Avodah’s history spans from decades of community interaction with text study and dance throughout the United States to distinct creative movement workshops and residencies within public schools and women’s prisons. Originally established in Tallahassee, Florida by JoAnne Tucker and Irving Fleet in 1973, the company’s rich background of collaboration and cultural appreciation eventually brought it’s expansion (and current base) to New York City in 1983. Throughout it’s history, Avodah Dance has been recognized and awarded by many foundations as a vital force for multicultural artistic expression and communication.
The idea for starting the dance company grew out of the collaboration between JoAnne Tucker and Irving Fleet, a local orthodontist and composer, when they createdIn Praise for the Dedication of Temple Israel, Tallahassee, Florida in 1973.
“In Praise is our statement in music, dance, and words of some of our feelings about God and the spirit of Judaism. We have selected essential parts of the traditional synagogue service as our framework. In the ‘Borechu’ we see God in man and nature. The ‘Shema’ depicts the strong historical roots of Judaism.” – JoAnne Tucker and Irving Fleet.
In 1974, Avodah was officially established as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. This year also marked Avodah’s first tour, a trip to Pittsburgh, PA, for a performance at Rodef Shalom Congregation. JoAnne, a native of Pittsburgh, was joined by Lynne Wimmer as guest artist for a performance which used local dancers and musicians. Working with Tucker and Fleet they recreated In Praise for a special Sunday morning performance attended by over 900 people. During 1974, the company added another piece called Sabbath Woman, also a collaboration of Tucker and Fleet. Several performances of both pieces were held in Florida.
In 1976, JoAnne began exploring the possibility of expanding the company to have a presence in New York City. With the help of Board Member Rabbi Walter Jacob, Avodah was able to rehearse at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.
Spending the summer in New York City, JoAnne auditioned five dancers and presented an evening showing at Temple Israel. Stephen Bayer, head of the lecture bureau of The Association of Jewish Community Centers, attended and encouraged JoAnne to book through the JCC. She agreed and this began a longtime relationship with both the Association of Jewish Community Centers and Stephen Bayer, who served as President of Avodah’ s Board. Also that year, Avodah performed at Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia, as part of The Southeastern Council of The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
The 1976 – 77 season marked more touring and additional repertory including I Never Saw Another Butterfly. This piece, danced in silence and to the words of poems written by children and young adults at the concentration camp of Terezin, was to be the first of several Holocaust pieces in Avodah’s repertory.
In 1979, JoAnne and Irving created Sarah, premiering it in Tallahassee on March 3rd. Ellen Ashdown created the role of Sarah and Michael Bush the role of Abraham. This piece was the first in a number of pieces that JoAnne choreographed inspired by Biblical text. In the fall of 1979, the company presented a three week season at Henry Street Settlement produced by the American Jewish Theatre. A solid review of the concert appeared in Dance Magazine, February 1980.
Dance Magazine | Review by Marilyn Hunt
“A program by the Avodah Dance Ensemble entitled “An Inspiring Interpretation of Judaism in Dance” (Henry Street Settlement Recital Hall, October 13-14, 18-21 and 25-28) turned out to be based on Graham technique with at times the purposeful use of gestures from religious ritual or of hints of chain and circle dances — a more successful, if less ambitious, method than Cloud Gate’s attempt to amalgamate Graham and a very different style in equal measure…I especially liked Sabbath Woman, which evokes the imagery of the Sabbath and the woman’s importance in it…It evokes the Hasidic belief (which Tucker referred to in introducing the piece) that one learns about God through relating to other people.”
Richard Jacobs, a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion joined Avodah in the fall of 1980. Rick, a fourth-year student at HUC-JIR, saw a notice at the New York School announcing an audition for a tall male dancer. As he studied dance while working as a student rabbi and going to school, Avodah provided him with an opportunity to combine his interest in both dance and Judaism. For the company it meant a dancer who was extremely knowledgeable about Judaism.
Avodah’s touring scheduled expanded considerably with both a New York and a Florida touring company. JoAnne flew back and forth between Tallahassee and New York City, spending two or three weeks in New York several times a year. She also continued to spend summers in New York. A major new work called Kaddish, to the first 8 minutes of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony, was added in the February of 1981 for a Holocaust memorial concert at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Rick Jacobs and JoAnne collaborated on a work called M’vakshei Or (Seekers of Light). The idea for this work occurred when Rick suggested that there was much choreography built into the Torah service itself and shared specific ideas with JoAnne. Together they created the concept for the piece, and commissioned music from Russian composer David Finko. The piece received its premiere at Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh on November 8, 1981.
The company continued to expand it’s touring reaching communities such as Rochester, New York; Canton, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; Scarsdale, New York; Austin, Houston and San Antonio, Texas; and ended the season with a New York City performance at the Dance Center of the Emanu-El Midtown Y. The concert showcased the company’s current range of repertory inspired by liturgy, Biblical text, and Jewish humor. The five pieces (Sabbath Woman, Sarah, Mother of the Bride, M’Vakshei Or, and Kaddish) were performed by company members Roberta Behrendt, Lynn Elliott, Richard Jacobs, Nanette Joslyn, and Dina McDermott.
At the beginning of the 1982 – 83 season, JoAnne and Rick reworked M’vakshei Or. They agreed to cut the middle and replace it with an improvisation on a line of text from the week’s Torah portion. They began calling these improvisations Dance Midrash! This opened all kinds of new ideas for the company as they wrestled with challenging non-literal and non-narrative text, finding passages from Levicitus and Numbers well suited to dance.
For the next several seasons, Rick provided guidance on how to interpret text, sharing traditional midrashim with the company. When Rick left the company in 1986, Board Member Rabbi Norman Cohen, Professor of Midrash at HUC-JIR, graciously conducted a workshop providing guidelines to enable the dancers and JoAnne to continue creating Dance Midrash.
