Jewish motherhood inspired this deeply personal new modern dance piece

Jewish motherhood inspired this deeply personal new modern dance piece

(New York Jewish Week) — In June 2021, at the end of last year’s dance season, choreographer Ariel Grossman posed a question to all members of the Ariel Rivka Dance Company, her modern dance company entirely feminine. “I said, ‘Tell me what you want and what’s stopping you from getting it,'” she told New York Jewish Week.

The members’ responses touched Grossman deeply. Some said they were scared or embarrassed by the disappointment, or that they got in their way. For example, admitting that all you want to do is dance a solo performance at Lincoln Center was also admitting that you failed to achieve your dream. The community, meanwhile, might offer support, but it might also discourage dreams.

Grossman, 40, had had those same doubts and questions. They kept pestering her — especially during the pandemic, when three generations of Grossman’s family crammed into her childhood home in East Hampton for 18 months: Ariel; her husband, composer David Homan; her two children, now aged 8 and 5, and her parents.

This unexpected cross-generational experience allowed Grossman to reflect on her Jewish upbringing, as well as the deeper nuances of motherhood. These experiences, his questions and the experiences and responses of the women in his company inspired his latest dance piece, “What You Want,” which will have its world premiere at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center May 19-21.

“Living with my parents for a year and a half during the pandemic, living with my own mother, mothering with my own parents, all of that profoundly influenced the choreography,” she said.

“What You Want” is also an unmistakably Jewish dance piece – and that also begs the question of what, exactly, makes certain choreography Jewish. In Grossman’s case, there is the quintessence of the Jewish narratives she has portrayed throughout her work (“Unorthodox,” for example, is a dance inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name; “The Book of Esther” is a dance on the story of Vashti and Esther). But there is also a methodology of questioning drawn from Jewish life and the study of the texts.

Ariel Grossman, founder and choreographer of the all-female dance company Ariel Rivka. (Whitney Browne)

“Some Jewish scholars spend their entire lives reading all the different interpretations of a paragraph, thinking, rethinking,” Grossman said. “Jews are encouraged to question – to be open. »

“The environment I create by being honest, accepting, and open — and inviting other dancers to be open and forgiving — helps the real art come out,” she added. “Some of the newer and younger dancers, who are not Jewish, are training in this area.”

When the company came together this year to prepare for the new season, Grossman found she was more willing to take risks as a choreographer and dance leader. “I pushed myself and my dancers to let the movement come from a very guttural and emotional place,” she said. “I was moving my body in a way that’s super vulnerable, it’s almost not nice to share it with others – but I do it anyway.”

Following his lead, the dancers began to improvise as a team, asking questions with their bodies, sharing their own stories through Grossman’s lens.

“What You Want” is a company-wide dance set to a catchy soundscape by Summer Dregs, an R&B/soul music producer whose real name is Carl Cadwell. The dance features obsessive and repetitive movements; the dancers seem to be walking in the mud, hands clasped, pleading. The large group of dancers often split into partnerships – duets and trios – which seem to simultaneously help and hinder each other’s movement. No one gets up without falling down again and again.

Grossman said her interest in exploring relationships through dance is inspired by her immersion in the Jewish community. “Judaism is such a communal experience,” she said. “It’s about building a community, building on the community, and finding who you are in that community.” “What You Want” depicts this tension between the individual and the collective through ever-changing groups of dancers.

Grossman’s brainchild, the Ariel Rivka Dance Company, is committed to supporting female artists and telling their stories. The seeds of ARD were sown during Grossman’s senior year at Skidmore College, where she graduated in 2004. Initially on track to become a professional ballet dancer, Grossman was forced to think outside the box beaten after an injury. When she could no longer perform as a ballerina, she fell in love with the more expressive style of modern dance. She also began experimenting with choreography.

She choreographed her first dance, “Eva”, based on the story of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who assumed a false identity to survive the war. Five dancers explored the facets of her grandmother’s multiple identities. This work crystallized her characteristic style of depicting women’s relationships – with themselves and with others.

ARD is one of the few all-female dance companies in the business. “I feel like most of the time when men and women dance together, it informs or dictates their often romantic relationship,” she said.

While Grossman said she saw nothing wrong with the trend, her interests lay elsewhere. “Women are so powerful and versatile, and I wanted to show the diversity of their relationships,” she said.

The Ariel Rivka Dance Company will perform its spring season May 19-21 at 7:30 p.m. ET, with an additional family matinee featuring students and an ARD company on May 21, 2022 at 2 p.m., at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, 248 W. 60th Street. The final performance on May 21 at 7:30 p.m. will also be streamed live on YouTube. For more details, visit