Emotive. Eclectic. Egalitarian. Three words that describe the different sides of choreographer Roni Koresh, who has animated the American dance scene since immigrating from Israel three decades ago.
Koresh’s work bears the stamp of the Israeli dance movement of his generation, with its roots in folk dance and Martha Graham technique, both toughened and tenderized by the realities of life in Israel.
Referring to such contemporaries as Ohad Naharin, the former artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, “We share a similar sense of humor, of pain, tastes in food, a certain militancy in movement — we’ve all served in the military,” Koresh said in a phone interview from Philadelphia, where his company is based. “We are all friends; we have worked together.”
The Koresh Dance Company will offer a demonstration of its heritage and capacity for innovation in a performance on April 17 at the JCC of San Francisco. The special program will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s 70th Independence Day, with a brand new Koresh work, “Inner Sun,” which explores the parallel between the Earth’s inner sun and that of the human body and spirit.
“The human spirit is at the core of Israeli life,” Koresh said. Also on the program is a piece set to the music of Ravel’s Boléro, along with other highlights of the company’s diverse repertoire.
“We see dance as a dynamic way to catalyze the movement language of the body to untangle complex social themes that can be challenging to translate into more traditional representative mediums. Koresh presents a wonderful opportunity for us to see into Israeli imagination and cultural expression,” said JCCSF Arts & Ideas director Stephanie Singer.
Born in the town of Yehud in 1961 to Yemeni Jewish parents, Koresh began dancing as a boy when accompanying his mother to her folkloric dance group. He didn’t much like Yemeni dance back then, but today acknowledges his debt to that exposure.
“Without a doubt, some of the design, the rhythms, became part of my vocabulary,” he said. “They are the dances of the people.”
He studied with a number of prominent Israeli dance teachers and, at 17, joined Martha Graham’s Batsheva 2 Dance Company, right after Graham left Israel.
At 18, Koresh reported for military service. But the Israel Defense Forces, recognizing the needs of his developing dance career, allowed him to leave his army job most afternoons, he said. “I would hitchhike to Tel Aviv, sometimes rush into dance class in uniform.”
Following his service, Koresh moved to New York to study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Beyond the pursuit of further training, “Israel is a small country, and I needed to see it from the outside, and to see more of the world.”
In 1984, he accepted an invitation to dance with the Waves Jazz Dance Company in Philadelphia. Its director was Shimon Braun, a former Israeli gymnastics champion and army officer. In 1987 Koresh won a People’s Choice Award as Philadelphia’s most outstanding jazz dancer.
These successes contributed to his decision to put down roots in Philadelphia, as did the sense that this was a place that would nurture his dreams. He founded Koresh Dance Company in 1991; two years later his two brothers came over from Israel and together they started the Koresh School of Dance.
In the time since, Koresh has created a repertoire of over 60 works while also serving the community through performance, instruction and outreach to city schools. The company tours extensively in the U.S. and internationally, performing works by Koresh and by guest choreographers, such as Naharin.
Koresh’s rhythmic choreography responds to a range of music, from classical to Middle Eastern “and even industrial,” he said. And although he treats many social themes, he generally stays away from politics.
“My work is more an expression of how I want the world to be: a place of tranquility, happiness, one that values community,” he said. “My focus is on an ideal humanity, a people-to-people response to the issues we are dealing with in the world — homelessness, the need for freedom, and the idea that if we keep going in the direction we’re heading, we’ve lost our humanity.”
Over his many years of teaching, Koresh also has developed a unique method of shaping dancers, both professional and amateur.
“Dancers are artists, and art lies in the expression of one’s inner self,” he said. “The question is not just one of technique. If I can reach into their core and bring out the inner person, the dancer will be comfortable in their body, and if they are comfortable, they are beautiful. Then there will be an audience connection to that performer.”
His company is a testimony to that philosophy, with strong, uninhibited dancers who are equally charismatic with or without the long limbs of the classic dancer type. All contribute to the development of new pieces. The six women and four men command the stage equally, with no one gender dominating.
The dancers will lead a public workshop at the JCC for those curious to experience the technique on April 16, the day before the performance. Space is limited to 35 and advance registration is required.
Despite his busy touring schedule, Koresh returns to Israel as often as he can.
“I go to remember, to touch my roots,” he said. “Then I come back to the U.S. refreshed and ready to explore again.”
At the same time, he said, “I never think of home as one specific place. Our planet belongs to all of us. I think of myself as a citizen of the world.”