In the winter of 1983, Avodah appeared in Birmingham, AL and made it’s way through the south to New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In the spring, performances continued in Buffalo, NY, Johnstown, PA, Providence, RI, Cherry Hill, NJ and Westfield, NJ. By now, JoAnne had disbanded the Tallahassee company and was focusing all her energy on the New York group and the expanded market place that the New York area offered.
JoAnne and her family relocated to the New York area in the fall of 1983. She based herself in Westfield, NJ, having enjoyed an experience performing at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield the previous year.
Avodah’s first West Coast Tour occurred in the fall of 1983 with performances in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Hollywood. The repertory continued to grow with a new work created by and featuring Rabbi Rick Jacobs. This piece called Comedians honored Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, and Lenny Bruce. In what were essentially solos, Rick Jacobs captured the qualities of the comedians, at times assisted in a duet by one of the female company members.
The company continued to receive good press and in the fall of 1984, feature stories were written about the company in the New Jersey Section of the New York Times and in the Newark Star Ledger focusing on an upcoming performance at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, NJ. During this performance the company previewed a new piece, Mi’Chamocah, to commissioned music by Deborah Bedor. The work was commissioned by Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, NJ and received its official premiere on November 9th. Original cast members Beatrice Bogorad, Lisa Green and Dircella Rodin contributed to the creation of the work.
A highlight of the 1984 season included a performance at Temple Israel in Detroit, MI. Produced by Cantor Harold Orbach, Avodah joined Howard Da Silva and Orbach in The Jonathan P. Miller Memorial Concert. To a packed house of over 1800 people, Avodah performed Comedians and Noshing (another comic piece) to an enthusiastic audience. The season continued with a Florida tour, performances in Princeton, NJ; Newport News, VA; St. Louis, MO and at Central Synagogue in New York City.
The 1985 – 86 season opened with a premiere of a new piece called Sephardic Suitefor Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, NJ. This piece proved to be quite controversial as the final section wrestled with the challenge faced by Marrano Jews of having to appear outwardly Christian while maintaining their Jewish tradition in secret in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Spain.
Collaborating with visual artist Alan Gussow, JoAnne created a piece called Journeyinspired by a book written by Alan’s father, Don, on his experiences of immigrating to America in the early 1900′s. JoAnne also recorded oral histories from Louis Siegal and Bessie Tucker on their immigration experiences that also influenced the piece. Alan Gussow regularly attended rehearsal, drawing while the dancers created. The dancers would look at his sketches and respond with new movement ideas. Dancers Richard Jacobs, Beatrice Bogorad, Rachel Palnick, Jeanne Ference, and Kathy Kelemen contributed their talents to creating the piece and performing it at performances, November 10, 14, and 17 at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Special lighting was designed by David Feldman. Alan designed the costumes made by Jeanne Ference, and built a set piece that he hand painted.
Wedding was also created for this performance. A duet performed by Kathy Kelemen and Rick Jacobs to music commissioned by Deborah Bedor. Letters, a series of short dances inspired by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s Book of Hebrew Letters was also featured. Rabbi Kushner, an Avodah Board Member, joined the company on opening night, narrating the piece.
The company continued to tour throughout the United States. College performances were sponsored by Hillel at the University of Massachusetts and University of Michigan in Ann Arbor celebrated the Jewish arts. A performance in Little Rock, Arkansas in May provided dancer Rachel Palnick an opportunity to perform in her home community at her father’s congregation. The season of 1985-86 marked a high point in the company’s history both in terms of the addition of new choreography and the culminating contributions of dancers Rick Jacobs, Beatrice Bogorad, Rachel Palnick, and Jeanne Ference. Rick Jacobs, now Senior Rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple has booked Avodah over the years and is a member of Avodah’s Board of Directors.
New dancers joined the company in the fall of 1986, quickly learning the diverse repertory. The 1986-87 season featured performances in Omaha, NE; Sarasota, FL; Seattle, WA, as well as the usual performances in the New York City area.
The 1987 – 88 season opened with a commission from Temple Beth El in Jersey City to create a piece to be part of the Selichot Service. This Service, held the Saturday Evening before Rosh HaShannah, serves as a preparation for the High Holidays. JoAnne and her family had now relocated to Jersey City, and Rabbi Bruce Block of Temple Beth El enthusiastically welcomed the company and encouraged the commission. A new dancer joined the company that summer, Kezia Gleckman, and began a thirteen-year collaboration with JoAnne as a performer. Kezia continues to be involved with special projects and is a Board Member. The piece, performed on September 19th , was a collobration with Rabbi Bruce Block and Cantor Peter Halpern. They suggested text and music. Selichot Suite became an important part of Avodah’s repertory for the next several years. Some revisions were made following the first performance but in concept the piece remained substantially the same. Over the years, Selichot Suite was performed as part of Selichot Services at Stephen Wise Synagogue in New York City; Temple Emanuel in Houston, TX; Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, NJ, and Westchester Reform Synagogue in Scarsdale, NY.
In the spring of 1988, JoAnne, in collobration with Cantor Meredith Stone, created a new piece called Sisters, which integrated traditional Hebrew chanting. Dancers Kezia Gleckman and Deborah Hanna helped to create their roles as Rachel and Leah. Following a preview performance in New York City for invited guests at Hebrew Union College, the piece toured Texas with Cantor Stone appearing as guest soloist.
The spring of 1988 also saw the beginning of a major new project and direction for the company. At a meeting between JoAnne and Rabbi Charles Kroloff, as they discussed new directions for the company, Rabbi Kroloff suggested doing a project that would build bridges between the African-American and Jewish communities. JoAnne liked the idea but wasnÃ t sure what to do. She began talking to colleagues about ideas, but it wasn’t until a lunch meeting with noted African-American choreographer Louis Johnson that the actual idea began to take shape. JoAnne had had a meeting with Larry Rubin, who is very active in outreach work in the Jewish community, and he had shared that at their Passover Seder they often read a poem called “Let My People Go” by James Weldon Johnson. When JoAnne shared that with Louis, he got a twinkle in his eye and said he could hear the Negro spiritual “Let My People Go” being sung at the same time as the traditional Biblical verses were chanted in Hebrew. Thus began Let My People Go, the 35-minute work which was featured in the company repertory for the next twelve years.
