Costume drama

Modest dress is only one of the constraints the secular-religious dance group Tarantula faces

Dance 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dance 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In contrast to the figure-hugging spandex and revealing cuts favored by most young dancers, the four-woman dance ensemble that took the stage last week at the Khan Theater opted for concealing necklines and loose-fitting tunics over knee-length pants. Their choice of attire reflects their unusual status as a predominantly religious ensemble (three out of the four members are Orthodox) in the almost exclusively secular world of modern dance - a status that influences almost every aspect of the group's performance. "We glean inspiration from our own lives, so some of our material has religious themes," says Tarantula member Maayan Libman-Sharon. "For example, my dance 'Mikve' (ritual bath), which premieres on Tuesday, is based on my recent experience as a bride-to-be immersing in the mikve for the first time. It was a very spiritual encounter and one I wanted to share." Another religiously motivated facet of Tarantula's recitals is the absence of the sexually explicit and violent material that features so often in modern dance. The group is also restricted in terms of their performance times as they won't perform on Shabbat or holidays, says Libman-Sharon. These constraints, she says, bear testament to Tarantula's navigation of a fine line between the sometimes contradictory worlds of religion and creativity. "There's a constant awareness that we are sacrificing on both sides to pursue our creative passion while remaining loyal to religion, and that generates an uneasy state of dissonance," admits Libman-Sharon. "For example, there are times when we've felt we are compromising the creative authenticity of our performances by excluding explicit material, or when we've missed out on festivals and workshops that fall on Shabbat, and that's difficult to deal with. "On the other hand, we're conscious of the fact that our decision to perform in front of men is problematic according to some religious authorities," she adds. This choice stems from their desire to gain recognition in the world of mainstream dance, says fellow Tarantula member Nochum Baitner. "We know so many religious female dancers who train to a high level but don't attain widespread recognition because they only perform to women. "Pursuing that path wasn't an option for us, but at the same time we are not totally at ease with our decision," continues Baitner. "It seems we live in a constant state of compromise." This state of compromise has, by default, become the lot of Tarantula's sole secular member Racheli Zohar. "As a relatively new ensemble, we are still making a name for ourselves, and so I do find it frustrating when we miss out on performance opportunities because of Shabbat," says Zohar, who met Libman-Sharon, Baitner, and final Tarantula member, Smadar Cohen, when they were students at the Jerusalem Academy for Music and Dance three years ago. The four have been performing together ever since. "The restrictions in terms of violence and nudity are less of a concern for me, though," continues Zohar. "I think provocative material is overused in modern dance in order to shock and is often unnecessary… in fact this is something we all agree on which is part of the reason we work well together." Nonetheless, Zohar is adamant that she would advocate the inclusion of such material if it adds to a creation's artistic quality. "I would definitely take a stand if I felt that explicit material enhanced a dance," she says. In the absence of such a dilemma, Zohar prefers to focus on what she has in common with her fellow performers. "It sounds clichéd but we all speak the same language," she explains. "We have similar visions and we're very natural with each other. I think that's what drew us together at the start and what keeps us together despite our differences." According to Libman-Sharon, the diversity Zohar provides generates debate which influences the group's creativity for the better. "I think the fact that we have to explain our lifestyles to each other enables us to see things from a fresh perspective and to constantly question," Libman-Sharon says. "These attributes are used in our creation too, which I think improves the quality of our work." Another benefit of the ensemble's diversity, she says, is its ability to facilitate tolerance among the typically religiously varied audiences it generates. "A certain percentage of our audiences is made up of friends who come to support us, which means they feature both religious and secular elements," she explains. "I think the fact that the secular elements witness a professional religious dance ensemble that is passionate about its creativity and dedicated to imparting it on a wide scale improves their perception of religious people." The ensemble's frank portrayals of religious life, Libman-Sharon believes, also gains them favor among secular audiences. "We don't sugarcoat our religious depictions… and we aren't afraid to portray uncomfortable issues within religion," she explains. She gives as an example her dance "My Dear," which depicts the pain of religious women struggling to obtain a get (rabbinical writ of divorce). "I think secular audiences appreciate the honesty of this depiction." Libman-Sharon also identifies a positive element in the constraints the women impose on themselves. "Admittedly, these restrictions are difficult, but limitations also have the capacity to facilitate growth," she explains. "In our case, I think growth stems from the notion that we have to work that bit harder in order to express ourselves with the positions and moves which are available… I think this knowledge improves the quality of our creation." At present, this creative process transpires in studios in various Jerusalem gyms. "We're lucky that community gyms support our cause and have allowed us to borrow their space, but we're aware this is only a temporary solution," says Libman-Sharon. "Our current aim is to acquire our own studio space. "Performing full-time is another of our goals," she adds, "but that's still somewhat of a pipe dream. For now we're just happy to be able to perform, to build our profile and to reach audiences with our vision."