Israeli entertainer uses Helen Keller as inspiration for composition

At the time Teperberg discovered Keller’s letter, he was finishing an ensemble work entitled I Want to Dance, Kate!

Listening without hearing (photo credit: YAIR MEYUHAS)
Listening without hearing
(photo credit: YAIR MEYUHAS)
In Ari Teperberg’s artistic statement he writes, “The main axis of my entire research, on all its levels, is listening.” It may seem strange, then, that one of his most performed works was inspired by a deaf woman. But when watching And My Heart Almost Stood Still, which Teperberg will perform next week at Habait Theater in Tel Aviv, the connection is clear.
The title refers to the letter Helen Keller sent to the New York Symphony Orchestra following a radio broadcast of their performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on February 1, 1924. In the letter Keller writes, “I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I do not mean that I ‘heard’ the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know if I can make you understand how I was able to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself.”
“I came upon this letter by accident and I just I really loved it and was moved by it and started investigating around it. I realized that Helen Keller was a person, or character, that fascinated me,” explains Teperberg over the phone. The 30-year-old, Jerusalem-born performer, opera director and multi-disciplinary artist speaks with perfect English, a benefit of having an extraordinarily musical ear, “and also playing video games and watching movies,” he adds. 
At the time Teperberg discovered Keller’s letter, he was finishing an ensemble work entitled I Want to Dance, Kate! “In a way it continues the research and language that I started there. When I found the letter, it seemed like such an organic next step.”
In And My Heart Almost Stood Still, Teperberg enters a highly unusual state in which he is able to embody or channel Keller’s experience of sound. Through various scenes, or “mechanisms” as Teperberg calls them, he communicates the physical experience of listening without the sense of sound.
“It’s like almost a Zen state. I think of being in the moment and not thinking and not interpreting, giving the keys to my body to something else outside of me. I’m very interested in creating a state or presence that is hypersensitive to sound and to the outside. She is like a muse for that quality that I’m looking for, for this hypersensitivity to the subtlest vibration, which meant so much to her,” he explains.
“It’s like a set of restrictions, restricting one’s senses and exploring the new world and how to enjoy the new communication that is needed.”
To make this work, Teperberg delved into research about Keller’s life. He read about her personal relationships, specifically with her teacher Anne Sullivan, and her struggle to conquer language in spite of her disabilities. However, And My Heart Almost Stood Still is not a biographical work.
“It’s not a piece about Helen Keller, but I am not committed to historic truths. It’s about trying to find the essence of her. I try to take her experience and translate it into actions. I wanted to experience them first in my own body and then, through me, the audience can experience them.”
Since its premier in 2017, Teperberg has performed the work throughout Israel and abroad. The response, regardless of the location, has been enthusiastic.
“I think people are very moved and experience it in a very sensual, emotion and primal way. The piece has an analytic side and the structure is very precise. There’s something very mathematical about it. But I’m very happy that it is experienced as emotional and primal. That’s how I wanted it to be and that’s how I feel it.”
Teperberg is joined on stage by an aide or translator, originally performed by Avshalom Ariel, now by Marco Milevski. Similar to how Keller experienced the world through Sullivan’s eyes, Teperberg is guided and accompanied by Milevski.
Ari Teperberg will perform And My Heart Almost Stood Still on January 7 at Habait Theater in Tel Aviv. For more information, visit