In the fall of 1988, the company was busy not only touring and performing regular repertory such as Sisters but creating Let My People Go. Let My People Go featured two Avodah dancers, Kezia Gleckman and Deborah Hanna along with guest dancers Loretta Abbott who had worked with Louis Johnson before performing his choreography in the movie, The Wiz, and on Broadway in Purlie; Rob Danforth, a young dancer studying at Bennington who joined the company during his winter work term; Mark Childs, a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College, and Leopoldo Fleming, a drummer. Louis had incorporated Childs into several of the dance numbers, much to Mark’s surprise. When Louis first suggested a dance move, Childs had protested that he was only there to chant, but Louis won out. Eight performances of the piece were booked in late January and throughout February. JoAnne and Louis found it easy to collaborate together, each developing sections and then easily bringing the piece together. The only problem for the dancers was that they never really got a full run through in the rehearsal process, because there was always a new idea to add. On the plane to the first performance in Ohio, the dancers begged JoAnne not to make any more changes. She promised. The piece was wonderfully received in performances in Canton and Cleveland Ohio. Workshops bringing young African-Americans and Jewish students together were featured. Churches and Synagogues worked together to sponsor performances. Rodeph Sholom and Trinity Lutheran Church in New York sponsored a performance as did Brooklyn Heights Congregation (where former Avodah dancer, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, was the leader), at St. Ann’s and Holy Trinity. A tour to Newport News, VA, not only featured a public performance but also a school performances for high school students. College performances were held at Brandeis and the University of Massachusetts.
A performance also occurred at Louis Johnson’s home base at the Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side of New York City. The final performance for the first season of Let My People Go occurred in Westfield, NJ. For that performance a substitute drummer was needed. Newman Taylor Baker quickly learned the work and performed it. It was an excellent match for the company and the following season Newman became the regular drummer for the piece. Over the years his role with Avodah has grown, and today he is a major collaborator and resident musician with the company.
In the summer of 1989, Avodah was a featured part of the American Conference of Cantors annual program in Florida. Collaborating with Cantor Meredith Stone, Avodah opened the conference with repertory showing how dance could be integrated into worship.
In the fall of 1989, Hebrew Union College commissioned Avodah to create a new piece on “The Akedah” (The Binding of Isaac) to go with an art exhibit by Frederick Terna. JoAnne sought out the help of Norman Cohen, Professor of Midrash (now Provost of HUC and a long time Avodah Board Member) for the piece. Cantor Mark Childs again collaborated. For the first performance, in December of 1989, Norman and Mark danced with the company. New company member Susan Freeman (a rabbinical student at HUC), Kezia, Deborah and Beth Bardin collaborated with JoAnne on the choreographer and were also a part of the premiere performance of Binding.
A high light of the 1990 winter season of Let My People Go was a performance before a packed audience at K.A.M. Congregation where composer Max Janowski was music director and his wife coordinated the performance. Joining Avodah as part of the program was Liberty Baptist Church in Highland Park, IL. The program was shared with an excellent choir from the church. The event culminated with the audience of 1200 giving the performance a standing ovation and spontaneously singing “We Shall Overcome.” In April, Let My People Go was performed at Hebrew Union College and received a favorable review by Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times.
JoAnne and dancer Susan Freeman were busy during the year completing their book Torah in Motion: Creating Dance Midrash. Susan had mentioned that the improvisations that the company continued to do for the piece M’Vakshei Or could be developed into a book to help teachers in religious schools develop lessons to teach Biblical text. JoAnne liked the idea. Susan and JoAnne worked with Audrey Friedman Marcus and Rabbi Ray Zwerin of A.R.E. Publishing, and the book was published in the spring of 1990. Audrey and Ray arranged for the company to come to CAJE (Conference for Alternatives in Jewish Education) in August of 1990 and do a performance as a way to promote the book.
During the 1990 – 91 season, touring continued with featured performances in Tulsa, OK, and a new interfaith project begun by Linda Kent and JoAnne Tucker which combined efforts of Hebrew Union College and Union Theological Seminary, supported by a grant from The Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Trust. Workshops and performances were held at both seminaries, with JoAnne and Linda creating new work. Linda Kent’s Lord’s Prayer, a trio, was added to the company’s repertory. The winter saw extensive touring of Let My People Go with performance in Michigan; Portland, OR; and Iowa — in Des Moines, Iowa City and Grinnell. Cantor Ida Rae Cahana joined the company performing in Let My People Go.
An important part of the dance company’s repertory is to give voice to women’s interpretation of the sacred. When JoAnne came across the writings of Sabrina Teubal and specifically the book Sarah, The Priestess, she decided she wanted to explore the idea of the biblical character of Sarah being a link back to earlier goddess tradition as Teubal describes. JoAnne called on her friend from childhood, Regina Ress, actress and storyteller, to join her and Avodah dancer Deborah Hanna in creating a piece on Sarah. The work called Sourcing Sarah, while never formally completed, received several performances in the New York area during the 1991 – 92 season, often accompanied by workshops.
Other touring highlights of this season included performances of Let My People Go in Denver and Boulder, CO, and a performance of regular repertory in Glencoe, IL, where the company also received the Bennett Walzer Judaic Arts Award. The Avodah Dance Ensemble was also a featured guest at the National Festival of the Sacred Dance Guild June 23 – 28, 1992.
