This paper discusses the importance of Russian-born choreographer, theatre director, and teacher Benjamin Zemach (1901-1997) to Los Angeles. It contextualizes the sustained influences of his Jewish heritage, his training with Stanislavsky and Vakhtangov in the Habima Theatre, Russian dance and theatre synthesis and early American modern dance. The article focuses on his work in Los Angeles during two different periods of American culture and politics preceding and following World War ii (1931-35 and 1946-71), examining closely his contributions to Los Angeles Jewish and mainstream dance and theatre through an analysis of his choreographies for the stage and film as well as his teaching methodologies.
Mel Gordon, The Stanislavski Technique (New York, London: Applause Books, 1987), pg. 91. Stanislavsky stressed each actor’s need to discover a personal connection to a character’s inner and outer realities through related physical and emotional memories. Stanislavsky was fascinated with Jewish culture and the causes of anti-Semitism.
Mel Gordon, The Stanislavski Technique, pp. 30-32. Leopold Sulerzhitsky (1872-1916), Stanislavski’s assistant and collaborator for nine years. Author’s note: “prana” (Sanskrit: breath, the life-giving force) corresponds to “ruach,” (Hebrew: breath, wind, or spirit), also the life-giving force as in Genesis 1:1-2.
Elizaveta Surits, “Studios of the Plastic Dance,”Experiment 2, (2006), pg. 148. Chernetskaia had studied with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze in Hellerau and with Elizabeth Duncan and Alexander Sakharoff, who also inspired her to study painting.
From a letter, dated July 15,1929, sent from Graham vacationing in Santa Barbara to Zemach, then in Palestine: “Tell me of you. May you be strong and find in yourself that which you seek. You will find it there, I think just as I think I will find here. Your letter was here when I came home. I was glad. It was like a greeting—Good-night, Benjamin Martha”
In1931, Graham premiered Primitive Mysteries, her abstraction of ritual, and Doris Humphrey premiered Shakers, about the American Christian sect whose worship included ecstatic singing and dancing. Zemach, from his spiritual and folk dance tradition, presented his own ecstatic ritual, Farewell to Queen Sabbath, at least as early as January, 1931.
Eleanor Barnes, “Zemachs Repeat Concert, Brothers Study Here, To Appear in Hollywood,”Illustrated Daily News, October 6, 1931.
Winifred Aydelotte, “ ‘The Golem’ Is Well Done,”Los Angeles Record, October 12, 1932. The production ran for two weeks at the Egan Theatre Figueroa at Pico, premiering Oct. 11. Golem was the second of Habima’s four main Moscow productions. A myth based on the chief Rabbi of Prague in the 16th century, Judah Loew, concerns his making a large clay creature (Golem) to help protect the Jews against pogroms and banishment from the city.
Naima Prevots, “Benjamin Zemach (b. 1901),”Dancing in the Sun, (Ann Arbor, London: umi Research Press, 1987), pp. 197-218. Prevots’ book should be read for other information not contained in this article on Zemach’s life and work.
Now American Jewish University as of2007, but for this paper will remain as uj. At that time, it was a branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a Conservative denomination rabbinical school and a junior college. Jewish Virtual Library, accessed June 20, 2013. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0020_0_20218.html.
Edward S. Sullivan, “ ‘The Witch’ Scores at Las Palmas,”Hollywood Citizen News, October 10, 1955. “An international company of 40 actors, dancers and singers brings energetic life to the comedy of witchcraft and village intrigue as superbly directed and choreographed by Benjamin Zemach . . . in an ingriguing blend of Grimm Brothers and Gilbert and Sullivan with a Yiddish base.”
From the first formal interview, April,2000, followed by twelve years of conversations as friends. The author distributes The Art of Benjamin Zemach. http://www.yiddishdancevideo.com/zemach_video.html.