East European trip inspires klezmer music, dance suite

During a trip to a dance festival in Hungary, choreographer Hilary Roberts became intrigued by the folk dances of her own Eastern European ancestors.

In her six years as artistic director for the Westwind International Folk Ensemble, an Oakland-based troupe with 35 dancers, the group had performed dances from around the globe. But klezmer had never been part of the repertoire.

That will change this April, when Westwind premieres its "Klezmer Music and Dance Suite," a 15-minute selection of Jewish dances from Hungary, Moldavia, Transylvania, Romania and Ukraine. All are performed in a ballet-like sequence set aboard a ship a century ago bound from Europe to America.

The suite is part of Westwind's two-hour program "Family Album: Dancing the Tales of Our Past," at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason in San Francisco, April 6, 13 and 14.

Dance teacher Erik Bendix choreographed much of the program, based on dances rediscovered by musicologist Michael Alpert.

"I wanted [the klezmer suite] to be a piece about immigration," said Roberts, whose mother emigrated from Poland at age 8. "I wanted the idea of moving forward, the excitement and fear and apprehension."

During her trip to Hungary, Roberts was inspired to learn about klezmer dance after visiting a once-populated Jewish village that had been obliterated by the Holocaust. Since Roberts knew almost nothing about this dance form, however, she began by talking to Bendix, who had studied and taught Eastern European folk dancing for several years. He, in turn, had learned klezmer dancing from Alpert, a research associate in ethnomusicology at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.

Although the brassy, sometimes wild music of Eastern European Jews from the 18th and 19th centuries has undergone a rebirth in recent years, the dance that accompanied klezmer has been somewhat harder to revive.

"It's been extraordinarily life-affirming and difficult at the same time," Bendix said of his effort to choreograph a dance form from an almost-vanished Eastern European culture.

Before working on "Family Album," Bendix had rarely seen Jewish dances presented without sentimentality or stereotype. But he had too often seen Jewish dances that featured rabbis shrugging and throwing their hands in the air.

He had also seen stereotyping of a different sort. One night, he watched a premier dance company of Russia begin its Jewish dance suite with two old men arguing about money. The argument turned into a disagreement over an arranged marriage. Then came some final footwork Bendix felt had little to do with the lives of most 19th-century Russian Jews: An army of the families' servants came dancing out.

Bendix began working on choreography for Westwind's klezmer dance suite that very night.

Like klezmer music itself, the dances draw upon various sources throughout Eastern Europe: from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and throughout Poland and Russia.

The "Freylekh" at the end of Westwind's klezmer suite is the best known of all klezmer dances. It's the sort of circle dance that is now still done at weddings, with people at the center of the circle dancing their own solos. In Westwind's suite, some of this dancing veers toward the Ukrainian Cossack style, Bendix noted.

But the suite also includes obscure steps Bendix said he hasn't found in European traditions from areas near Jewish communities. One such step involves sliding both toes over, swinging the heels to follow.

Alpert, who also plays in the klezmer band Brave Old World, learned about these dances over several years by talking to Russian emigres (many of them too old to perform some of the original moves), watching old classic Yiddish films and even recalling how people used to dance at weddings when he was a child.

All this research has helped Roberts make the piece what she's hoped — an accurate performance of klezmer dance and a fair reflection of Jewish culture.

"I don't want a bunch of happy peasants," Roberts says of the "Family Album" characters. "I don't want a caricature. I would be caricaturing myself."