Motion and emotion

“The conflicts between Tevye and his daughters, the emotions, the love and the need to preserve tradition – these ideas are universal, shared by all, in all cultures."

‘Tevye’ (photo credit: LUCIAN HUNZIKER)
(photo credit: LUCIAN HUNZIKER)
‘I have always felt a connection to the Jewish people and culture,” says Richard Wherlock, the director and head choreographer of Ballett Theater Basel, in a conversation prior the ballet’s arrival in Israel next week for the performance of Tevye.
Ballett Theater Basel, will present Wherlock’s choreography of Tewje (Tevye) at the Israel Opera, commemorating 70 years of diplomatic relationship between Israel and Switzerland. The moving story of Tevye the Milkman, his suffering and the love aches of his family is presented in modern dance interpretation to beautiful and energetic original music, composed by Olivier Truan and performed live by the Kolsimcha Klezmer Quintet. The event was made possible with the help of Dreyfus Bank Switzerland.
Born in Bristol, Wherlock has been director and head choreographer of Ballett Basel since the 2001/2002 season, and artistic director of the renowned festival “Basel Tanzt” since 2004. Wherlock studied at London’s prestigious Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, and joined their company as a dancer. Wherlock was ballet director at Hagen Theatre in Germany from 1991 to 1996, then spent three seasons as director of the Ballet Academy Lucerne before moving to Komische Oper Berlin as artistic director and choreographer of Berlin Ballet. He worked as choreographer with many prestigious dance companies around the globe, among them a full-length ballet for Les Étoiles de l’Opéra National de Paris. He also worked in TV and cinema with such creators as Claude Lelouch among others. His most recent film success, One Bullet Left, was awarded the Golden Rose of Montreux in 2003.
“In 1993, I choreographed Shtetl, which was danced from London to Moscow,” he says. “So when I met the musician and composer Olivier Truan, co-founder of Kolsimcha – Contemporary Klezmer in Basel, the idea of ​​working together was born.”
Both Wherlock and Truan are not Jewish, but feel a strong connection to the Jewish culture. Truan, who is a composer and is now the director of Kolsimcha, says as a member of Kolsimcha he played in hundreds of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. “It is the most energetic music, it is happy and sad at the same time,” he says. After playing it for so long, he then started composing his own klezmer-jazz music.
Wherlock fell in love with the music and wanted to do something with Truan. “After listening to Olivier’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, I knew which way a joint project could be created, and I created the Tevye ballet based on Scholem Aleichem’s book, Tevye, the Milkman,” says Wherlock.
BASED ON short stories from the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof was a landmark in American musical theater. Wherlock was drawn to the stories.
“The conflicts between Tevye and his daughters, the emotions, the love and the need to preserve tradition – these ideas are universal, shared by all, in all cultures,” he says, but he did make some changes. “In the Sholem Aleichem stories, Tevye has seven daughters, in the musical he has five and in the dance we have three,” he laughs.
Wherlock says the human feelings expressed in Tevye are what draw crowds.
“Tevye is aware of what the tradition demands of him, but times have changed. Due to the pogroms, many emigrated or have been exiled and Tevye has to impose traditions on his daughters,” he says. “The idea of ​​homelessness exists in the Jewish tradition in the form of the prophecy that there will be a return to Jerusalem, the Promised Land, and that in every other place Jews must always remain strangers. At Tevye’s time, this home was also understood as a kind of mental state. The glue that made this cohesion possible was the tradition that played a central role in Jewish self-understanding. So, if Tevye wants to forbid his daughters from breaking out of this tradition, he is not a principled patriarch, but above all a father who is concerned for the salvation of his daughters.”
“On this basis, I had two aspects for my ballet: First of all the basic situation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and the conflict with his daughters, reminded me of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Theseus Hermia clearly states: marry the man your father has appointed for you, or go to the monastery or accept your execution,” he continues. “The lovers flee into the forest and in the end, love triumphs. This satisfies every theatrical audience in its basic humanity and it also has my sympathy. Second, the tradition of Tevye sacrificing his daughters has lost its meaning. The test in which this tradition will have to assert itself, will be the fate of this family as refugees... Nevertheless, we, today, know how the history and the stories of the people from that time ended. The play ends with Tevye and his family being expelled. This and the scene I added in the first act, when a stream of refugees pulls through the village to get lost in the vastness of the Ukrainian steppe, is a clear reference to the political reality then and now.”
Wherlock manages to transfer Fiddler into an exciting, energetic, emotional and sometimes funny ballet-theater without falling into the obvious traps.
“Of course, I ask myself where can I make a statement in this connection with dance, without landing in striking banality,” Wherlock says. “I think that happens where I can show that displacement hits people unfairly and almost out of nothing, and where dancers on stage become characters, people with destinies that allow us to empathize. ‘Motion’ leads to ‘emotion.’ Movement, dance, is always a visualized feeling that allows us empathy, and indeed invites us to empathize.”
No doubt the crowds who will come to the Ballett Basel performance of Tewje at the Israel Opera next Wednesday and Thursday (September 25 and September 26 at 8 p.m.) will be moved by this version of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye.
For tickets and more information call (03) 6927777 or online at