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A dancer's diary

Veteran choreographer dances through pandemic, but craves the stage

Rina Schenfeld, Israel’s modern dance muse, now 83, realizes she still needs an audience — but is forging a new relationship with it

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Dancer and choreographer Rina Schenfeld from her new work, 'The Diary, Part 2,' to be performed at her Tel Aviv studio on March 11 and 12, 2021 (Courtesy Dovrat Asulin)
Dancer and choreographer Rina Schenfeld from her new work, 'The Diary, Part 2,' to be performed at her Tel Aviv studio on March 11 and 12, 2021 (Courtesy Dovrat Asulin)

It’s been a creative year for renowned dancer and choreographer Rina Schenfeld.

At 83, she has been home alone for much of the pandemic but never stopped writing songs and dancing — in her bed, on the balcony with a doll, with the wall, and sometimes with a plastic bag.

Now she’s ready to perform “The Diary,” the work she created, in two performances scheduled for Thursday and Friday in front of some 20 audience members in the intimate space of her Tel Aviv studio.

“I learned a lot from this year but I’m also done with it,” said Schenfeld. “I’ve been struggling with the dance, but I have offered an answer and that creative process gives me belief and happiness. It’s not easy.”

Over the months of obsessively creating — writing songs at night and dancing during the day — Schenfeld deliberated whether she would want to dance in front of an audience ever again, questioning the role of the audience and the role of the dancer in this period of shuttered stages.

She finally concluded that her job isn’t “to be young or pretty or sexy for the audience,” but to let them into the room and allow them to have their own experience.

“Your job is to come and see this and bring your own experience along with you,” said Schenfeld. “You’re in this with me. I saw myself as part of the audience, and I’d never really thought about that before.”

The songs composed by Schenfeld during this period weren’t written to merely accompany the dance, but as a voice that stands alone, alternately working with or against her.

“I speak the songs and they speak back to me,” she said.

Renowned choreographer Rina Schenfeld will perform her new work, ‘From the Diary, Part 2,’ created during the pandemic, on March 11 and 12, 2021 in her Tel Aviv studio (Courtesy Dovrat Asulin)

Schenfeld has been bringing her style of modern dance to the stage since her twenties, after studying ballet as a young teen in Tel Aviv, and then discovered modern dance after seeing Martha Graham perform.

She later studied at New York’s Julliard School, working with Graham and other leading choreographers.

It was Graham and Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild who founded Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company in 1964 and chose Schenfeld as prima ballerina and choreographer. It was then that she began establishing her own eclectic style, which includes using physical objects, something she has continued to do for the last 47 years at the Rina Schenfeld Dance Theater.

Schenfeld was described by The New York Times as “one of the most important artists of our generation.”

“I have to create all the time,” said Schenfeld. “It’s just the most important thing in life. Kids create all the time when they’re playing, I see my grandkids doing that, and that’s what humans are meant to do.”

Dancer and choreographer Rina Schenfeld from her new work, ‘The Diary, Part 2,’ to be performed at her Tel Aviv studio on March 11 and 12, 2021 (Courtesy Dovrat Asulin)

As the pandemic lingered, and as Israel moved in and out of three lockdowns, Schenfeld planned premieres of her work at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, the home base for Batsheva. The performance space repeatedly scheduled and canceled events according to the changing regulations for public gatherings.

Now, with the end of Israel’s third lockdown and a gradual opening of cultural institutions and theaters, Schenfeld is premiering the works at her studio and will then launch the works at Suzanne Dellal in April.

She is also planning on performing this new work at the Israel Festival later this year.

“I did so many things this year, I performed in online festivals, I was filmed for a documentary about my life, I lectured, I built an online archive of my works,” said Schenfeld. “I kept on asking myself, ‘Do I really need an audience?’ And the answer was yes!”

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