The mother of modern Yiddish dance births a dati troupe

Tamara Mielnik set to premiere a modern dance company made up of observant women, who perform for observant women.

Shpirala 370 (photo credit: Shmaya Levy)
Shpirala 370
(photo credit: Shmaya Levy)
The Martha Graham of modern Yiddish dance, Tamara Mielnik, whose Jerusalem Dance Company, established in Jerusalem in 1985, averages two shows a month at the Suzanne Dallal center in Tel Aviv, is set to premiere, on February 17, a modern dance company made up of observant women, who perform for observant women.
The Jewish Dance Theater, as the new company is called, is “for women who love ballet; they are dancers, ballerinas, but the lives they lead are not exactly what is expected among members of a regular ballet troupe. Many are mothers; some are pregnant even as they rehearse the show.
Often they have to bring their babies or small children to rehearsal,” says Mielnik, choreographer and artistic director of both companies.
“The idea of putting the company together came from the fact that many religious women are dancers and want to realize their potential in a professional way,” she says.
“Last year I asked an Israeli choreographer to come back from Germany to direct the main company. Now there are three companies: the main company, the religious company and the young company with over 40 kids, aged 13 to 18,” she says.
“Now that we have a religious company we are going to build an audience, because they need it. My idea is to give an opportunity, not only to the religious performers, but also to build up an audience within the religious population. They can’t go to see the Batsheva Company, for example, because it is not tsnua (modest). So we are building a repertoire which is really tsnua.”
Mielnik’s repertoire covers insights into facets of Jewish life. Even the name of the show, Shpirala (spiral), says Mielnik, has kabbalistic references, and describes the going out into the world and then coming back to one’s center, to a core of Jewish values.
The company was inaugurated in January 2012, when rehearsals began for Shpirala.
By July, Mielnik had to carry out auditions within her Jerusalem School of Dance, based at the Beit Hanoar Haivri in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Mordechai, to replace three pregnant dancers who were already too far along, but she takes this as par for the course.
“All my pieces are based in Judaism, and here I have an opportunity to work with a population that is connected with all my pieces in a personal way, which is a special experience,” she says.
Mielnik, the Belgian daughter of Holocaust survivors, has been dancing and teaching in Israel for almost 40 years, using her life story and heritage as a basis for her art.
“Dance is not theater,” says Mielnik. “It is a way to express belief. It is not a story, it is an emotion. I express my feeling about the Jewish people and about my identity.”
Former Hebrew University Theater professor Yehuda Morali has compared Mielnik to Lindsay Kemp and Pina Bausch, other famous members of the European dance theater movement. Talmudist Adin Steinsaltz, too, was a great fan of Mielnik’s in the 80s, appreciating her use of what she defines as “the abstract of kabbala.”
The Jewish Dance Theater is a repertory company, open to all choreographers.
It consists of 11 dancers, all in their early and mid-20s, who hail from all over the country, and ballet mistress and rehearsal director Sveta, who has been teaching ballet within the religious community since 1992.
“The girls are all very much into spirituality, but they are still very connected to their rabbis, what he says you can and cannot do, for TV, for commercials and for photos, etc. We are always discussing what is possible and what is not possible. We are always in a situation of dialogue and pluralism, which is very important. Dance is a language which offers opportunity for dialogue.
Dance is a bridge,” says Mielnik.
The Jewish Dance Theater will premiere Shpirala on Sunday 17 February, at 8:30 p.m. at the Gerard Behar Center, Bezalel Street, Jerusalem