On their toes

This week, Israeli dancer and choreographer Rina Schenfeld unveils her latest work, a homage to movement, music and women on stage entitled "The Sylphide."

Ballet 311 (photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
Ballet 311
(photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
In 1832, Marie Taglioni danced the role of Sylphide for the first time, a performance that would change the ballet world forever. Her father, legendary Swedish choreographer Filippo Taglioni, created the role for his daughter, whose talents, he felt, needed to be shown. Sylphide was the first lead part danced entirely on Pointe shoes. Prior to the premier of La Sylphide, women had twirled on their tiptoes as a kind of stunt, and were generally pushed to the side in favor of their male counterparts. However, La Sylphide presented dance on Pointe shoes as a purely feminine, utterly justified element of classical ballet. This change catapulted female dancers onto their toes and into the spotlight, where they remain to this day.
Though Taglioni’s debut took place far away and long ago, the event bears much meaning for Israeli dancer and choreographer Rina Schenfeld. This month, Schenfeld will unveil her newest in a long string of evenings, a homage to movement, music and women on stage entitled The Sylphide.

“The place of women in dance interests me. I feel a continuation, that I am a link in the same chain as Taglioni,” explained Schenfeld in a recent interview at her home studio on Harav Friedman Street in north Tel Aviv. Though the piece takes its name from Taglioni’s ballet, the story is entirely new.
“You won’t find the tale of Sylphide in this piece, but the motifs, the feeling and the atmosphere are there,” she said.
Schenfeld is undoubtedly one of Israel’s most highly regarded and distinguished performers. She is a former star of the Batsheva Dance Company turned choreographer and the founder of the Rina Schenfeld Dance Theater, which recently celebrated 35 years of existence. She has enjoyed an uncharacteristically long career (Schenfeld is in her early seventies and continues to perform), and shows no signs of slowing down.
This is not Schenfeld’s first encounter with Taglioni’s ballet.
“There is a picture of me as a 17-year old dressed as Sylphide,” she said. Then, she was a student of the famous teacher Mia Arbatova, who helped to open the doors of classical dance and music for Schenfeld.
“In those first classes, I heard Chopin for the first time and I felt in love. Chopin is the real story of this evening,” she explained.
EARLY IN the creative process, Schenfeld partnered up with Gil Shohat, known Israeli composer, conductor and the director of the Elysium Ensemble. The two have worked together on several projects in the past; however, this event marks their fullest and most involved collaboration to date. Shohat will perform live alongside Schenfeld and her dancers. “I haven’t danced to live music since my days in Batsheva,” admitted Schenfeld.
“To dance to live music with Gil is an extraordinary experience. It’s challenging and requires a lot of work and coordination, but it’s amazing.”
The Sylphide is a collection of many short sections: solos, duets and trios woven together to make a cohesive storyline. Many of these pieces have been pulled from older works.
“One of the big parts of my research is recycling. I’ve taken a section that was once a duet and turned it into a solo danced to Chopin,” she said.
For Schenfeld, reviving and reusing already performed passages is a choice made not out of laziness, but out of ideology. “I think we waste way too much today. I recycle a lot of things, plastic bags and parts of my work.”
Throughout the evening, Schenfeld will dance the main role, supported by the dancers of her company, with whom she gladly shares the stage.
“My dancers are mature, talented individuals, who were a huge part of the creative process of this piece,” she said.
Many of Schenfeld’s recent works have including strong text, prop and video elements. In Hasoosa, Schenfeld recounted tales from her childhood, using an array of artifacts. Other pieces have shown video archives of Schenfeld’s daily life and her original songs and poetry. However, this tribute to Chopin is dance only, she explained.
“This time I said ‘no props’. I said that Chopin is enough on his own. The only prop is the dress and the tulle.”
Indeed, one of the distinguishing traits of Taglioni’s Sylphide was her dress, which Marie scandalously shortened to reveal her expert footwork.
“After the debut, women in Paris all wore dresses like the one that Marie wore in the ballet. She started a trend,” explained Schenfeld.
When she set off on her artistic quest to recreate Sylphide, Schenfeld knew she had to find the perfect dress.
“I have a bunch of dresses here,” she pointed to the corner of the room, where a mound of fluffy white tulle lay on the floor. Then, one day, Schenfeld received a call from a colleague.
“She said she wanted to bring me a present but wouldn’t say what it was,” she said.
“In my heart I said, ‘Rina, she’s going to bring you what you’re looking for.’ Then she showed up with this big package and inside was the dress. It was the kind of coincidence that I really believe in when I work.”
The Sylphide will premier at the Suzanne Dellal Center on April 4 at 9 PM. For tickets, call 03-510-5656 or visit www.suzannedellal.org.il.