A collaboration with Rabbi Raymond Scheindlin, noted Sephardic scholar who teaches at Jewish Theological Seminary, was the featured work of the 1992 – 93 season and was designed especially for commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Two new pieces were created to join Sephardic Suite. In the Garden was inspired by poems written in the 10th and 11th centuries, translated into English by Rabbi Scheindlin. Dancers Beth Millstein, Elizabeth McPherson, and Kezia Gleckman Hayman collaborated with JoAnne to create this piece, as well as the accompanying Lovesongs and Lullabies, which featured solos for the dancers. In the fall, Avodah toured to Santa Barbara performing at the congregation of Cantor Mark Childs (who had helped create a role in Let Me People Go). Performances in San Diego at the Museum of Contemporary Arts sponsored by the Jewish Community Center were also part of the tour.
In December, the dancers found themselves in Fort Lauderdale to participate in a Shabbat Service for the dedication of a new sanctuary for Temple Enamu-El. It was a memorable evening in that the sanctuary was still being completed that afternoon; finally the dancers had to vacuum away nails in order to participate in the evening service. In the spring the company spent a weekend in residence at The Temple in Nashville, TN, hometown of company member Elizabeth McPherson.
On November 21, 1993, Avodah presented a special performance at Hebrew Union College collaborating with Jesse DeVore. DeVore shared his musical celebration of Martin Luther King called Faith Journey and, in addition to presenting Let My People Go, Avodah performed Helen Tamiris’ Negro Spirituals. Several months earlier Elizabeth McPherson had suggested that Tamiris’ Negro Spirituals would make an ideal accompanying piece for Let My People Go. Since JoAnne had studied with pioneering modern dance choreographer Helen Tamiris in 1958 when she was a camper at Perry Mansfield Performing Arts Camp in Steamboat Springs, CO, she was most enthusiastic about adding the piece to the repertory. Elizabeth is trained as a reconstructionist and so it was possible to make arrangement with the Dance Notation Bureau to have her set the piece on the company. The solos from this work continued to be a part of the company’s repertory through the 2002 season. Audience response to these unique solos is always enthusiastic, even through the creation of the pieces dates back to span the era between 1927 and 1943.
In the spring of April 1994, the company performed at dancer Beth Millstein’s home congregation where her father was Rabbi. His enthusiasm for the company and his daughter’s dancing was shared in an article he wrote to congregants “strongly urging them to share in this unique spiritual and aesthetic experience.” Rabbi Ronald Millstein also became an member of Avodah’s Board of Directors, helping them with bookings for over eight years.
In the Month of Kislev, a book written by Nina Jaffe, provided a wonderful vehicle for a Chanukah Family Program. Dancers Elizabeth McPherson, Kara Esposito, Carla Norwood, Beth Millstein and Kezia Gleckman Hayman helped JoAnne develop it into a dance/theatre piece that incorporated community children into the performance. Among the children performing with the company was Justine, daughter of Avodah dancer Lynn Elliot, who was performed with the New York Company from the first New York showcase through 1982. Newman Taylor Baker along with a vocalist and clarinetist provided live accompaniment. In the Month of Kislev received its New York performance on Sunday, December 4th at Hebrew Union College.
Outstanding dancer/choreographer Freddie Moore occasionally joined the company for performances of Let My People Go and Negro Spiritural. In March, 1995 he created a beautiful piece for the company called Exaltation. It received its premiere performance at a special company benefit at Hebrew Union College on March 30th. Negro Spirituals and Let My People Go were also part of the evening which ended with a dessert buffet.
Various dance educational workshops developed from Let My People Go and, in 1995, Avodah did the first of three years of workshops for children living in temporary housing, funded by a $10,000 grant from The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and The New York City Board of Education. These after-school programs provided the children with dance training, percussion instruction from Newman Taylor Baker, and improvisation dance work on the themes from Let My People Go. Journal writing concluded each session before a hot dinner was served and the children traveled by bus back to their housing. The last session was a culminating event where children performed for their parents and watched their teachers do an excerpt from Let My People Go. These workshops, funded again in 1996 and 1998, were among the company’s favorites. We also got to know Jeannine Otis, an outstanding vocalist who was one of the grant evaluators. Several years later Jeannine collaborated as a performer/composer with the company.
Besides performing at Wake Forest University in April 1995, JoAnne, Kezia, and Elizabeth McPherson stayed to set Kaddish on University dancers. The piece was then performed in the University’s dance concert the end of April. Among the students was Jessica Sehested who, in 2002, joined the company as a full time dancer for the season.
“An Evening of Dance Midrash” was presented in June at Hebrew Union College with Rabbi Norman Cohen providing an opening discussion. The program included five pieces inspired by biblical text: Sisters (the collaboration between JoAnne and Cantor Meredith Stone based on the story of Rachel and Leah); Binding, (the retelling of the bindng of Isaac by Abraham), accompanied by Cantor Bruce Ruben; Hannah, choreographed by JoAnne with music composed and accompanied by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller; Braided Journey, created by guest choreographer Lynne Wimmer, expressing the relationship between Ruth and Naomi; and Elijah, The Messenger, a solo based on the life of the prophet Elijah, created by JoAnne with, and for, Kezia Gleckman Hayman.
Highlights of the 1995 – 96 season included a performance of In the Month of Kislev at The Jewish Museum in New York, and a performance of Let My People Go at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature.
A performance at New Faith Baptist Church in May 1996 stands out as a memorable event for the company. This was Cantor Ellen Dreskin’s first performance of Let My People Go and she asked me if all performances were as enthusiastically received. The 600 or so members from New Faith Baptist Church were wonderful to perform for.
In the fall, JoAnne collaborated with Muriel Boast and her daughter Muriel Migal, and dancers Elizabeth McPherson and Beth Millstein, on a piece that explored the use of directions in the Native American Tradition and in the Jewish holiday of Succot. Several performances of the piece as “a work in progress” were given, along with accompanying workshops.
