Jewish stars

American Jewish Ballet concludes its season with two performances of excerpts from "Jewish Perspectives" in Kissimmee and Ormond Beach.

Julian Fisher is a revolutionary in the world of classical ballet. He is attempting to create a unique turn on the expressive art form that originated in 16th century European courts. In his mind, he's "building a legend."

"We are the only American ballet company dedicated to Jewish history," says Fisher, 27, founder and artistic director of the Orlando-based American Jewish Ballet. Through the theatrical and graceful art of dance, he hopes to celebrate his rich Judaic heritage, with the goal of creating "a renaissance of Jewish culture within the ballet world."

It is also a means to enlightenment, understanding and healing. "The old Hebrew expression tikkun olam -- to repair the damages of our world -- is the basis of AJB," he says. "We strive to enhance and become a tribute to our society."

It's an ambitious agenda for a company founded just over 18 months ago. The 12 professional dancers in the company -- six men and six women -- all are employed full-time with other national ballet companies. This is not a conflict, however, since most contracts run September to May, leaving the dancers free for the summer months when AJB rehearses and performs.

"No one is a mega-superstar," Fisher says of his fellow dancers and choreographers, "but we are very committed to our art form." He insists he deliberately avoided a traditional hierarchy within the company, envisioning instead a collaborative group effort. "It's a really spiritual process," he says, "emphasizing Jewish culture and history, showing how it is completely immersed in our lives. It touches every aspect."

Significantly, only two of the dancers are Jewish.

Not being Jewish in a company committed to Judaic themes initially was a concern for Andrew Bayne, of the Oakland Ballet in California, who befriended Fisher several years ago when both worked for the Nevada Dance Theater. He recalls that "after the first conversation, we became artistic and professional soul mates." When Fisher later contacted him to choreograph a dance, Bayne asked: "If this is a Jewish ballet company and its mission is to explore the Jewish experience, what do I have to offer?"

Yet as he learned more about Fisher's vision, he recognized the universal relevance of the themes and the quest for identity. "The ballets are not only speaking about Judaism, but human beings. We all search for meaning and how we identify ourselves," says Bayne. "This project is so pure of heart and direction, I just want to be a part of it."

Though still relatively embryonic, AJB already has earned a reputation as a credible dance company. Its current focus, "Jewish Perspectives," is an intense, hour-long program comprising four mini-ballets that tell the stories of a Jewish wedding, a young American Jewish girl's trip to Israel, the wisdom of the Biblical King Solomon in identifying a baby's true mother and a survivor's account of the Holocaust. Each is sensitively danced, technically proficient and packed with symbolic gestures and historical details that enrich the artistic statement.

While Fisher modestly speaks of his company as a group effort, he is unquestionably the driving force. "The company really is his," says Bayne. "It's what he needs to say from his heart. It's him making peace with his culture."

Bayne notes that last year's $17,000 budget, raised through donations collected at performances, advertising in their program and contributions from local Jewish organizations, was raised almost single-handedly by Fisher. "Julian deserves a great deal of credit and admiration," says Tess Wise, board chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland. "The AJB is a one-person initiative. He alone was able to muster the talent and support."

Dance was not always an integral part of Fisher's life. He grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where "there were three synagogues in one block." His grandfather was a Hebrew Scholar, his uncle and cousins are rabbis and his parents are Holocaust survivors. He describes himself as a childhood bully who often arrived at Hebrew School with bloody knuckles. Eventually, a high school modern dance class "taught me to channel my energy, direct it in a more positive way," he says.

He entered Boston University to pursue a degree in physical therapy, but simultaneously enrolled in classes with the Ballet Theater of Boston. That same year, at age 18, he auditioned for the Joffrey Ballet and won a scholarship. He transferred to New York University and began a grueling regimen balancing dance and university courses. He was forced to choose between the two after being accepted into NYU's Physical Therapy School; he chose dance.

Fisher launched his full-time career with various small companies: Harrisburg Ballet, Nevada Dance Theater and Columbia City Ballet. He also danced two seasons with Southern Ballet Theater, which brought him to Orlando. But while he loved his work, he felt at odds dancing principal roles in classics like "Giselle," "Romeo and Juliet," "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker" that he says abounded in Christian symbolism. "It really began to bother me that I had never danced a Jewish ballet," he says.

Playing the role of the priest in SBT's production of "The Three Musketeers" perhaps was the final impetus. He is quick to clarify that he was not reacting against Christian symbolism, but rather wanted to foster more diversity. "Ballet is about telling a story without words," he says. "There are a lot of great Jewish stories to be told."

