by Dalia Davis
When asked what Torah commentary looks like, most people would open a book and point to Rashi, Ramban, or other classic works. Similarly, if asked about Talmudic commentary, they would mention Tosafot, Rashba, and Ran. By scrutinizing phrases from a source text and then reading the corresponding glosses, we Jews have built a strong tradition of looking to prose to expand our understanding of sacred texts. However, must our response to text always be manifest through words? What might it be like to engage in pilpul Torah (deep analysis of Torah) through the arts? Could a dance performance possibly serve as a Torah commentary?
La’ad Dance is an all-female dance company performing choreographic works that are visual commentaries on Jewish text. The name La’ad stems from an acronym commonly used by rabbinic commentators to introduce their opinions: L’fi aniyut da’ati—in my humble opinion. Whereas traditional Torah commentaries typically convey the perspectives of men through words, La’ad presents female commentary through movement.
The name La’ad also serves as an English acronym representing the company’s approach to the choreographic process: Learn, Ask, Analyze, Dance! We begin with the idea, the text, the learning. We ask questions about its meaning, analyze its message and broader implications, and finally, we dance. With this approach to text study and the performing arts, La’ad creates a new environment for Torah learning—one that involves stage, music, costumes, and dance.
Like many approaches to Jewish learning, the methodology and vision underlying La’ad Dance developed slowly over time. It began a few years ago when I set out to organize a one-time women’s performance in honor of Yom Yerushalayim. During my preparations for the performance, Esther Roth and Shira Sasson answered a call for dancers that was put out throughout Washington Heights. The success of our initial performance heightened our awareness of the strong desire among Orthodox women for performance opportunities. Shortly afterward, Estie, Shira, and I met over coffee to discuss this vast potential—and by the end of the night, a women’s performing arts company was born. We named it Nishmat Hatzafon—Soul of the North—a nod to our northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights and our dream of inspiring our community through the arts.
Nishmat Hatzafon’s first project was a full-length performance based on themes of Havdalah—separation and new beginnings. Consisting of local artists, including dancers, singers, poets, musicians, and actresses, this performance interwove their respective talents to create a cohesive expression. This performance and the response it generated inspired us to push further. We appointed a musical director, held public auditions, built a website, attained 501(c)3 fiscal sponsorship, garnered press coverage, and performed in a variety of venues in the New York/New Jersey area, including synagogues, schools, dance festivals, senior centers, and JCCs.
Nishmat Hatzafon was blessed with many talented and enthusiastic artists, all of whom had other occupations that could easily have consumed their spare time. There were undergraduates and graduate students, theater professionals and therapists, medical residents, educators, and mothers. Despite their busy lives and complex personal schedules, these individuals worked hard to free up the necessary time for rehearsals and performances. This love and commitment created a sense of deep camaraderie in the company, as we shared not only the challenges of creating performances, but intense moments of self-expression and emotional connection.
As artistic director and choreographer, I have strived to incorporate a variety of genres into our performances, drawing on elements of modern dance, lyrical jazz, Israeli folk dance, and ballet to express Jewish themes and teachings. From Ezekiel’s messianic vision to the plight of the Spanish conversos, from Shabbat zemirot to the plight of Israelis awaiting their partners’ return from battle, Nishmat Hatzafon’s choreography was intended to present something more than merely graceful or rhythmic steps. Rather, our aim was to evoke thoughts and emotions that would leave audiences and dancers changed for having been a part of the experience.
After enjoying an exciting period of growth during its initial three years, Nishmat Hatzafon underwent significant changes as company members, including the original trio of founders, moved away from New York City. Rather than letting the group fade, we chose to restructure and re-envision. Although weekly rehearsals were no longer feasible, many performers embraced the opportunity to gather several times throughout the year for marathon rehearsals to prepare for performances. Many miles were traveled, costumes were transported from closet to closet, and new material was taught online and through videos—and the group persisted.
During this time, I launched a separate project, Beit Midrash in Motion: an alternative Jewish learning experience that incorporates movement, meditation, and Jewish text study. Beit Midrash in Motion creates a Jewish study hall experience, absent tables and chairs, in which movement often takes the place of words, thereby engendering a fully embodied and personally transformative learning experience. The more I worked on Beit Midrash in Motion, the more apparent it became that there was a natural partnership between what was then Nishmat Hatzafon and this integrative Jewish learning experience. More late-night meetings with company manager Estie Roth yielded a vision of La’ad Dance as a presentational form of the work that takes place in the Beit Midrash.
Beyond offering audiences new perspectives on Jewish texts through formal performances, La’ad Dance seeks to involve the audience in the learning experience, encouraging participants to view their thoughts and movement as commentary. Toward that end, La’ad Dance often incorporates workshops for audience members, affording them the opportunity to read text, share personal interpretations, and physically explore the themes through movement. La’ad Dance also performs in the more traditional way of allowing performers to remain performers and audience members to remain audience members, but we have found the integration of the two amplifies the impact of the dance works and leaves the audience more personally connected to the text.
La’ad Dance’s newest work, “Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li” (“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”), invites discussion about the ancient adage of Hillel found in Pirkei Avot. What does it mean to be “for ourselves”? We approach this text as a question of personal identity, a reminder that we must define ourselves on our own terms despite expectations placed on us by the surrounding world. The choreography is designed to reflect each dancer grappling with “outside” expectations and ultimately returning to a truer, more personal vision of self. More than merely depicting an identity struggle on stage, this piece is grounded in reality, as each participant was asked to reflect on her own experience with outside expectations. It is these expectations that were choreographed into the dance and writ large on parts of the costumes as if imprinted on the dancers’ bodies. As the piece reaches a place of resolution, these labels are, thankfully, shed.
Through such performances and attendant workshops, La’ad Dance seeks to reach participants by engaging them with this alternative Jewish learning experience, presenting material that is relevant today while based on ancient texts. Perhaps this process of bringing the ideas on the page to the visual and visceral experience of the stage will allow our Torah learning to gain a new level of growth and deepen our relationship with the text. At least that is what the leaders of La’ad Dance believe, l’fi aniyut da’ateinu (according to our humble opinion).
Dalia Davis, co-founder of Nishmat Hatzafon and La’ad Dance, directs Beit Midrash in Motion, is a NYC PresenTense Fellow, teaches for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School, and is the dance educator for the Cornerstone Program for the Foundation for Jewish Summer Camps. For more information about La’ad Dance or to arrange bookings, please visit www.BeitMidrashInMotion.com or e-mail [email protected].