1996 -97 saw continued touring of both regular repertory and our special program featuring Let My People Go. A fall performance at the American Museum of Natural History as part of their “Cross-Currents: Creating Cultural Bridges and Exchange” inspired fan mail. We received a post-card from an audience member, thanking us, saying “I felt honored to be there…the combination of Hebrew chanting with African American spirituals was especially powerful, and Newman Baker’s singing by himself at the end brought tears to my eyes.”
In February the company toured Northern California with performances in Santa Rosa, San Francisco and Stanford. The highlight was Santa Rosa where co-sponsors Congregation Beth Ami amd Community Baptist Church collaborated in making this a community event. Jeannine Otis joined the cast of Let My People Go. Usually the role had been played by a Jewish cantor, formally trained in Hebrew. JoAnne decided to cast Jeannine because of her outstanding voice and spiritual quality that she conveys. She asked Jeannine if she would be willing to work on her Hebrew. Jeannine did and audiences loved her. In fact, she brought down the house at her first performance in Santa Rosa, and continued to enthrall audiences in every performance she did over the next several years.
Avodah was pleased to participate in “A Festival of Dance Benefitting Dancers Responding to Aids.” Over 36 prominent New York companies joined together in a three-day festival held at The Theatre of the Riverside Church during the beginning of May. A few weeks later Avodah premiered several new works at a concert at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. They included: Neviot by guest choreographer Yoav Kaddar, an Israeli-born choreographer; Family Heirloom by JoAnne Tucker, paying tribute to the Biblical women Rebecca, Leah and Tamar; Shema by JoAnne Tucker, inspired by the poetry of Primo Levi; and Of Jerusalem by JoAnne Tucker, choreographed to poems by Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai. Avodah Board Member Rabbi Lawrence Raphael introduced the poetry of Amichai. Of Jerusalem and Neviot were added to the repertory to honor the upcoming 50th anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel.
Avodah received the first of two challenge grants from the New York Department of Cultural Affairs. The grant in 1997 was to do workshops in New York City public schools based on Let My People Go. Residencies consisting of 10 workshops each were held at The Midwood School in Brooklyn and The High School of Humanities located in Manhattan.
In the summer Avodah sponsored the first of six years of summer workshops in liturgical dance, held in the chapel at Hebrew Union College. Board member and guest teacher Linda Kent, JoAnne Tucker, Avodah dancers and HUC-JIR faculty staffed the first workshop. JoAnne, along with Newman Taylor Baker and Kezia Gleckman Hayman, also joined the faculty of the Institute of Contemporary Midrash (ICM) Summer Training Intensives at Elat Chayyim. Other faculty at ICM included Jo Milgrom, Alicia Ostriker and Peter Pitzele. It was an outstanding gathering of creative energy.
Outreach work of Avodah continued with a performance as part of the Sunday morning service at The Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew (SAMS) in Wilmington, DE. Cannon Lloyd Casson, who invited Avodah to participate in the service, had become familiar with the company when he was at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. Avodah continues to perform at SAMS and to do other outreach projects in the Wilmington, Delaware area.
Poetess Alicia Ostriker collaborated with Avodah in January, 1998, when the company set part of her poem “Jephthah’s Daughter” for a special event at Hebrew Union College called “Rage/Resolution,” coordinated with an exhibit “From Family Violence to Healing in the Works of Israeli and American Women.” A standing-room only audience attended the event, which included a new piece by Linda Kent called Suit Yourself. Dr. Carol Ochs and Dr. Nancy Wiener of HUC’s faculty also spoke. Guest soloist Jeannine Otis, percussionist Newman Taylor Baker, and dancer Bradon McDonald joined the performance. A nice mention in the New York Times by Jennifer Dunning was included in the Friday weekend-selected listings by critics. She wrote, “There are not too many practicing choreographers of dance based on religious themes in these godless days. In her quiet way, JoAnne Tucker is one of the most persistent and one of the best, creating simple, luminous and heartfelt dances based on Jewish traditions.” (NY Times, January 9, 1998)
Avodah receive a $7,500 grant from the Tribune New York Foundation to continue expanding workshops in the public schools. Avodah’s President, Jesse Berger, represented Avodah at the award ceremony.
JoAnne was interviewed for an article by Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times in November, 1998. This comprehensive article on celebration of the spiritual in dance was featured in the Sunday, November 15th, paper.
The 1998 – 99 season was highlighted by a new piece by Louis Johnson and JoAnne Tucker. Funded by a challenge grant from The New York City of Cultural Affairs, Make A Change involved community members performing with the dance company. Louis and JoAnne created the work on dancers, Beth Millstein, Jessica Losinski, Tanya Alexander and Mark Walcott. Newman Taylor Baker and Jeannine Otis created the musical accompaniment as well as performing with the dancers. Performances were held at Snug Harbor in Staten Island; Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, sponsored by the Brownstone Brooklyn Jewish Coalition; and at Avodah’s home base of Hebrew Union College. Over forty enthusiastic community members participated in the performance after spending several hours in workshop with the company.
In the winter of 1999, JoAnne began a collaboration with Amichai Lau-Levie related to exploring the Talmud through movement improvisation. A series of workshops led to the creation of a new work called Bless which featured Amichai’s story-telling talents.
Two events highlighted June. Avodah participated in a joint project of Central Synagogue, Grace United Methodist Church and The New York Metropolitan Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolence. Engaging community members from all three organizations, JoAnne staged Make A Change for the performance held at St. BartholomewÃ s Church in New York City. The program “Advancing the Promise” honored the legacy of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The event took over a year in planning and the enthusiasm of all the organizations made this well-attended event an extremely positive experience.
Also in June, JoAnne was honored by the Task Force on the Jewish Woman of the UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Museum. E.M. Broner, Debbie Friedman, Amy Klein Reichert and JoAnne were part of a panel held at The Jewish Museum.
