British-Israeli choreographer Rachel Erdos on apples, ‘Alma’ and aliyah

Jason Ignacio and Kathryn Pilkington perform in Rachel Erdos’ Alma at the Kennedy Center Jan. 30-31.
Jason Ignacio and Kathryn Pilkington perform in Rachel Erdos’ Alma at the Kennedy Center Jan. 30-31.

Dancer Jason Ignacio shoves an apple in Kathryn Pilkington’s mouth. Eighty more green apples are scattered across the stage. Standing, Pilkington holds an armful more of the fruit that she unexpectedly drops when Ignacio invades her personal bubble. Thus begins Alma, a duet by British-Israeli choreographer Rachel Erdos.

Next Friday and Saturday, this 2009 work by Tel Aviv-based Erdos returns to the District for performances at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater by the international touring troupe Company E. Physically inventive, with shades of animalistic eroticism and violence entwined amid the dynamic interplay of the two dancers, Alma looks at the knitting together and unraveling of a relationship. The choreography by Erdos, who has her two dancers manipulating, tossing, gathering, balancing and rolling apples around their bodies and the stage, was the first piece she created after making aliyah in 2002.

Alma is still performed frequently in Israel and around the world, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Spain and Italy, as well as here in Washington, D.C., where Company E makes its home when not touring for the State Department.

Dancers Ignacio and Pilkington pitch, bobble, balance, roll, gather and cradle the fruit in futile attempts to connect. Biblical Adam and Eve come to mind, which is fine for Erdos though not at all her intent. “It’s an obvious connection with the apples, of course,” the dance maker agreed. “But, to me, it’s about a relationship: two people who don’t know each other but try to get to know each other. There’s the element of how to attract one another, how to share.”

The apples came about because Erdos wanted a living physical element on stage: “I wanted something that you can eat, that had a physical quality. … So the question became: What do I eat? What’s something you can play with, that you can exchange like when you were children?” She kept returning to apples. A little research revealed that in Kazakh, “alma” means apple. It is also a common woman’s name in Erdos’ ancestral Hungary. Thus, seeds for Alma, with its 80 green apples, were planted.

Erdos grew up in Newcastle – Billy Eliot country – where she began her ballet studies as a child, but soon fell in love with modern dance and the process of creating her own dances. “Expressing myself through movement, this was something that really interested me. I had enjoyed performing but it was the creative aspect from a really young age that took my fancy,” she said.

While Israel’s, particularly Tel Aviv’s, dance scene has become a hotbed of creativity, Erdos didn’t move to the Jewish state for its dance. In Newcastle, she was the only Jewish girl in school. She moved, she said, because, “Growing up I always felt slightly different from everyone else.” After earning a degree in dance from the acclaimed Laban Centre in England, Erdos settled in Tel Aviv where, even with her rudimentary Hebrew, she was hired almost immediately to teach in a high school dance program.

There is something unique about the choreography coming out of Israel, said Company E founder and director Paul Gordon Emerson, who also choreographs. “We joke about it being ‘something in the water,’ because the uniformly high level of work is astonishing.”

He counts Erdos among the dozens of world-class dance makers who are Israeli and make their home there or, frequently these days, abroad, for ever greater opportunities.

Although Erdos insists that her pieces have no political agenda, “when you live [in Israel] it definitely changes you,” she said. “When I arrived, I was much more self-conscious, less confident. Something about Israelis having confidence made me realize that I would like to be like them, or else I would not survive.”

Now even her work has changed to become, she allows, more “Israeli,” whatever that means in contemporary dance terms. “My work in a way is Israeli,” Erdos said, “but there’s another side because I come from somewhere else. People are attracted to Israeli-made work because [Israeli choreographers] know what they want to say and have the guts to say it. Now, whether that is connected to the political situation, some people say yes, others, no. But, because people feel they live in the moment, because life in Israel could be dangerous, you say what you want and do what you want now.”

Alma will be performed by Company E on Jan. 30-31, 7:30 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Tickets, at $35, are available at 202-467-4600 or

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