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Photo by Keith Levitt


Photo by Keith Levitt


Photo by Keith Levit


Photo by Keith Levitt

 


Jane Enkin's Review of The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble 50th Anniversary Gala Concert :Wonderful!

By Jane Enkin, JUNE 11, 2014

Upcoming: 


Friday, June 20 noon  to 1 pm  The Chai Ensemble, the WSO, the RWB and Rusalka dance in Central Park

August 10 - 16 The Chai Ensemble dances in Folklorama


The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble celebrated their 50th anniversary with a wonderful gala concert on June 10, 2014. The 125th anniversary of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue was honoured as well, in ways that were integrated sweetly into the evening. An impressive amount of organization resulted in an event that communicated a sense of light-hearted, deeply felt warmth. There were too many volunteers, donors and professionals to praise individually – a 98 page souvenir booklet honoured them all, and allowed many to share memories of their years with the Chai Ensemble.


Winnipeg is very lucky to be the home of the Chai Folk Ensemble, North America's oldest and largest Israeli dance company. A live band and an ensemble of talented singers make their performances unique.


Some of their dances draw on the spirit of the early chalutsim who felt the need to create a new cohesive culture. Music and dance were a significant part of that new identity. Gurit Kadman, one of the important figures of the Israeli folkdance movement, said “...The dances they created conveyed a distinctly modern Zionist outlook. The pieces emphasized what one might call a classical Zionist ideal of returning to the land of old, of reviving the spirit of the days of the Bible, and of deepening love for the country and its landscape.” (Dr. Dan Ronen on the website My Jewish Learning)


Early pioneer dances emphasized simple steps to encourage everyone to participate. Joining in circle dances, often horas with each dancer's hands on a neighbour's shoulders, helped support feelings of togetherness and equality. Folkdance in Israel continues to exist as a participatory activity, (I have fond memories of circle dances on visits to kibbutzim in the 1970's and to Netanya in 2011) but it also has developed as a performance art, with sophisticated choreography.


Most of the Chai Ensemble's repertoire explores the cultural diversity of the diaspora, and the many voices that contributed to the development of Israel. Many Chai pieces were danced barefoot. It was exciting to see the complicated footwork, much of it drawn from Middle Eastern folk traditions.


Contemporary dance is a strong influence on the Chai Ensemble's work. I really enjoyed the choreography in which traditional patterns and movements remained, but were transformed by the long lines and elegant extensions of modern dance gesture.


Before the dancing, there were brief, enjoyable speeches and videos. The Chai Ensemble video featured rehearsals, interviews with creative personnel, and some warm memories from alumni. Many of these alumni took part in the dance Ahava – Love, a solemn and joy-filled piece. As lithe and lovely as the Chai Ensemble dancers are, it was great to see people of a range of ages and shapes moving beautifully together.


The Shaarey Zedek video was a scrapbook of photos, accompanied by Cantor Anibal Mass singing a liturgical piece. Shaarey Zedek was also represented by their synagogue choir, accompanying one of the Chai Ensemble's oldest pieces, Shabbat.


The real moment in the sun for Shaarey Zedek was The Rabbi's Table. The men among the Chai dancers, musicians and alumni were the hasidim, singing and dancing with boyish camaraderie. They led a large group of board members and professionals to sit onstage. Rabbi Alan Green presided as the Rebbe, in shtreiml and long black coat. He reveled in the role, beaming as he turned toward “Shaarey Zedek machers on my right, Chai Ensemble machers on my left, organization machers in front of me, (in the audience), all important threads woven together into the tapestry of our community.” Cantor Anibal Mass's performance at the Rabbi's Table, in wordless melody, Yiddish and Israeli Hebrew, was fresh, charming and engaging. This was a joyful celebration, a real simcha.


Among the fun dances, with the emphasis on youthful exuberance, was one that draws on a popular Israeli trend – young people just out of the army travel East. Set to a song about a young man in India missing his love back home, the choreography included movements from Indian Kathak dance, with raised feet flat rather than pointed, and complex hand gestures like the mudras of ancient statues.


Another was set to a song about the Russian immigrants who were among the first to arrive in what would become the state of Israel. Members of the Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, also celebrating 50 years in Winnipeg, were honoured in the opening remarks. This dance piece, Anachnu N'hiyeh Harishonim -- We Will Be the First, would have been right at home in their shows, both in costume and style. In many Chai pieces, the men and women share similar choreography. In this dance, they were distinct, with lots of boy-girl flirting. The women did flashy solo spins and the men did athletic kicks, leaps and flips, earning some of the biggest cheers of the evening.


I was moved by the serious, intense parts of the concert. Yemenite Bride began with a mother and daughter, sadly and lovingly dealing with the separation that her wedding would bring about. This intimate, individual dance was transformed, when the other women joined them, into ritual – mysterious, but clearly meaningful and nourishing. At the end, the girl's head was covered and she walked toward her new husband.


Eemah – Mother featured a delicate solo vocal and a brief solo modern dance, as a tender tribute to Sarah Sommer, the founder of the ensemble. Many stories about her from family members and alumni appear in the video and the souvenir program. “She was a loving teacher, and a tough one.”


The singers, all with lovely voices, have mastered many different styles of singing. I was especially taken by the intricate vocal ornamentation of the Mizrachi and Yemenite style songs, very challenging for Western singers to take on.


Also delightful was the soft, Eurovison pop sound the vocalists created for some numbers. A favourite of mine was The Voice of the Wheel -- Kol Galgal, a mesmerizing song drawing on imagery from Jewish mystical traditions. The singers and musicians created complex layers of sound. Watching the fluid, free barefoot dancers respond to this song, I longed to join them.


I'm not fond of the louder pop and rock sounds, and the wedding band style numbers that leaned heavily on electric keyboard – a matter of taste, I admit, although it seemed clear that some of the music in the second half of the program was over-amplified.


Many of the musicians and singers had their moment in the spotlight with beautiful solos. Portions of several dances were accompanied simply by Jeff Gordon's dramatic Middle Eastern hand drumming. Musical Director Ariel Posen's acoustic guitar solo leading into a Ladino song was a highlight of the evening.


Set to the Ladino song was a flamenco influenced dance, created by one of the ensemble's many guest choreographers, this one from Mexico. Many of the deliciously varied costumes of the evening were designed by Sara Salomon, also from Mexico. Her flamenco costumes were outstanding – the women wore long, lean black gowns, with ruffled brightly coloured hems that somehow changed shape with every swi

 
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