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photo by Maxim Berent

photo by Maxim Berent

photo by Maxim Berent

photo by Maxim Berent


Elan Marchinko


By Elan Marchinko, June 2, 2011

“When you are out of yourself- larger and more potent, more beautiful. You are for minutes heroic. This is power. This is glory on earth. And it is yours nightly.”-Agnes de Mille

Picture this: You are performing on the stage of an outdoor amphitheatre under the night sky. An orchestra and singers create beautiful sounds above you on either side. You can barely make out the silhouettes of the crowd packed into the stands right, left, and center. They chant, “Canada! Canada! Canada!” 

On a cold morning in late March, thirty-five members of the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble packed their suitcases (and Pepto Bismol) and left Winnipeg behind for ten glorious days in Mexico City. Chai had been invited to perform at the 38th annual Carlos Halpert Festival Aviv, an international Israeli dance festival put on by the city’s Centro Deportivo Israelita (CDI). While every Chai trip is special, this endeavour held particular significance for the group and its continuing legacy as Canadian ambassadors of Israeli culture and of the Jewish Diaspora. Turning back the pages of Chai history, Festival Aviv emerges as the catalyst of Chai’s steady transformation into the audiovisual experience it is today. It was Festival Aviv where, in 1995 (and again in 1998), Chai was first exposed to the international Israeli dance and music scene. It was at Festival Aviv where Chai’s directors met renowned choreographers such as Shai Gottesman (Israel), Memo Treistman (Mexico), and Alberto Zirlinger (Mexico) who gifted us rich new choreographies that remain beloved staples of our repertoire. Thirteen years later, Chai made its long-awaited return.

After a long day of traveling that included a photo opportunity with former Manitoba Premier Gary Doer in the Montreal Airport, Chai descended upon Mexico City. We were greeted at the airport by Sarah Hop, the coordinator of Festival Aviv and a former Israeli dancer with Ma’agal, a group that performed with Chai during Folklorama 1995. We were then transported by bus to the Hotel Century, our home for the next week.

Day One of our trip began with an excursion to the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia or Tolerance Museum. With the help of our Spanish-speaking dancers, Gabriela Gonzales, Gadi Gloglowski, and Leandro Zylberman, we navigated the displays of the human rights museum. The museum was an inspiring educational display combining horrors past and present with hope for the future. After a rejuvenating walk and a satisfying lunch, it was time to go to the CDI.

Feeling about ten times the size of Winnipeg’s Jewish Community Campus, the CDI is an immaculate complex for sports, culture, and recreation. There, we met choreographer Memo Treistman, who had generously agreed to conduct several workshops with the dancers. Although tired and starting to feel the effects of Mexico’s increased altitude, Memo’s creativity, theatricality, and great sense of humour made our first (and subsequent) rehearsals a lot of fun. After performing several of Memo’s choreographies in past Chai shows, it was a true honour to work with such a key figure in Chai’s artistic progression.

While the dancers were working with Memo, the orchestra and singers were gearing up for a performance later that evening. They had been invited to perform a special fifteen minute set at the end of the Blowie Shyne Rock Music Festival, a battle of the bands competition for amateur musicians, also held at the CDI. Huddled in the stands, the dancers proudly cheered them on as they performed several songs from their recent album Wanderings, and proceeded to blow the roof off the amphitheatre (or they would have if the venue had had a roof). The dancers left the CDI that night feeling increasingly excited for their own upcoming performances.

The next evening was the official commencement of Festival Aviv. It began with a special guest performance by the cast of the Mexican production of A Chorus Line or La linea del coro. Then the participants of Festival Aviv took to the stage. Chai was not the only group coming from outside of Mexico. We were joined by groups from San Diego, Miami, and Buenos Aires.

Surprisingly, most of the groups performed very contemporary pieces instead of the  traditional Israeli choreography that we are accustomed to when we think of 'Israeli Dance'. There was even a piece influenced by Chinese culture. Not only was there varied choreography between the groups, but each group wore stunning costumes and dramatic makeup to fully engage their audience. Finally it was our turn. We performed our Balkan Beatbox influenced piece, Kor Hitoch, choreographed by Winnipeg choreographer Sam Manchulenko. Although we were fighting against decreased oxygen levels due to altitude, dehydration, and an uncharacteristically massive stage, the performance went very well and was heartily received.    

The third day of our trip involved an excursion to the colonial city of Taxco, known as Mexico’s “silver city” because it was once a center of silver mining. After a tour of the mine and perusal of beautiful genuine .925 silver jewelry, we had some free time to explore. Taxco is a picturesque little town with  steep narrow streets winding through immaculate architecture.

The next day, Chai performed Winnipeg choreographer Rachel Cooper’s Kol ha Olum Kulo/The World is a Narrow Bridge to a similarly thrilled audience. That night we met one of Mexico's up and coming choreographers, Moy Covalin, who later treated us to one of his Ethno Fit classes (think Zumba meets the rest of the world).

Our next cultural experience came in the form of  Mexico’s History and Anthropology museums where many stunning sights awaited. Later that evening, back at the CDI, was a special competition of solos, duets, and trios; Danza de Camera. Guitarist and Music Director Ariel Posen, soprano Ashley Fredette, and dancers Madeleine Kettner, Jana Millar Usiskin, and myself performed the piece Chega de Saudade/Take Me Home choreographed by Rachel Cooper. Even though we were not competing, we were awarded Best Interpretation by the judges. Later that evening the Chai dancers and Covalin's group Anajnu V’Atem enjoyed a brief artistic exchange, where each group performed a piece from their current repertoire.

Day Eight dawned with a fantastic expedition to the Teotihuacan pyramids. The group climbed the sun and moon pyramids and enjoyed the breathtaking scenery. Tired and dusty, we cleaned ourselves up for the Shabbat service and dinner to which we were invited. It is remarkable that even though we are separated by geography, language, and culture, the service itself was comfortably familiar, which stands as a testament to the continuity and endurance of Judaism. It was also a meaningful experience for Chai's non-Jewish members.

Our final full day in Mexico involved a tour of Xochimilco; the Mexican Venetian. We were treated to lunch, and enjoyed the music of passing Mariachi bands, and focused on our last performance.

Our performance of  Eli Atah/Thou Art My God and Hinach Yaffa/You are Beautiful (both choreographed by Rachel Cooper) ignited the audience's  spirit, who drowned out the final moments of the piece with their cheers.

Despite the hindrances of altitude sickness, gastrointestinal distress, and electrolyte deficiencies, we had an incredible experience. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with Chai's past, showcase how far we have come, and lay the groundwork for future collaborations and further growth.

Chai was in Mexico City from March 25-April 3, 2011. To find out about their upcoming Winnipeg concert on June 14, phone the Chai office at 477-7497 for information.

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