SHEMA ISRAEL (JEWISH PRAYER SUNG) 

Amy Leona Havin: A lot of this work had to do with the woman’s place in Judaism.

SHEMA ISRAEL CONTINUES

ALH: I had a lot of feminine imagery within the piece. The piece involved nudity of women figures and I wanted to begin the work with a contrasting voice, saying a prayer that is so sort of steadfast in Judaism. It’s very well known even to those who aren’t very familiar with Judaism. 

SHEMA ISRAEL 

ALH: I chose to begin the work with prayer Shema Israel because I found a rendition that I thought was very beautiful. It’s sung by a very deep masculine voice, and I wanted to create that strong contrast to what would end up being sort of the meat of the work. It’s a lot about the resilience of women. Essentially taking back a power from a form of religious oppression. So my decision to start with Shema Israel was to put forth that this work makes a comment on religion. And to start with something that would essentially contrast the end of the work. 

SHEMA ISRAEL FADES INTO THEME MUSIC

Stephanie Wolf: You’re listening to UnSequenced — a podcast about the choreographic process. I’m Stephanie Wolf.

THEME MUSIC

SW: Today we head to Portland, Oregon to meet choreographer Amy Leona Havin.

ALH: My name is Amy Leona Havin. I’m the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance company The Holding Project. I’m originally from Rehovot, Israel and I’ve been based in Portland, making dance films, live performance and installation work since 2013.

SW: We’ll take a look at her evening-length work “mekudeshet,” which premiered in November 2019 at Shaking the Tree Theater in Portland.

ALH: The inspiration for “mekudeshet,” really came from my upbringing. As a child I moved back and forth between Israel and San Diego. And this work was really personal to me in that I wanted to take all of the concepts that I was interested in, such as resilience and longing, and a lot of the concepts that I’ve been working within my work and look at them through a culturally Jewish lens. And so I decided to take a very personal stance on this work.

MUSIC FROM MEKUDESHET 

ALH: So I began originally researching Orthodox Judaism. And while I wasn’t raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, a lot of the imagery in ritual, that was around me in the city where I grew up, I find very interesting and very beautiful. So my research began there and stemmed out to incorporate a lot of the nostalgic elements of my own upbringing, a lot of visual cues, not necessarily religious, that I remember from when I go and visit family in Israel.

MUSIC FROM MEKUDESHET CONTINUES

ALH: I did find myself as a teenager wanting to step away from my Jewish roots, and I think that is due to the culture that I was living in San Diego and in the West. The United States is a mainly Christian country. And so I think that must have somehow played into my desire to step away from my Jewishness. And the older I get, the more it’s something that I’m coming back to and exploring what parts of it do I want to keep with my identity and which parts of it aren’t meant for me.

What makes me curious about re-embracing my culture and my Jewish identity has a lot to do with my family. All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. And my last living grandparent, my grandmother, she passed away about three years ago or so. And I think with the loss of that generation, the Holocaust survivor generation, in my opinion or at least for me personally, I believe that there is a responsibility put on my generation to remember them and to honor their history and to honor the culture that I was born into. And so there’s a little bit of guilt. There’s a little bit of desire. It’s a very complicated and layered place that I find myself in I think when it comes to my Jewish identity. I essentially want to make my family proud, but I also feel a sense of home with the Jewish culture and with the holidays and the rituals that are celebrated because, that’s how I grew up. That’s what’s familiar to me. And I think a lot of that plays into my art because I don’t necessarily separate myself as a human being from myself as a choreographer. So rather than shying away from all of these questions that I have and all of these feelings of responsibility towards my religion, I use my work to explore them.

AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL

ALH: I chose to use very specific patterns, symbols, and choreographic moments in order to replicate what I see as large visual cues within the Jewish religion. I did work with a dramaturg in New York. Her name is Rachel Levens. She also identifies as Jewish and she does a lot of dance dramaturgy. So we did research, current images, current articles, but I wanted the impetus of the work to come from myself, from what I remembered.

AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL CONTINUES

ALH: There was a lot of repetition in “mekudeshet.” I chose purposefully to use repetition because repetition to me is very symbolic of ritual. There are a lot of rituals in Judaism, and many religions, that are very repetitive.

MORE AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL

ALH: I find that very beautiful because I don’t think repetition is ever the same twice. Allowing for a lot of repetition within this piece, allowed it essentially to grow without losing focus. I also use a lot of stillness. And a lot of the imagery and the choreographic patterns that I chose were somewhat pedestrian-based. Some of the dancers might not connect to the work in this way, but for myself, they were really representative of a lot of the imagery that we see coming from the photographs of the Holocaust. A lot of stillness, many lines, almost preserving a moment to make it last forever. Through repetition, through stillness, and then through exaggeration.

