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A Legend Dances Through the ‘Rusty’ Years

‘At my age this shouldn’t be happening,” acknowledged Felix Fibich, the 86-year-old Yiddish dance star. Fibich is still in disbelief over his own upcoming schedule: From December 23 to 29, he will give daily dance workshops for six days in a row as one of the master artists presented at KlezKamp, the 19th Annual Yiddish Folk Arts Program at the Swan Lake Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

“Yiddish dance” is a term that has emerged for dance from the shtetls, cities and countryside of Eastern Europe before the Nazi period. The name might be newly coined, but Fibich is an old hand at it. He has all the traditional dances and more at his fingertips and toes, and he carefully distills movements to indicate personalities or characters from Jewish literature, folk songs and poetry or feelings from holidays and rituals. Fibich’s one-and-a-half-hour workshops is part of KlezKamp’s special category titled “Meetings with our Masters: Interpreting Jewish Dance.” Fibich will teach two of his own dances to an uplifting rendition of “Hallelujah” and “Sisu et Yerushalyim” — both of which, he said, are meant to encourage all who participate to “relish our love of Zion, our connection with Jerusalem, and our Jewish soul. For the dance about Jerusalem the steps include a feeling that you’re actually climbing up the mountains, making aliya to the holy city.” No previous dance experience is necessary to be touched by this pixie of a performer, whose charisma has overtaken the stage, concert hall, screen and classroom over the last 70 years.

Believe it or not, if the last five years are any indication, the next month looks like a pretty average calendar in the life of this dance legend. He toured throughout Europe for “Lulu’s Planet,” a modern adaptation of a classic German play by Frank Wedekind, taught in Polish at the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow, worked in French and Yiddish in the feature film “XXL” with Gerard Depardieu and appeared in the Yiddish Public Theater’s production of “Green Fields” on New York’s Lower East Side. And in 2000, he starred in a Super Bowl commercial ordering around hurly-burly football players in a dance class, with one carrying him the length of the studio, airborne as he executed a fancy flurry of beating feet. And he continues to audition for acting roles and has appreared in a few episodes of the television program “Law and Order.”

Fibich’s first memories of Jewish dance came from his early experiences at synagogue with his father, who was from the chasidic Modzitcher rebbe’s court. His father was a skilled cantor who performed like an actor, crying with the prayers on the High Holy Days, expressing his devotion as he led the congregation in song. Though Fibich fell in love with the theater early in life, he knew he was expected to take over the family business, a restaurant in Warsaw.

World War II changed everything. One day, soon after his family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, the 22-year-old Fibich put on layers of clothing, bid adieu to no one and, on a work detail outside the ghetto, managed to escape, running east into Russian territory. In Bialystok, he met up with his own dance teacher from Warsaw, Judith Berg, who was famed for her choreography and performance in the best-known Yiddish film made in Poland, the 1938 filmed version of “The Dybbuk.” Together, the two joined up with other traveling Jewish performers, eventually reaching Ashkhabad where he performed in the state opera. After World War II, he and Judith, who had married, were repatriated to Poland, where they ran a dance school for Jewish orphans.

In 1950, the two arrived in Paris, where they performed Jewish material for the Archive de la Dans and for Unesco in concert halls over Paris. Later that year they were able to immigrate to America.

Their first encounter with American Jewish life did not bode well, according to Fibich, who described the hostile reaction he and Berg received from the German Jews who headed many of the larger cultural institutions. “We represented the shtetl [and] that was no longer in style. Forget it — they were embarrassed by what we stood for,” he remembered. So the two turned to Second Avenue, to the remnants of New York’s Yiddish theater world. “I had an audience there who understood the Jewish material we were working from — they knew what it meant if I took my index finger to meet up with my thumb, holding it up in front of my face and shaking it back and forth with a cocked head. In the Yiddish theater my dance gestures weren’t considered corny or too ethnic. In Europe it was a virtue to show my emotions, but I didn’t understand about Anglo-Saxon restraint even affecting mainstream Jewish America.” His schedule of staging and creating programs was relentless and would be intimidating for lesser performers: Nightly performances every weekday but Monday and, on weekends, three shows a day. But it paid off. Legendary New York theater producer Joseph Papp hired him for the 1988 play “Café Crown” at the Public Theatre, a show that soon moved to Broadway, a homecoming for Fibich, who had choreographed two shows in that same theater 20 years earlier.

While Fibich was rehearsing for “Café Crown,” his wife had a severe heart attack. He spent the next four years tending to her, until she passed away in 1991.

It took Fibich several years to recover. Surprisingly, it was an invitation in the summer of 1996 to return to his native Poland, giving dance workshops at the famed Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. Representatives from a Polish television channel who attended one of his workshops asked if they could make a documentary film about his life and work, tracing the rise from his childhood on Nalewki Street in the heart of Warsaw’s Jewish quarter. The documentary aired in 1999 on Polish television, but a copy can also be found in the collection at the Lincoln Center Dance Division of the New York Public Library, along with an extensive oral history of Fibich in the Performing Arts Oral History Project.

But you are better off going to see Fibich in person this month at KlezKamp. To prepare for his workshops, Fibich transforms his housework tasks into dance exercises, taking rhythmic steps between the fridge and the sink, adding turns before opening the oven and leaning into deep knee bends when he goes down for the crackers on the bottom shelf of a pantry. He also practices at a YMCA near his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, continuing the disciplined schedule of 50 daily push-ups, swimming laps and exercises that he has maintained over the years — whether dancing in the most eastern provinces of the Soviet Union or Paris, on tour across the United States or in South America. “I’m not in my golden years; they should be called the ‘rusty years,’” he said, wryly. “But I’m trying to fight the rust as best I can.”

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