1999 – 2000 marked major changes for the company. In the fall, Avodah’s impact was felt beyond the United States and Canada. JoAnne led workshops in dance midrash in Israel and Avodah participated in the Pitigliano Film and Ebraica Cultura Festival in Italy. Former Avodah Dancer Deborah Hanna served as the Italian coordinator and organizer for the dance companyÃ s appearance. Deborah lives in Tarquinia, Italy, where she teaches and choreographs. She selected several dancers to join her and Kezia Gleckman Hayman for the performance. JoAnne, Kezia and Deborah taught repertory to the group and the company performed six pieces in the concert. They included: Hallelu (danced to Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller’s setting of Psalm 150); Negro Spirituals; Mi’Chamocha; Shema, narrated in its original Italian; Kaddish; and a work called Generations, which was created for the evening. The audience particularly responded to Shema. The performance was held in the quaint and lovely Teatro Salvini. he company also performed for a school in a neighboring village.
Following JoAnne’s return to the Unites States, she and new Avodah Dancer, Illana Shtayer, spent a week in residence in Savannah, GA using movement as a way to teach about the Holocaust. A highlight of the trip was setting I Never Saw Another Butterfly on students at the Savannah Arts Academy (a public high school for the performing arts). They performed the piece at a Sunday performance at the Jewish Community Center. The residency was made possible by MorningStar Cultural Arts, the City of Savannah Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Julius and Danyse Edel Fund of The Savannah Foundation. Various public workshops were also held.
The fall continued with a workshop combining the talents of Kara Esposito of the Omega Dance Company and Avodah in an interfaith workshop inspired by Psalm 23, held at both Hebrew Union College and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
In January, 2000, Avodah became a full-time company. Up until this point, dancers held day jobs, and rehearsals were held two evenings a week throughout the year. In a desire to expand the impact of the company as well as deepen the creative level, JoAnne moved to a full time company where dancers rehearse and were available for touring as a full-time job for a certain number of weeks each year. The first year, Avodah supported 15 weeks of a full-time company. Part of the season was made possible by a grant from The Irving Caesar Lifetime Trust for performances and workshops of Make A Change in New York City Public Schools.
The four dancers, Tanya Alexandra, Illaya Schtayer, Kate Ashby, and Laureve Blackstone collaborated with JoAnne and Amichai Lau Levie on a new piece called Bless (inspired by Talmud Trachtate Berachot). Performances of Bless and other repertory were held in New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, Long Island, Kensington, MD, and Detroit, MI.
During the following season of 2000 – 2001, Amichai and JoAnne conducted workshops related to Bless as Amichai toured with the new company dancers (Julia Pond, Becca Vargus, Candice Franklin, and Stacy Cohen) to West Palm Beach, Florida. Young dancers joined the company in performing M’Vakshei Or at the performance at Temple Israel. A Performance and workshop of Bless were also held in Scarsdale, NY, at Westchester Reform Temple. In the spring the company toured to Indianapolis and also began a new project on the theme of forgiveness.
Cannon Lloyd Casson suggested JoAnne read Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness. JoAnne was quite moved by the book. She decided if she was going to approach the subject of forgiveness she needed to address a part of the book where Desmond Tutu writes of his disappointment of forgiveness being addressed between the German and Jewish communities following World War II. With this in mind JoAnne decided she wanted to find a German choreographer of her own age to wrestle with this question. JoAnne located Ursula Schorn, who was also born in 1943, and whose father was a Nazi. Schorn agreed to come to the United States to spend a week with the dance company exploring the theme. Rabbi Richard Jacobs (former Avodah dance), of Westchester Reform Temple, generously made a retreat space available to the company to spend full-time that week rehearsing. The week was well spent, as much insight was gained toward the project. It was a difficult week and JoAnne realized how challenging and complex “forgiveness” can be.
The season ended with the dance company participating in an all-day workshop on forgiveness at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT. Participating as a guest speaker was Margaret Steinegger-Keyser from South Africa. This experience was to open a whole new venue for Avodah. Among the people who received a flyer about the performance was Joe Lea of the York Correctional Institution for Women. Joe, on the educational staff, emailed JoAnne asking her if she would be interested in doing a workshop at York. JoAnne responded by saying she might be, but since she had never been in a prison she would like to visit and see if she thought it would work out. JoAnne visited later in May and felt there was potential in a dance workshop.
September 11, 2001 radically changed life in the United States. As a New York-based dance company, that regularly rehearsed in lower Manhattan and with JoAnne living directly across from Ground Zero in Jersey City watching the events unfold two blocks from her home, Avodah was impacted in a number of ways. As choreographer, JoAnne felt she had to start anew and that the pieces she had previously choreographed no longer spoke to the times we are currently living in! Specifically, JoAnne felt that there was a need to address that which brings us together, rather than the particulars that separate us. 714 567
In October of 2001, JoAnne received news that Avodah had received a $25,000 from the Nathan Cummings Foundation for The Forgiveness Project, which she had proposed in the spring. The Foundation felt the project was particularly relevant following the events of 9/11. The grant enabled JoAnne to begin work on new repertory. JoAnne also felt a strong desire to carefully select dancers who had as much skill and interest in working with diverse groups of people as strong performing technique. The previous June, JoAnne had staged a piece as part of a Friday Shabbat service using over forty congregants to honor their Senior Rabbi Richard Jacobs (former Avodah dancer) at Westchester Reform Temple. She had found the experience of working with non dancers very positive and wanted to expand the use of community in performing with the company. The concept of The Forgiveness Project also incorporated this. Dancers were auditioned not only technically but were required to spend a full day in workshop with JoAnne to see how they worked with each other and non-dancers. The four dancers selected (Jessica Sehested, Andrea Eisenstein, Kerrie Thoma and Danielle Smith) proved to be an excellent team.
A sixteen-week season began in the Winter of 2002. Three weeks were spent creating new repertory: The Forgiveness Project in colloboration with composer/percussionist Newman Taylor Baker; and Tent, Tallit and Torah, which explored sacred space, text and community to the music of J.S. Bach. Tamiris’ Negro Spirituals and Yoav Kaddar’s Neviot were also added. The piece Bless was reset but soon taken out as it no longer seemed to fit the mood of the company.