MORE AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL

ALH: We would repeat one certain phrase and then it would come back moments later extremely exaggerated, almost sort of in a desperate way. I tried to use more references that came from my past memories rather than references that I know are current, so that my work maintained a sort of honesty to my memory.

MORE AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL

ALH: My dancers that I worked on this show with, none of them identified as Jewish. And in no way was that a problem or a barrier to the work in my opinion. Because although the catalyst for the work was looking at topics through a culturally Jewish lens, I think the bigger overarching narratives had to do more with the ideas of longing and resilience and identity and human relationship, essentially within difficult situations. So I worked with my dramaturg on a series of questions and ways to look at my personal experiences, and sort of extract what made them important to me. So a lot of what we talked about where the ideas between effort and struggle, what are the differences between effort and struggle? Because every single person has experienced effort in some way and every single person has experienced struggle in some way. And I think that really allowed the dancers to take ownership of the work and take ownership of the narrative and create their own connection. I wanted each dancer to really figure out their identity within the piece and if that had nothing to do with Jewishness or a Jewish lens, then that was totally fine. It would help sway the work in a way that made it more universal.

MORE AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL

ALH: “mekudeshet” was created through about a year-long rehearsal process. I tend to have long rehearsal processes and I like to work collaboratively in a way. I do create phrases and choreography and bring them into the studio and ask my dancers to learn them. But I think the majority of the work really comes from a playfulness and experimentation in the actual studio.

MORE AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL

ALH: There’s a lot of improvisation involved. And that then becomes set into an improv score or a set phrase that is repeated. The dancers have essentially a lot of freedom in the beginning of the process. I like to work in a way that embraces their uniqueness. I don’t think any of my pieces would be the way they are if I had different dancers at the time of their creation because my work is so based on the bodies and the movement patterns of each specific person that I’m working with. As we get towards the halfway mark, things become more set. And I come in with more phrases and make more of the set decisions based on where I want the piece to go. But at first, if not for improvisation, I don’t know how else I would work. I just am so inspired by my dancers and their willingness to push themselves that that always ends up being part of the process. 

MORE AMBIENT SOUND OF REHEARSAL

ALH: There was a lot of ambient sound that took place in the first fourth of the work. 

Sort of the third/fourth of the work, I decided to utilize silence. Mixed in with a live microphone. So at one point we had a dancer eating grapes on stage and chewing grapes. And so I decided to amplify the sound of the grape chewing.

SOUND OF GRAPES BEING CHEWED

ALH: There was another moment where a dancer opened up a pack of Bamba snacks, which are a very popular Israeli snack from my childhood. And she crinkled open the paper and chewed the Bamba and crunched.

SOUND OF BAMBA SNACKS

ALH: All of my music stayed away from using English because I wanted to create a more immersive experience for the audience. Having people understand the words of the songs weren’t important to me. It was more about creating the atmosphere from my memory. And so this was a very eclectic soundscape for me. Usually I think my work, in terms of musical phrasing, flows into each other a little bit more. And I would consider the audio score of this work to be more choppy. And the work ended with the sound of airplanes flying overhead.

SOUND OF AIRPLANES

ALH: “mekudeshet,” it showed me or solidified for me that, as a choreographer, it’s a little bit odd to say this, but I’m a little bit less interested in the movement itself. I studied performance art history in school and I’m really drawn to performance art as a way to connect with dance audiences and audiences in general and in “mekudeshet” and in a lot of my explorations as a choreographer, I’m finding that more and more I’m interested in the human qualities, the qualities that my dancers bring to the work as people rather than the way that they perform the dance itself. And that’s something I learned from this process. I think it’s a really beautiful place I’m in. I’m always learning as a choreographer and I hope that that sort of explorative theme and collaborative community that I’m trying to create can grow here in Portland and hopefully the entire West coast.

THEME MUSIC

SW: Amy Leona Havin runs Portland-based dance company The Holding Project. She discussed her work “mekudeshet,” which premiered in November 2019 at Shaking the Tree Theater.

That’s it for today’s episode of UnSequenced — a podcast about the choreographic process.

UnSequenced is produced and mixed by me, Stephanie Wolf. I also reported this episode.

Joe Kye composed our theme music. Thanks to our sponsor MSeam Apparel. Also thanks to all of our Patreon subscribers. You can join them in supporting this podcast at patreon.com/diydancer.

Find UnSequenced wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening, and I hope you all stay healthy.

Listen to the full episode here, or wherever you get your podcasts.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Follow Amy Leona Havin on Instagram.

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