'The next best thing'

Meet Zucky Crystal, who in her trials with a life-threatening disease found a new calling in the most unexpected of places.

Zucky Crystal 88 248 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Zucky Crystal 88 248
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
What could make an internationally acclaimed Israeli choreographer and legendary dance teacher decide to end a stellar 40-year career and venture into an art form completely new to her? Why would someone who had taught hundreds of young dancers choose to leave the comfortable precincts of Beit Zvi, Israel's renowned school of performing arts, and dare to tread into a frightening new world of art galleries, exhibitions and buyers? How could someone who used to stage major dance and theatrical productions now be willing to start afresh with her first solo exhibit of paintings, and expose her ego to the slings and arrows of outrageous art critics? Zucky Crystal - former renowned dancer and current up-and-coming artist - has dramatically proven the old adage that when life hands you a lemon, you must smile and make lemonade. For Crystal, the "lemon" came in the form of end-stage kidney disease, which simultaneously ended one career and started another. Her real name is Anne, but she inherited her nickname from her father, whose last name was Zuckerman. "People called him 'Zucky,' and somehow the name got stuck onto me as well." Born in London, Crystal grew up in the US - five years in Seattle followed by 10 years in New York, before coming to Israel alone in 1957 at age 21. Her solitary arrival was largely accidental, however. "I was in a Zionist youth movement in New York, one of a group of people who were planning to come to Israel. And as we were about to leave - I'll never forget the meeting - this one [guy] said, 'Well... I have to finish up at college.' And another said, 'Yeah…but I have to get my Master's degree.' And one guy said, 'Ooh, I've got a bad back. I can't do anything until I get my back fixed.' So I ended up being the only one that came," she recalls with laughter. Since she decided she wasn't going to live on a kibbutz, she chose what she considered "the next best thing" and went to the Negev - a targeted destination for new immigrants in the late 1950s - and settled in Beersheba. "I did a lot of things there. I taught dance and got involved in all sorts of strange and weird groups," she recalls, with more laughter. Crystal did not come empty-handed to her new role as dance teacher. A dedicated dance enthusiast since early childhood, Crystal inevitably found her way to New York's famous High School for the Performing Arts, later made internationally famous by the movie and subsequent TV series Fame. She later studied dance with Martha Graham, José Limon and Ana Sokolov, as well as classical ballet and choreography under Louis Horst and Bessie Schoenberg. Crystal adds, "But aside from all these very well-known people I studied with, I brought some of New York with me to Israel. As a teenager, I was at the Museum of Modern Art all the time. I was at the Whitney, the Guggenheim, up and down 57th Street seeing the galleries, to concerts and dance performances, and I went to plays. I had the advantage of a very rich cultural background." Crystal also brought an indomitable sense of humor, which helped her survive the inevitable culture shock of her early days in Israel. "When I got to Beersheba, they gave me a class of housekeepers - all of them very Orthodox young ladies. As I began to do all sorts of exercises with them that required legs being open, they informed me straight off, 'We don't open our legs!'" She laughs fondly at the memory and says, "But I also worked with children in Beersheba, and I taught folk dance in Yeroham and Dimona, where I was taken in the evenings in army convoys. Their job was to make sure I got there and got back." While teaching dance in the Negev, Crystal was spending one day a week studying dance in Tel Aviv. When the Cameri Theater needed dancers for an upcoming production of The Emperor Jones, Crystal's dance teacher, who was also the production's choreographer and one of the leading players, persuaded her to join the cast. Crystal, still young and unmarried, moved from Beersheba to the bright lights of Tel Aviv. "Tel Aviv in the 50s was very nice," she recalls. "It extended up Ben Yehuda Street about as far as Nordau. Everything was much smaller. No air conditioning. Summers were spent on the front balcony. Very hot. Hard to sleep at night. But it was okay. My life at this point was entirely about dancing and teaching dance and movement." Crystal soon found herself moving into production as well. "I started doing large festival productions for kibbutzim. These were things like 25-year anniversary celebrations for Sha'ar Ha'amakim, 50-year celebrations for Deganya and Kibbutz Ginegar. I did the stage productions. And it was pretty much one celebration after