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Dahn Hiuni

Dan Hiuni's Winnipeg Winter Skyline, acrylic on paper, 1982 from the collection of Per Brask and Carol Matas

CD cover for CBC records, 1988, Dan Hiuni's drawing of Winnipeg (looking toward skyline from Saint Boniface Basilica)(C) CBC Records

"Murmurs and Incantations," an early performance version, 2003, Dahn talks to his deceased grandfather who is projected onto his chest via video. Dahn plays the grandfather as well. An old sepia photograph of the family appears in back.


By Rhonda Spivak, Israel, August 10, 2010

Dahn Hiuni was a fifteen-year-old sophomore studying theatre and art at Talma Yalin, Tel Aviv’s then-only High School for the Arts, when his parents sat him down one afternoon for a family talk. “How would you like to move to Canada?” they asked earnestly.   The family had already moved around quite a bit by that point, including a four year shlichut to New York City and a one-year sabbatical in London—all before Dahn’s bar mitzvah. Reticent to leave his friends once again, Dahn remembers asking, “Where in Canada? Montreal?”  “No,” they answered.  Dahn thought for a moment and retorted, “Toronto?” His parents looked at each other and then spoke. “Not quite. It’s calleasrs old,… Winnipeg.”

Dahn, now fourty four years old, played the funny sounding word in his mind several times. Winnipeg. Winni-peg. Having never heard of this exotic locale, he did the only thing he knew; he looked it up in his red-leather bound, 18-volume junior Encyclopedia Brittanica. And there it was, a short entry with a small black and white photo of the Legislative Building with its renowned Golden Boy. Five years later Dahn would be sitting inside that building in an advanced drawing class, doing perspective studies under the instruction of Ivan Eyre.

Amatsia Hiuni, Dahn’s father, had been a famous Israeli filmmaker, pioneering the Israeli film Industry in the late 50s and early 60s after having studied film in New York. When Dahn was a toddler, his father’s film “Three Days and a Child” won many coveted accolades, including a Best Actor award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. The success of the film was interrupted by the Six Day War, when Amatsia was called to military service, leaving the family in the shelters for a few very anxiety-filled days.

Ettie Ben-Zur, Dahn’s mother, was a poet and playwright who worked as a student counselor at Tel Aviv University. She too had lived in the States earlier in her life, working as a top secret decoder for the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, by the early 1980s, Dahn’s parents had wanted a change once again, and when the opportunity arose to represent Ben-Gurion University in Western Canada, they embraced it. “OK,” Dahn said. “Let’s move to Winnipeg.”

While  he was recently  in Tel-Aviv this summer, Hiuni told the Winnipeg Jewish Review, “ Little did I know how this small city—with its extremely self-sufficient artistic community—would feed and shape my artistic development.” Not long after his arrival in Winnipeg, Hiuni was already enrolled in art classes at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, taking an acting class at the U of W Collegiate and  dancing with Chai.

“I remember thinking to myself I guess the cold makes these people very creative,” Hiuni recalls,  adding that “I learned to love the city.”

After graduating from U of W Collegiate as Valedictorian (“popularly elected, not as a result of having the highest grades”), Hiuni embarked on a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting at the University of Manitoba. There he was encouraged to develop his artistic vision by great artists and teachers such as Diane Whitehouse, George Toles and Professor Eyre.  “It was Ivan Eyre who strongly suggested to me to consider becoming a teacher. “ 

Not long after that, Hiuni began what would be a long and illustrious teaching career, in the basement of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. In the years to come, he would hone his pedagogical skills at such world-renowned art schools and universities as Pratt Institute, Fashion Institute of Technology, Hofstra University and the State University of New York—where he teaches today.

But visual art was not his only passion. Dahn realized he had landed in a ‘dance city’ and thought he may as well take advantage of it. “While working on my degree during the day, I took classes at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and kept up with Chai’s grueling rehearsal schedule,” he recalls. When his dance training began to pay off, Nenad Lhotka,  then Chai’s co-choreographer, cast him as Samson opposite his good friend Estelle Binder’s Delilah for the annual show at Centennial Concert Hall. Hiuni’s love of dance and of musical theatre  led him to perform in musical reviews at the Hollow Mug and  at Rainbow Stage, where he played a busker in My Fair Lady and  lead the brass band in Sweet Charity.

As he says, “Those hot summer nights in Kildonan Park, with music, the scent of lilacs and the sting of mosquitos. I would never trade that in for anything!”

After graduating from U of M, Dahn moved to Toronto to pursue musical theatre. Within a year, he landed his favorite role in his favorite musical, Paul in A Chorus Line. 

“It was a great personal achievement for me at age 22. But after one too many injuries, I eventually  limped over to the Art Gallery of Ontario and resumed my work as an art educator.”

Hiuni received a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art and  a Doctorate in Art Education, both from Penn State University on full scholarship. Artistically, his interests migrated to the more avant-garde practices of video, installation and in particular, performance art, where he truly made his mark.  His trademark one-man-shows came to consist of monologues or dialogues with imaginary characters who he himself played. With the use of playback video, Dahn would witty and entertaining stage Nightline-style talk shows where he would play the anchor but also all of the guests. These became though-provoking self-portraits which in essence externalized an interior dialogue. 

“This format helped me address central issues such as personal identity, Jewish cultural history and artistic responsibility,.” he says.

By the mid-90s Hiuni was living in New York City, working as a tour guide at the Museum of Modern Art and performing at such venerable New York institutions as P.S. 122, Franklin Furance, and Artists Space. His 1999 Performance titled “Art History,” performed live online, is now part of the digital archive at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as one of the first such Internet experiments.

From performance art, and given his history in theatre, it was not a far leap into playwriting. In the last few years, Dahn has been working on a major full-length play entitled Murmurs and Incantations, which thematically incorporates all of his recurring interests: art, identity and history. The play tells the story of Ben Levitts, a New York artist who reluctantly travels to Poland for an exhibit, only to be met by the ghost of his grandfather, an old-world rabbi who was burned alive inside his synagogue at the hands of the Nazis. This encounter forces Ben to deal with his family’s past and to test his creative powers, so as to find both an ancestral and a personal voice. As with most plays, there are several autobiographical elements in Murmurs and Incantations. Confronting some of the more harrowing stories from his father’s side of the family, through the art of playwriting, has helped Hiuni deal with the complex past which many of us carry. A short version of Murmurs and Incantations received its first New York production this past June.

Hiuni continues to exhibit his artwork in New York, pressing on with interesting new theatre and performance art projects, and now nourishing a new generation of young artists. His work has taken him all over the world, for exhib

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.