When choreographer Rebecca Pappas presents her haunting dance piece “Monster” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Yud gallery, she’ll be adding some “rough” to the diamond-shaped structure.
Especially since hers is the first dance performance ever to be staged there.
“It’s a stunning space,” Pappas, 30, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Because dance is ephemeral, it’s hard to enter a museum. You can’t enter a collection the same way pieces of art can. It’s exciting that the museum is opening itself up for dance.”
“Monster” immerses viewers in a world where the line between human and monster grows increasingly thin. Using four dancers, the performance weaves theatrical, monstrous creatures and high-energy choreography to form a provocative picture of the Jewish body.
The performances, which will be Oct. 24 and 25, are presented as part of Jewish Body Week and in conjunction with the CJM exhibit “There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak,” a major retrospective of writer-illustrator Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”).
Jewish Body Week is a creation of Nextbook, a nonprofit that supports Jewish literature, culture and ideas. It begins Sunday, Oct. 18, and while most of the activities will occur in New York, there also are plans for events in Washington, D.C., as well as San Francisco.
“I really wanted to bring the piece to San Francisco,” said Pappas, who spent five years in the Bay Area performing and teaching dance to kids. “In my own mind, I was considering the different venues and knew the CJM gallery was the ideal location.”
“Monster” might be the inaugural dance performance in the CJM’s Yud gallery, but it’s not the first time Pappas’ troupe has performed the piece.
The 43-minute complete version of “Monster” premiered at UCLA last May and was the result of Pappas’ participation in a modern dance workshop at Connecticut College two months earlier. Anthony Gatto composed an original score for “Monster” that samples familiar and ambient sound sources.
Before creating the complete piece, Pappas presented “Monster” as a series of five 10-minute portraits that delved into the transformation of a Jewish body from victim to victimizer. She took her choreography to venues in Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles and Boston.
Though “Monster” is its own body of work, Pappas incorporated select visual elements from each of the five smaller performances. She likened the process to an artist taking inspiration from several tableaus for a larger work of art.
In one portrait, monsters and monstrosity were met-aphors for shame and violence. In another, Pappas explored Jewish identity in terms of the way she looks and feels. She explained that people have approached her on the street because she “looks Jewish.”
“I started looking at how these two bodies could begin to speak to each other,” Pappas said. “I saw the overlaps, connects and disconnects. It was a long process of how ‘Monster’ evolved.”
In 2007, Pappas traveled to Jerusalem and spent time at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial. She recognized the emphasis Jews all over the world place on remembering the Holocaust, and wanted to visualize how they use their bodies to do so.
“I started to see a history that began with meek bodies that had been victims of the Holocaust,” Pappas said. “Then, they evolved into these really strong, masculine, virile bodies predicated on the idea of ‘never again.’”
To help capture these two extremes of Jewish corporeality in “Monster,” Pappas integrated certain visual signifiers of the Holocaust: long lists of names, walls dotted with black and white pictures of faces, and piles of possessions. She also introduces the process of naming and remembering people, and then allows them to symbolically fade away.
“Dance has the power to viscerally provoke thought different from discussion and reading,” Pappas said. “Through empathy and osmosis, I hope ‘Monster’ makes the audience think about the ways lines begin to blur between a victim and victimizer.”
“Monster” will be performed 8 p.m. Oct. 24 and 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $20 for members and students; $25 general admission. Information: (415) 655-7800.