Twirling with tradition

Twirling with tradition

Ariel Rivka Dance brings playfulness, emotions to the stage

Scene from “The Book of Esther,” a retelling of the Purim story about Queen Esther and Vashti. Photos by Jason Simon
Scene from “The Book of Esther,” a retelling of the Purim story about Queen Esther and Vashti. Photos by Jason Simon

Like the drive to express her creativity through movement, Ariel Grossman’s Judaism is “very much ingrained in who I am.” But defining specifics of her beliefs or practices is trickier, she told NJJN in a telephone interview.

Take, for example, the concept of a divine power. “I don’t really know what my belief is, but every time I take a flight I ask God for a safe flight,” said Grossman, 36, the founder, artistic director, and choreographer of the eponymous Ariel Rivka Dance company based in Jersey City. There are also elements of Judaism that she says are “stuck” in her, such as attending High Holiday services. “I always want to hear the shofar.”

For Grossman, a definition of her Jewish values came from her job teaching Hebrew school at the Brotherhood Synagogue in Manhattan, and during her eight years as a preschool teacher at the Jewish Community Project in Tribeca.

As an educator she emphasized “values, community, and relationships,” she said. Her lessons included Jewish stories, traditions, and culture “without it feeling heavy” — concepts she also applies to raising her two young children, Eva, 5, and Max, 2, with husband and creative partner David Homan.

Having Judaism “ingrained” in her means that she’s come to realize her religion influences her creative process as well. Along the course of her professional journey, Grossman said she learned to apply the rejuvenating power of Shabbat — a period of rest — to spark her creativity. She also ties her choreography to the sacredness of Jewish traditions — her company performs a similar repertoire every season which reminds her “of how we celebrate the same holidays every year.” 

A performance of “Ori” at the 2018 Battery Dance Festival. Photo by Richard W. Davis

“That’s something that feels Jewish to me,” she said about performing signature pieces such as “Book of Esther,” “Ori,” and “Variations on a Box.”

“You can make slight changes, but it’s important to let something be because there’s a reason why it’s so powerful and affective. There’s a reason why you keep returning to it.”

Ariel Rivka Dance, founded in 2008, is comprised of seven to eight dancers and an additional four apprentices; most company members (all women) have been dancing with her for more than four years. “We’re definitely a family,” said Grossman, who readily praised their talents. “They’re really strong, intelligent, creative people who have definitely taken my artistry to another level.”

At the close of the spring dance season in New York, she pauses to write a card to every dancer identifying the ways in which she was grown artistically. Grossman gives credit to the practice of Shabbat for teaching her to “slow down to remember and think about and notice the important things that have happened over the week or the past few months,” she said.

The concept of a Shabbat also gives her breaks from the stress of having to constantly produce new works. 

Scenes from “The Book of Esther,” a retelling of the Purim story about Queen Esther and Vashti. Photos by Jason Simon

“You are forced to be in the moment all the time, but in my creative process I’m always feeling this pressure to have a product and I’ve been making myself slow down,” she said. It’s given her time to experiment and “explore ideas and be OK with making mistakes and seeing what comes out of that.”

One result of her experimentation is “Rhapsody in K,” a work inspired by the movements and sounds of daughter Eva, with music composed by Homan and Stefania de Kenessey. The work was collaborative; her dancers created phrases from video recordings of Eva. “It’s exploring our child-side of us and what that can do for us as adults,” Grossman said, expressing her admiration for how children lack inhibitions in their movements.

“Rhapsody in K” will have its world premiere in performances at Baruch Performing Arts Center at the end of March and will also be performed Saturday, May 11, at Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair. 

As a choreographer, Grossman is interested in exploring people’s “ideas and feelings.” In her most Jewish-themed dance, “The Book of Esther,” she delves into the character of Vashti, who is banished from the kingdom for not obeying King Achashverosh in the Purim story. Grossman removes the negativity that traditionally surrounds the character and, in her take, reframes Vashti as a strong woman who inspires Esther to stand up to the king and his evil adviser, Haman.

“I was able to explore the character and her emotional narrative through dance,” she said of Vashti, whose kinship with Esther in the dance is illuminated with a stirring duet.

Ariel Grossman portraits

Grossman’s professional life remains tied to the classroom and the studio. She has a bachelor’s degree in dance and a master’s in early childhood education. She teaches the 2s at the Corlears School in downtown Manhattan and dance at the Performing Arts Workshop in Jersey City.

Educational programming is a vital part of her company. Ariel Rivka Dance conducts interactive performances and workshops across the country, including the May performance in Montclair.   

“Because my work is really accessible, the older audiences and family audiences who aren’t necessarily dance people are more willing to try it,” she said. “The music is beautiful and the dancers are beautiful and I know how to work with children and make people laugh.”

If you go

Who: Ariel Rivka Dance; for details about upcoming performances,
What: A free, interactive family program and performance
When: May 11, 3 p.m.
Where: Central Presbyterian Church, Montclair
What: “Mossy, a performance that’s part of “Taste of Culture”
When: May 13, 6-8 p.m.
Where: City Hall, Jersey City

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