another." Success in these shows led inevitably to commercial theater, where Crystal was to choreograph such productions as The Three Penny Opera at the Haifa Theater, Pygmalion at the Cameri Theater, and Twelfth Night at the Beersheba Theater, among many others. Crystal also returned to the United States twice in these years to continue her study of dance at Connecticut College. With Crystal so focused on dance and stage production throughout the 60s and early 70s, marriage had to wait a while. "I married very late," she says. Following her marriage in 1976 and the subsequent arrival of twin daughters, Crystal began to settle into a secure and predictable teaching career, principally at the Beit Zvi School of Performing Arts where, in addition to teaching dance and movement, she continued to provide the choreography for many of the school's stage productions. Between raising a family and teaching dance, Crystal was wearing a nice deep groove into life that felt comfortable enough to remain in forever. However, in the words of an old Yiddish proverb: "When man plans, God laughs." As she sits surrounded by her paintings in a Tel Aviv art gallery, Crystal's voice becomes quiet as she recalls, "It started around 12 years ago. By around 10 years ago, I had two dysfunctional kidneys. So they put me on dialysis." Her face brightens and her voice becomes mirthful again as she declares, "This exhibition is, to a great extent, because of the dialysis." She explains, "You sit there for four bloody hours, three times a week, attached to a machine through wires in one of your arms. Most of the men in the dialysis clinic went to sleep. Those who didn't go to sleep were glued to the television sets. There were few women, but those who were there either talked to each other or read a little bit and went to sleep. I said to myself, 'I can't do this, I'll go out of my mind.' So I brought big notebooks and colored pencils and books of the best and most famous Old Masters. I sat there with one arm attached to the dialysis machine and the other arm copying - as well as I could - Botticelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci... I especially liked da Vinci. He was my favorite," she says, laughing loudly. "There was one Russian guy, one of the dialysis technicians, who had studied painting in Russia. He was a real stickler for realism, for realistic exact painting. And he would try to 'correct' me. So I actually had a teacher there in dialysis," she recalls, with more laughter. "Anyway, I was in dialysis for a year and three months, and I drew the whole time." A kidney transplant - paid for by a gala volunteer performance by Beit Zvi graduates - put an end to the dialysis but not to the artwork. From the many months of copying Old Masters paintings and occasional newspaper photographs, Crystal became skilled at portraiture, which remains the core of her oeuvre today. Further work and experimentation with style, composition and color led ultimately to her current and first solo exhibition, "Cats." Specifically, the show features paintings of two cats, one that Crystal kept as a pet for 18 years and another of a local denizen of the city's streets. The paintings are largely expressionistic, with a riot of bright colors and a naïve, almost childlike style that surprises and amuses. The portrayals are fun without descending into cuteness, and the various expressions on the cats' faces are intelligent and thoughtful, without being anthropomorphized. "Cats" is not a "Hello Kitty" exhibition; the paintings show genuine depth and feeling - even irony, and an occasional touch of sadness. Interestingly enough, Crystal has not totally abandoned her former world of dance and movement teaching. She says, "I approached the Maccabi Health Fund after noticing a number of my good friends, who are my age, falling - falling and breaking their hips, their knees, and breaking bones all over the place. That's what happens to elderly ladies. So I went to Maccabi and told them I was willing to do classes for elderly women, trying to help them not fall so much. The classes would try to establish movement patterns for these ladies so they wouldn't fall and break their bones, and thus wouldn't cost the health fund so much money." Crystal has been teaching these classes for three years now, in the physiotherapy department of a Maccabi branch. The results, she says, are encouraging. "The women who have been working with me are falling much less than before. And when they do fall, they've become so flexible from the classes that they don't hurt themselves or break anything." And as her life goes on, Zucky Crystal continues to embrace and enjoy it, to smile and laugh a lot and, above all, to paint. Zucky Crystal's "Cats" is showing until November 27 at the Shorashim Gallery, Kikar Habima 2, Tel Aviv. Tel. (03) 685-3553. Sun-Thurs 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Fri 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.