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Walking a Narrow Line for 'Tribes'

Composer and choreographer reach out to touch their roots in long-distance collaboration for the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival.

May 26, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Ever since multiculturalism came into vogue in the late 1980s, more and more artists have been making works about their ethnic heritages. Such a task can be either liberating or limiting--as choreographer John Malashock and composer Yale Strom recently discovered.

Asked by the three-year-old San Diego Jewish Festival to create a new dance, Malashock enlisted Strom, and the two artists found themselves walking a narrow line in trying to make a "Jewish" work. The result of their efforts will premiere at the third annual festival, which begins Tuesday at San Diego's Lyceum Theatre.

"We talked very early on, when the commission started, and I said, 'What's the difference between two artists who are Jewish collaborating and two Jewish artists who are creating [Jewish art]?' " says Malashock, whose Malashock Dance & Company is based in San Diego. "Where's the Jewish part here?

"I had to allow for the fact that the Jewish nature of it was going to put itself there, rather than my saying, 'This is a work about blah-blah, which is Jewish,' " he continues. "I suggested an idea of creating different cultures--basically fantasy cultures--and seeing what comes out of it.

"I had to trust that the influence of the music and just the overall theme of blending cultures was certainly something known and common to the Jews," says the former Twyla Tharp dancer, whose own work has often explored psychological issues.

He joined up with Strom, a Los Angeles-based musician and filmmaker who has long done overtly Jewish-themed work. "[Malashock] gave me a lot of freedom," Strom says. "He told me how he saw his dancers as coming from people all over the world, but having distinct aspects and differences."

"Tribes," the first work ever to be commissioned by the festival, premieres Thursday and repeats on Sunday afternoon, danced by Malashock Dance & Company to the live accompaniment of Strom's Klezmer band Zmiros. It will also be performed by Malashock's company, along with other repertory works, in a separate engagement on Friday and Saturday, both this week and next, also at the Lyceum.

Now that the piece is complete, it's easier for the artists to see that making a "Jewish" work was almost inevitable. "Any time you delve into something cultural, even if it's making up [cultures] that don't have anything to do with religion, there's definitely a sense of looking inside [yourself]," Malashock says.

"And if Jewish is part of what's inside, it's going to find a place."

That was certainly the case when Malashock, choreographed "The Near Reaches," a modern dance work performed to the sound of 15th-century Sephardic songs, which premiered at UCLA in 1994.

Typically, however, Malashock's work has not been Jewish-themed, although he has an interest in the culture, which is what led him to attend last year's festival. "I brought a group to last year's festival, so I ended up with a fair number of opinions about its strengths and weaknesses," Malashock says.

So, when festival producer Todd Salovey asked Malashock to serve as an advisor to this year's event, the choreographer readily agreed. And he had plenty of suggestions.

"When Todd asked [about ideas for this year], I said it's always interesting to see something created brand new," Malashock says. "For example, if [Malashock Dance & Company] was to do something with Yale. . . ."

Salovey liked the idea, and the collaboration, backed by funding from the L.A.-based Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, was launched. The only hitch was that Malashock and Strom hadn't even met.

"We had both heard of each other and done well in our various mediums but had never put it together," says Strom, whose films include "The Last Klezmer" (1994) and "Carpati: Fifty Miles, Fifty Years" (1996), and who has created scores for theatrical productions, but never for concert dance.

"It's not the most organic way of throwing a collaboration together," Malashock adds. "But I thought that with his musicianship and blending of different styles, it would work."

To be sure, they had more than their respective Jewish backgrounds in common. They also shared an interest in Eastern Europe.

Strom has traveled to that part of the world more than 40 times. And Malashock, though he hasn't been there, is of Eastern European extraction.

"It's in keeping with a fascination I've been having for knowing something about Eastern European culture," Malashock says. "There's a kinship there, [in] what parts of the music resonate with me."

With that as the basis, the two artists dove into what could perhaps best be described as a commuter collaboration.

First, Malashock discussed his idea of blending cultures from fictitious tribes with his company of six dancers. "The dancers and I created cultures," he says. "We made them up in terms of their traits, gestures, mating rituals and what's symbolically important."

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