Judith Berg and Felix Fibich, in four different poses, New York (?), ca. 1950s. The couple was among the handful of professional choreographers who worked in the Yiddish theater. (YIVO)

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Theatrical Dance

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Dance and ritualized movement of many kinds played an important role in traditional Jewish societies—sometimes a key role, as among Hasidim in communal wedding dances led by the badkhn (wedding jester). In early Yiddish theater, there were no choreographers, nor were there stage directors. In an era when the play was generally improvised by the actors, dancing, too, was improvisational and shaped by what appeared on contemporary European operetta stages.

The semiprofessional Broder Singers of the nineteenth century often included movement and simple dance steps in their performances. The popular theater of Avrom Goldfadn and his contemporaries was inconceivable without dancing and singing, both integrated into the plot and interpolated in interludes unrelated to it. Two of Goldfadn’s classic plays included celebrated dance scenes: in Di tsvey Kuni-Lemls (The Two Kuni-Lemls), a fake dream sequence with dancing ghosts intended to frighten the patriarch into breaking the match for his daughter with the woebegone yeshiva boy Kuni-Leml (a similar scene appeared in Fiddler on the Roof nearly a century later); and in Di kishef-makherin (The Witch), a scene of intricate “oriental” dancing when the kidnapped heroine is discovered in Istanbul. These plays, with their dance episodes, became classics, frequently restaged by later theater companies.

With the rise of Yiddish dramatic theater in the 1920s, choreography became an accepted and sometimes essential element of stage productions. Expressionist movement and neofolkloric styles rooted in dance were central in the work of the Vilner Trupe, the Hebrew Habimah company, and the Moscow State Yiddish Theater under Aleksandr Granovskii. A sophisticated use of space and movement also characterized the more topical work of Yung-teater and the Yiddish literary cabarets in Poland. The dance sequences in S. An-ski’s The Dybbuk, which include the bride dancing with beggars, with the figure of Death, and with the dybbuk itself, were staged first by the Vilner Trupe (1920), then by Habimah (1922), and finally in the Yiddish film directed by Michał Waszyński (1937). The dance had become a talisman for the whole of East European Jewish culture. As well as in the more serious productions, dance continued as entertainment in popular theater, and also in film, such as the more vernacular style seen in the wedding dance sequence in the film Yidl mitn fidl (1938).

Trained by teachers such as Mary Wigman in Germany and Tacjanna Wysocka and Irena Prusicka in Poland, a handful of professional choreographers made their mark on Yiddish theater. Among them was Lia Rotbaum (1907–1994), who worked with the Vilner Trupe, Yung-teater, and Varshever Nayer Yidisher Teater (Warsaw New Yiddish Theater; VNIT), sometimes collaborating with her brother Jakub Rotbaum, a director particularly attuned to the importance of movement. Judith Berg (1905–1992) collaborated with the composer Henekh Kon, her partner and husband Felix Fibich (1917– ), and the comedy team of Dzigan and Shumacher and also staged her own dance performances. She is best known for choreographing the film version of The Dybbuk, in which she per-forms the Dance of Death. Other dancers and choreographers included Sam Hior, Adam Graber, Rena Shpatsenkop, and Sylwia Swen (1909–1967). Berg and Fibich performed in Russia during World War II, then went to the United States, where they continued to work in Yiddish theater. After the war, Sylwia Swen choreographed for the State Yiddish Theater in Poland.

Suggested Reading

Joel Berkowitz, ed., Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches (Oxford, 2003); Felix Fibich, Interview with Felix Fibich, conducted by Judith Brin Ingber for the Oral History Project, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation (1997); Felix Fibich, Interviews, conducted by Judith Brin Ingber, New York (2003–2004); Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (New York, 1986).