In March JoAnne created another piece, Heroic Deed, for a Yom HaShoah service and featured it in a concert the company did at the 92nd Street Y. It was favorably reviewed by Jennifer Dunnings in the New York Times, (April 10, 2002). While the piece began with the intent of honoring Righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust it soon became a piece strongly impacted by September 11th and honoring the many heroic deeds associated with it. JoAnne’s daughter, Rachel, had been in the World Trade Center in 1993, walking down from the 97th floor. Her memories of people helping each other, counting steps, holding hands also served to inspire the new work.
Four week-long residencies were held as a result of the Cummings Grant. Their goal was to integrate community members into a performance of The Forgiveness Project and to use dance in a variety of unique ways. The first residency was held in February at The Episcopal Church of Saint Andrews and Matthews in Wilmington, DE with events also taking place at the Reform Temple in Wilmington. In March, the company was in residence at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Dance became part of the Senior Symposium, a liturgical service, and The Forgivness Project was presented as the sermon. Two rabbinic students danced with the company along with other community members. Public workshops and a public performance was also held as part of The Forgiveness Project. Avodah also presented workshops in several classes. The third residency took place at Westchester Reform Temple (WRT), with a series of performances for children in the religious school. Workshops for staff and congregants were held. Eleven congregants joined company members in a version of I Never Saw Another Butterfly and the company performed the new piece Heroic Deeds in the Friday night Yom HaShoah service. A highlight of the residency was a workshop on forgiveness for WRT’s full staff including custodial workers, secretaries and professional rabbinic staff. The final residency was held at York Correctional Institution for Women. Twenty-four women attended workshops of two-and-a-half hours for four days and performed for other inmates enrolled in the school program on the fifth day. The outstanding response of the women and the extremely constructive manner in which they participated impressed the dancers, Newman and JoAnne very much. Following the residency discussions began on how the program could be continued and expanded.
The company also received grants from The Laura Jane Musser Fund, The Best Buy Children’s Foundation and Harkness Foundation for Dance to work with children impacted by September 11th. Avodah worked in two schools in lower Manhattan. At The Murry Bergstraum High School located about ten blocks from Ground Zero, Avodah conducted 10 workshops for students in two classes, an eleventh grade English class and a tenth grade conflict resolution class. Together dancers and students explored how to keep one’s balance when faced with events such as September 11th. At P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village, the elementary school that housed the children from the grade school closest to Ground Zero for months following September 11th, Avodah led 10 workshops using a multicultlural emphasis and dancing a story about peace.
The season of 2002 – 2003 continued to build on the previous year. The Best Buy Children’s Foundation Grant was used for workshops, as part of the school day and for an after-school program for a school in Jersey City. Avodah created a new work called Balancing Act and students were integrated into the piece, performing with the company for other classes and parents. The response of students in inclusion classes in the sixth and seventh grade was particularly impressive.
Local organizations in Delaware and Connecticut were awarded grants to bring The Avodah Dance Ensemble into women’s correctional institutions. Pacem en Terris sponsored Avodah’s five-day residency at the Delores J. Baylor Correctional Institution for Women, and the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut sponsored Avodah’s return to York Correctional Institution through a grant from the George A. and Grace L Long Foundation. Both residencies were extremely well received. Avodah anticipates continuing relationships with both facilities and an expanded program is already planned for 2003 – 2004 at York.
The St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City invited Avodah to be part of a Holocaust Memorial Concert. A grant from the Gloria and Sidney Danzinger Foundation made possible a series of workshops for fifth graders at The Oliver Street School based on the piece Heroic Deeds.
Touring highlights of the season included a two-day residency at Rosemary Choat School and a five-day residency in Indianapolis. In Indianapolis Avodah presented a performance and workshop of The Forgiveness Project at The Christian Seminary; performed in the Friday night Shabbat service at The Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation; did a workshop and performance of Balancing Act with students at a Reconstructionist Congregation for High School students; presented a concert at the Jewish Community Center; and The Forgiveness Project at The Girl’s School and Women’s Correctional Facility.
This season Avodah welcomed a new President, Holmes Miller. Holmes brings a background of business to the company as Avodah begins a new venue of providing diversity training, creativity and team work programs and workshops for corporations.
Balancing Act was made possible by a grant from The Best Buy Children’s Foundation.
The 2003 – 2004 season was highlighted by a performance at JPMorgan Chase for Disability Awareness Month (October) as part of a new initial of Avodah, The Corporate Training Program. Kezia Gleckman Hayman, Newman Taylor Baker and JoAnne Tucker spearheaded the effort of bringing dance and music to the work place. JPMorgan Chase asked them to design a program for Disability Awareness Month. Guest dancer Mana Hashimoto joined three Avodah dancers to develop a performance piece. Mana is totally blind having lost her sight five years before. A very gifted dancer she quickly integrated herself into the company sharing ways that she learns movement. A forty-five minute performance piece was developed featuring how Mana is able to pick up styles of other dancers and improvise with them. While the performance was held at JPMorgan Chase’s lower Manhattan headquarters, the program was broadcast to two other sites, Boston, Massachusetts and Tempe, Arizona.
Residencies continued at York Correctional Institution for Women in Connecticut and Delores J. Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in Delaware. The York Program expanded to include on-going classes for the women with monthly guest teachers being provided by Avodah. Avodah was pleased to receive funding from the George A. and Grace L. Long Foundation, The Marshall-Reynolds Foundation to Pacem in Terris for Avodah, The Chester W. Kitchings Foundation and The Bodenwein Public Benevolent Foundation. The theme for this year’s presentation was “Transitions”.
