CHULA VISTA — The Tzlilei Ami Dance Ensemble is an ethnic folk dance troupe with a mission: to spread the word, as proclaimed in the Old Testament. Using a combination of ancient images and modern dance designs, along with visual cues and spoken dialogue, this unique Chula Vista-based company brings biblical tales to life for contemporary audiences.
Formed in 1986, the group of mostly Mexican--and Jewish--dancers delivers a virtual dissertation on Judaic cultural history with every performance.
In its early years, the company relied on 16 amateur members and limited its work largely to teaching traditional Jewish dances like the hora. But now, the accent is on professionalism, and the company's repertory has matured from folklorico forms to a more classical style that borrows from ballet and modern dance.
This week, an expanded version of the original troupe will present its research of Judaic themes throughout Mexico and Southern California in the debut of an ambitious and original full-length dance, "And It Happened in the Bible."
The concert, accompanied by live music by the JCC Symphony Orchestra, will be performed Saturday and Sunday at the Coronado High School Auditorium.
Director David Chait, whose troupe operates out of the Ken Jewish Community Center, describes his latest creation as a blend of "modern dance and theatricality."
"We will portray the Bible from a historic point of view--not from a religious perspective," Chait said during a recent rehearsal break. "And it is not dogmatic, but it is my perception of the Bible."
Chait, whose heavily accented English betrays his Mexican heritage, admits that some may find his interpretation and presentation offensive.
"It is everything I think about the Bible, and I have a non-traditional point of view. To me, the Bible is not a book about angels, it's about human beings--people with instincts--and people can make mistakes," Chait said. "Some may find this controversial because they are not portrayed as divine beings."
"I want to show the biblical characters as being very human so I reveal them with their imperfections," he said. "You will see the best and the worst of these biblical figures. Some of it is very tragic, and some of it is really quite humorous."
Discussing King David, one of five major subjects examined in the current work, Chait said, "I think the Bathsheba affair, when he sent her husband into a dangerous battleground, was the worst part of his life, and that is an important part of this dancework. But we also show David killing Goliath."
Chait set his dance in a theatrical context, using two actors to create the stage for the kinetic activity.
"(The script calls for) a child with a homework assignment on the Bible," Chait explained. "He goes to the library and the librarian helps him by consulting with a computer. When an answer is flashed on the computer, the audience sees it portrayed in a slide show, on a big screen. The slides give a historical perspective."
After the narrative portions introduce each subject, the dancers move in to tell the story in living, moving terms.
"What you read in the Bible, this is what we portray," Chait said. "Many of the depictions are 100% literal, but some of the dances use symbolism. We don't want our audience to be bored with too much narrative, but we want them to follow the stories.
"My Mexican roots influenced my choreography for the King David coronation," Chait said. "It's very colorful and it comes right from the folklorico dancing I saw as a child. But I use very non-folkloric music."
Chait couldn't include every biblical hero, but he did select many of the major figures, such as Moses, Samson and Delilah and the Prophets. "I tried to portray the most important people in the Bible--at least the ones that inspire me," he said.
"I work only with the Old Testament," said Chait, "because according to the Jews, this is where the Bible stops. For others, it continues, but this should still appeal to them. It gives everyone a good opportunity to learn about the Bible in a non-traditional way."
David Amos, music director of the JCC Symphony, came to see Chait's last concert in San Diego, and agreed to work with him on this project.
"(Amos), too, was inspired by the Bible, and most of the music was composed from biblical themes," Chait said. "The St. Saens Bacchanale is one of (those used in the performance), but we have classical, modern and new age music too. It's very varied. And the orchestra will play without the dancers for part of the program."
With the addition of several dancers borrowed from other ensembles in town, improved lighting and sound effects, elaborate costumes and settings, and a live orchestra, Chait is optimistic about the quality of this weekend's concerts, particularly after his success with excerpts from the dancework a year ago. ("And It Happened in the Bible" snared second prize among 26 competing dance groups at the Aviv Festival in Mexico City last March, when it was still a work-in-progress.)
"It's a huge production with about 55 minutes of dancing and 27 minutes more of just music," Chait said. "We have sets this time (including an altar for the scene with the golden calf), and the lighting is much more elaborate. We will need five technicians just to run the lighting. That's one of the things that impressed the judges at the Aviv Festival."