work, approached her with the idea for the project. “He came to me because he realized I am a sensualist,” said Monte, in an interview with the Forward. “I had no problem with that,” she added with a laugh. Monte, one of Martha Graham’s favorite dancers, took to Graham’s repertoire of lusty goddesses and murderous heroines with particular flair, and her own choreography bears that legacy of carnality with its own stamp of originality.
But how does any of this pertain to the traditional view of Shekhina? A feminine word in Hebrew, Shekhina is the Talmudic term for the visible and audible manifestations of the Deity’s presence on Earth. Over time, Shekhina came to represent much more — a softer, empathetic feminine counterpart to God who could argue for humanity’s sake, comfort the poor and sick, and stand as the mother of Israel. Nimoy’s first encounter with the mystique of Shekhina began in synagogue at the age of 8. “The men were chanting, shouting and praying in an Orthodox service. It was very passionate, very theatrical,” said Nimoy. His father told him not to look, as the worshippers averted their eyes during blessings recited by the kohanim, or descendants of the priestly class. “I was chilled by the whole thing,” he said. Years later Nimoy’s rabbi explained to him that the entry of Shekhina into the sanctuary to bless the congregation could cast a fatally blinding light. Such a powerful memory inspired the actor/photographer to explore the feminine aspect of God in human form, including the issues of sensuality and sexuality.
Monte in turn was touched by Nimoy’s response to the question of divine presence and the feminine nature of God. “Leonard was taking chances with images, taking chances with certain religious objects traditionally restricted to men,” said Monte. Raised a Catholic, Monte had encountered a concept similar to Shekhina in her studies of Buddhism and Hinduism, so the Jewish counterpart of complementary male and female forces seemed right to her. “I was immediately excited about being able to envelop these concepts and bring them to another form, to life on stage.”
Comprising eight movements, Monte’s ballet for eight dancers explores the many facets of Shekhina’s power and grace, such as compassion, joy, strength, gentleness and sensuality. “I wanted to look at the feminine aspect and say, ‘Look at your qualities and don’t be afraid of them,’” she said.
The first section of the ballet begins with a vision of exaltation: two men holding a female dancer aloft, manipulating and placing her into yoga-like positions, not allowing her to touch the ground for several minutes. The following movement reveals the women draped in translucent, backlit scarves, reminiscent of Nimoy’s photographic images that Monte said were “burned” into her brain. Developing the theme of compassion — coming from a place of strength rather than weakness — the ballet continues with four women supporting and carrying a man around the stage. Although the lifting seems extraordinary, said Monte, “It’s not really. It happens all the time in real life!”
Subsequent parts of the ballet allow the women to cut loose in a rapturous dance, and then couple with the men in Monte’s athletic choreography, known for its brilliant partnering. Composer Frank London’s score mirrors the mood of the piece with its inventive orchestration, as in the duet featuring a trumpet and harmonium.
It is doubtful that Monte’s ballet will cause a scandal, in that dance is inherently a physical art form and her dancers are not nude, just scantily clad. In fact, the candid nature of Nimoy’s photography in “Shekhina” usually garnered warm reception — apart from a few engagements, including the Jewish book fair in Detroit, where he was asked not to appear with his book. “That’s pretty extreme stuff,” said Nimoy. “It’s one step away from book-burning.” To Nimoy, sexuality and spirituality are not segregated. “There are signs throughout the writings and history of Judaism that sexuality has always been a strong part of the teaching and culture of religious practice,” said Nimoy, citing the examples of the Friday night bath to cleanse before sex and the teachings of the Kabbalists.
Like her mentor Martha Graham, Monte never questioned the connection of spirit and sex. “Coming to the world as a dancer, the only way I ever learned anything was through the physical,” said Monte. “Understanding came through the body.” Like Shekhina, formidable to the point of blindness, sexuality possesses a weighty impetus. “It’s a very powerful creative force,” said Monte. “The spark of life.”