Dancing with the rock-star rabbi

Abdur-Rahim Jackson, the choreographer of the musical about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach says he ants his dancers to express their feelings.

A scene from the musical ‘Soul Doctor’ (photo credit: YOAV ZOHAR)
A scene from the musical ‘Soul Doctor’
(photo credit: YOAV ZOHAR)
Years ago, when Abdur-Rahim Jackson arrived for a casting for a new Broadway show, he had never heard of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach before. But that day, Jackson began a relationship with the famed singer-songwriter that led him to Israel.
As the choreographer of the newly reimagined musical Soul Doctor – Journey of a Rockstar Rabbi, Jackson has spent the past five weeks in Jerusalem, preparing a new cast for a six-week run of the production that began last week at the Israel Festival.
Soul Doctor tells the tale of Carlebach, intertwined with that of Nina Simone. The show premiered in New Orleans, then moved on to Miami, Fort Lauderdale and finally New York City.
“I originally auditioned for the show on Broadway,” explained Jackson over the phone. “I went to the casting. The choreographer of the Broadway show was a good friend of mine, and I didn’t know he was working on it. It’s a big small world. I didn’t know anything about Carlebach then.
My wife is Jewish, so I was familiar with Jewish culture but not Carlebach. I was familiar with the cultural experiences, and that the religion is about love and acceptance.”
Jackson was born and raised in West Philadelphia. He went on to dance with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where he began to develop his voice as a choreographer.
“I wanted to be a dancer dancer,” he said, “to be the dancer that pleased the choreographer.
But the more I found my own voice, the more I wanted to share it and empower dancers to find their own voice.”
Jackson’s mastery of modern dance technique, combined with a flair for putting on a spectacle, led him to work with major performing artists, most notably Beyoncé.
“What I like about this genre of art is that you have to convey a story and a goal.
“In theater, you have to connect things in a way that people can follow. Working with an artist, you have to have that element, but it has to be entertaining, it has to be a spectacle, it has to be sharper, more synchronized; it’s more about displaying a lot of energy.
“When you work in musical theater, it’s about making sure there’s a thread, a through line and not just movement being performed.”
The Jerusalem cast is led up by Tony Award nominee Josh Yang, as Carlebach.
As part of the team of the new incarnation of Soul Doctor, Jackson wanted to be sure that the choreography stayed in line with storytelling.
“Together with the director, Danny Wise, I decided that we wanted the movement to feel real.
We didn’t want it to look like a dance number. I have to have set choreography, but I want the dancers to feel free in expressing it. I want the movements to look natural, like something anyone could do,” he explained.
Since he arrived, Jackson has spent most of his time either at the Hirsch Theater or at his hotel.
However, in the few moments he has managed to see Israel, Jackson has found a strong connection between the show and the country.
“There’s an energy here that is humbling and harmonious. That’s what I’ve been feeling. That, to me, is what this show is.”
Soul Doctor will run at the Hirsch Theater at Beit Shmuel through midJuly. For more information, visit http://smartapp.wee.co.il/bullet/ carlibach/ You may purchase tickets online (in Hebrew) here.