The decision to start his own ballet company came in November 1996, after an evening of soul-searching with fellow dancers and Doug Ashley, a professor of music at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. Fortuitously, Ashley introduced Fisher to Bob Ivey, who directed the college's dance program and coordinates the "Piccolo Spoleto" series of Charleston's prestigious Spoleto Festival. Ivey saw Fisher's enthusiasm and encouraged it. Two months later, when Fisher returned and presented a rough dance program, Ivey immediately granted AJB two slots in the 1998 festival series.

Fisher didn't underestimate the accomplishment. "Most companies don't get to perform two days, let alone be a featured group."

The triumph was bittersweet. As word spread, AJB suddenly was no longer permitted to rehearse at Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts; Fisher has "no idea" why. Another local arts group -- Fisher won't say which one -- discouraged him from performing at Spoleto. Jennifer Vanucchi, a member of AJB and a former SBT ballerina who will dance this fall with the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, N.C., believes there was a fear of rivalry. "As far as dance, there's not a lot of funding, especially here in Orlando. All of the arts organizations are in competition for the same money."

Fisher admits the journey was not easy. "We got [to Charleston] and everyone was frazzled. People had been sewing costumes in the car, we had to do an interview while rehearsing and we had been up all night working on the program, and Andrew's wife had to rush to Kinko's to finish it -- but everyone came through. The show went really well, and people loved it."

He takes a deep breath and laughs. "I was a little overwhelmed at that point."

"Jewish Perspectives," performed in its entirety for the first time in Charleston, opens with "Dilemmas of the Day," choreographed by Fisher, which tells the story of the young girl, Sarah (danced by Vanucchi) given a ticket to Israel by her parents for her birthday. It was inspired by Fisher's own travels. "When I finally went to Israel, I began to understand my heritage," he says. Spirited klezmer music and Vanucchi's graceful pointe work show Sarah's glee, and the trip becomes a voyage of discovery when she witnesses the political strife, conveyed through a dramatic dance between Palestinian and Israeli soldiers brandishing flags, and encounters both a priest and a rabbi. Back home, she symbolically reaffirms her faith as she picks up a copy of the Old Testament and starts to read.

The somber mood of "King Solomon's Decision" contrasts with the often comic moments of "Dilemmas" as the king (Fisher) is called on to resolve a dispute between two mothers (Deborah Alexis, Erin-Elizabeth Watts) fighting over a baby. Working with an original musical composition, choreographer Bayne incorporates strong hand gestures and emotive body language to show how Solomon's wisdom not only influences the two women, but also his rule over a nation of many different peoples and religions.

The third ballet, "In Remembrance" is a powerful tribute to the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. The tragedy is personalized through a mother who grieves for her lost child. Vanucchi, who is not Jewish, agreed to choreograph after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and completing a year's research. "Even people who aren't Jewish can still appreciate the historical relevance," she says.

Wise agrees. "What can be expressed through the art of ballet cannot be expressed in words, because it deals with human suffering."

"In Remembrance" opens with the mother's tortured solo, danced by Sona Karatian. Her steps are sharp and stilted. She raises her hands in supplication, then curls them tightly into her body as though enduring an unspeakable pain.

Through flashback, she returns to the 1930s, where dancers are moving to the American swing music that was outlawed by the Nazis. The crowd thins until only three remain; the yellow stars of David on their clothing identify them as Jewish. The audience witnesses their arrest, shipment to a concentration camp, dehumanization and, finally, murder, though the mother is spared as the war ends. Anguished, she walks between her slain friends and is comforted by their spirits.

Returning to the lighthearted mood of "Dilemmas," the program concludes with "L'Chaim," a lively celebration of a Jewish wedding. Again, energetic klezmer music is used, this time to complement Israeli folkdance steps, and the ballet ends as the bride and groom kiss, emphasizing the promise of a bright future.

Ivey says the response to AJB's Charleston performance was "overwhelming."

"Not only did the dances educate people who may not have been in contact with the Jewish culture, but it was also wonderful entertainment. The dancers were very strong." The company has since been booked for the 1999 festival, not least because of audience requests.

While Ivey recognizes the company's talent, he says this second year will be significant, and perhaps more challenging. "With the initial excitement over, there will be pressure to develop new things," he says.

Already doing just that, Fisher is working on a ballet to premiere next summer, titled "The Golden Age in Spain: Spanish Jews," that dramatizes events before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Long term, he envisions a full-length epic ballet, called "Purim," which would be set in Biblical times and tell the story of Esther. He also hopes to organize a tour to the former Soviet Union.

Next year's $60,000 budget already includes performances in New York and Seattle, as well as the return visit to Spoleto and performances in Orlando, where he dreams of a permanent home for the company, "as long as the community supports us."

An ambitious agenda. Some might call it the stuff of legends. Julian Fisher hopes to make it happen.


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