At a recent rehearsal of Zeitgeist Dance Theatre, American-Israeli choreographer Barak Marshall was teaching a room-full of young American dancers how to be Israeli. Marshall, who was raised in Los Angeles (by a Jewish Yemeni mother who emigrated to Israel as a youth, and an American father from New York) served as in-house choreographer for Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv from 1999-2001. “Israeli dancers are tough,” he said. “They are exactly the same off-stage as they are on-stage. There is an irreverence that I love, but they can be demanding, emotional and critical. They are full-fleshed human beings and running a company with a group of them can be impossible.”
His choreography for the piece, “Monger” looks good on the Zeitgeist Dancers, who seem to respond to the physicality and sharp, rapid-fire gestures. “I tell them to be like Beyoncé or J Lo dancing at a club,” he said. “They have to be loose in the hips. It’s like unlearning ballet. And then the movement starts with the gesture. It’s not from the center like other kinds of dance.”
Marshall came into the dance field “by accident.” He never studied ballet, never took a dance class. Having a well-known Israeli dancer, Margalit Oved, for a mother didn’t hurt, but he studied social theory and philosophy at UCLA and Harvard and intended to apply for law school. Instead, he took a “gap year” and followed his mother back to Israel. She had spent much of his childhood teaching at UCLA, but returned to Israel after being appointed director of Inbal Dance Theatre, where she had made her mark as a dancer years before.
Although he thought he was merely tagging along to offer his mother moral support in her new position, things worked out differently. After the unexpected death of an aunt who had helped raise him with whom he was extremely close, he found himself sitting shiva (the Jewish tradition of mourning a dead family member by sitting together at the house of the deceased for seven days) and then, expressing his grief physically, by heading to the dance studio and throwing himself into movement. This raw attempt to process his feelings was filled with emotion and gestures borrowed from his mother and aunt’s Yemeni ways of expression. It became the dance, “Aunt Leah,” and set him on a path as a a dance artist. His lack of training helped him stand-out. His fresh voice as a choreographer brought immediate acclaim, and, he toured with a group of dancers for years.
“Monger,” the 2008 piece being taught to the Zeitgeist dancers, was the first work he choreographed after leaving Batsheva, and dance, for eight years after a nasty injury. In the meantime, he performed as a singer with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He also began actively care-giving his parents, who are now both suffering from dementia.
In a Jerusalem Post interview he described the origin of the piece. “‘Monger’ is an old word for salesman, like fishmonger or ironmonger. We’re all mongers, all selling something to survive,” he said. “Monger” tells a loosely narrative tale of “10 servants living in the basement of a mansion, never seeing the light of day, and struggling to realize their self-worth despite their low place on the totem pole.”
Celine Kiner, a dancer and writer who learned the dance while a student at USC’s Kaufman School of Dance, where Marshall was a guest artist, learned a lot about Marshall by listening to his stories and learning his movement. Every gesture in a Marshall dance, and there are many, has a specific meaning. She wrote about the experience for “LA Dance Chronicle.”
His choreography is of the movements he knows bold gestures and Yemenite exclamations, each imbued with a very specific meaning. For Barak, context is everything. If he’s not telling you a family story with each movement, he’s doing an Israeli accent or showing you how to properly spit at the person beside you. His choreography is laden with rebellion: servants against mistress, women against men. These themes are especially strong in Monger, which illustrates ten servants in the basement of a cruel rich woman, doing everything they can to resist breakdown from begging mercy to spitting in her food.”
“Monger” has been performed by companies as different as “Ballet Jazz de Montreal,” “Body Traffic,” and “Ballet Rambert.” The music in one section being performed in Santa Fe, Big Band tunes by Tommy Dorsey, imbues a nostalgic American stamp onto the fiercely Israeli communal feeling of a piece performed in unison by (at least) ten dancers. In Santa Fe, Marshall is setting the work on 42.
“Zeitgeist Dance Theatre is a unique program. It’s so personal. The intention is to develop artists at the highest level. The young dancers have a voracious appetite for movement.”
At a rehearsal, Marshall was easy on the dancers because it was only a matter of time before they all had the movement down perfectly. “Think about women’s fierceness. Think Israel,” he said.
“There is an openness here, a lack of competition. It’s a different environment. They learned my material faster than any of the professional dance companies I’ve worked with. They basically learned 22 minutes of material in five, 4-hour rehearsals. If there’s anything I want to teach them, it’s how to be joyful in dance.”