The theme of “Transitions” was very appropriate for Avodah as JoAnne Tucker, founding director of Avodah decided to retire at the end of the season. Julie Gayer was appointed new Artistic Director and JoAnne was delighted to begin mentoring her over the summer.
On February 29th, JoAnne hosted a party for Avodah dancers and collaborators throughout the years at her home in Jersey City. Several brought spouses or children and many unable to attend sent their favorite Avodah memory. It was great fun for JoAnne to see so many different generations of Avodah dancers in the same room sharing their Avodah experiences.
The final project of the season was a Summer Intensive Week Long Workshop on using Movement, Percussioin, and Storytelling to Promote Intercultural Harmony with scholarships provided by the Laura Jane Musser Fund. Faculty included, JoAnne, Kezia Gleckman Hayman, Newman Taylor Baker, Regina Ress, Julie Gayer and Libbie Mathes. Held at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado it was a fitting place for JoAnne to complete her thirty year tenure as Artistic Director of Avodah.
JoAnne had attended Perry-Mansfield in 1958 where as a teenager she was exposed to its outstanding dance program. Helen Tamiris was guest teacher/choreographer that summer and JoAnne was selected to perform in a piece Tamiris created called “Dance for Walt Whitman”. The experience of being in Colorado and working with Helen Tamiris helped shape JoAnne’s decision to become a dancer and choreographer. Over the years she often returned to vacation in the Colorado Rockies. JoAnne now lives with her husband Murray in Steamboat Springs and is an active Board Member of Perry-Mansfield.
During this transition year, Avodah taught several workshops. In October, Julie Gayer, Newman Taylor Baker, and Kezia Gleckman Hayman led a special workshop for Avodah Job Corps that included yoga, percussion, and movement exercises to help build community among the young work volunteers. Also in October, Gleckman Hayman and Gayer guided a Dance Midrash workshop entitled “…and Jacob wrestled” at the Lishmah Conference held at Temple Emanu-el. In December 2005, Gayer and Gleckman Hayman also guided a Dance Midrash workshop for the rabbinical and cantorial students of Rabbi Norman Cohen’s “Creating Modern Midrash” class. During the class, Avodah guided the students in movement and improvisation exercises that helped to bring alive another interpretation of text from Leviticus concerning cleanliness.
Meanwhile, the company, including Gayer, Connie Procopio, and Amy Osgood began working on a new work based on “The Mikvah Project,” a photography exhibit by Janice Rubin and Leah Lax that was on display at the Museum at Hebrew Union College. The piece, with original music by Newman Taylor Baker, was performed in a concert at Hebrew Union College on January 6, 2005. Gleckman Hayman also restaged “M’Chamocha” and “Hallelu,” both choreographed by JoAnne Tucker.
After receiving grants from Bodenwein Public Benevolent Fund and the Grace A. and George L. Long Foundation with the help of Community Partners in Action and the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut, Avodah was able to continue its work at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut, including a weeklong residency in March, 2005, ongoing classes, and a new transition program that awards scholarships to women participants in the Avodah residency who are released from York and would like to continue studying dance. Furthermore, Avodah received support from The Apostles and Mission Fund of the Episcopal Church of Saints Matthew and Anthony as well as The Marshall-Reynolds Foundation with the help of Pacem in Terris. With this support, Avodah was able to host another weeklong residency and continue its ongoing classes at Delores Baylor Correctional Facility for Women in Delaware. During Avodah’s residency at Baylor in April 2005, Avodah volunteered at the New Castle County Juvenile Detention Center, teaching a special workshop and performing for about 25 young women. Christin Carlow joined Procopio, Gayer, and Osgood as part of Avodah for both residencies, during which the theme was “Rituals of Transformation.”
In the Spring of 2005, Avodah led a two day Conflict Resolution through Movement residency at Oliver Street School. Avodah met with three fifth grade classes, taught movement workshops based on stories from around the world, and guided the children to create their own movements. Avodah also performed for the fifth and sixth grades with Newman Taylor Baker.
Avodah’s Board of Directors was joined by Mary Ann Wilner.
Avodah hired an intern in the summer of 2005. Tracy Podell, a recent graduate of NYU, assisted Julie Gayer with grantwriting, publicity, and administrative work throughout the summer.
During the Fall of 2005, Avodah performed at Central Synagogue in New York City during the service for the holiday of Sukkoth. The Ensemble integrated its dances into the service, performing “M’Chamocha,” “Hallelu,” a new work choreographed by Julie Gayer, “Hashkivenu,” and a piece performed with the religious school students based on the four species.
In December, Julie Gayer was chosen as a choreographer to participate in “Newsteps,” an emerging choreographer series at Mulberry Street Theater in New York City. Amy Osgood was also chosen to present her work at the performance.
In 2005, Avodah received a generous grant from The J. Walton Bissell Foundaiton that supported the continued and expanded work at the York Correctional institution in Connecticut. Avodah also received generous support from the Bodenwein Public Benevolent Fund and the Grace A. and George L. Long Foundation with the help of Community Partners in Action and the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut. In addition, Avodah received support for its programming at Baylor Correctional in Delaware from The Apostles and Mission Fund of the Episcopal Church of Saints Matthew and Anthony as well as The Marshall-Reynolds Foundation with the help of Pacem in Terris. Avodah was able to produce the 2006 residencies with Regina Ress, professional storyteller, as a guest artist. The theme for the residencies that took place in March and April of 2006 was “Peace in the Midst of Chaos,” based on a story told by Ress. In Connecticut, during the performance, a woman participant translated one of Ress’ stories into Spanish and performed alongside her, thus including many native Spanish speakers in the audience.
In May 2006, Avodah was invited to perform as “praise dancers” for a wedding ceremony in Brooklyn, New York. The dancers performed two dances, an opening dance that blessed the space and the entrance of the bride, as well as an ending dance that blessed the bride and groomette. The dances were upbeat and joyful and incorporated African dance, modern dance, and hip hop.