It’s closing in on 9 p.m. and the 15 dancers, sleek but sweaty in their black leotards and black high heels, are pacing themselves through a tedious rehearsal in the basement of Childers Hall on the Howard University campus.
They’ve had a full day of academics and dance. Their last class is with visiting Israeli dancer and choreographer Ella Rothschild, who is Howard’s dance department artist-in-residence this semester.
“Again,” Rothschild tells the dancers who are maneuvering through a set composed of a dozen cardboard boxes resembling a futuristic city. They walk through their patterns one more time. Then the choreographer stands up, her dark hair loosely collected in a messy ponytail, comes over and adjusts the dancers’ formation, moving one a step over to the left, another, slightly more forward, and a third further back.
“OK, one more time,” she says. And off they go — not perfect, but better. The two hardest things for dancers to do, she acknowledges as they keep walking: stand still or walk naturally on stage.
They are preparing to perform at the Edlavitch Washington DC Jewish Community Center on Sunday afternoon in a section from Rothschild’s 2015 work “12 Postdated Checks,” which deals with the housing crisis in urban areas, particularly for those under 40. It’s an offering in the center’s monthlong Israeli Arts and Cultural Festival.
Rothschild has watched her peers — fellow artists — struggle to find livable and affordable apartments in and around Tel Aviv, and she was inspired to make a work about this story that is common in many urban cities around the world, including here in Washington.
Born on the moshav Ein Vered outside of Tel Aviv, Rothschild didn’t fall in love with the idea of being a dancer, like so many girls. She was simply good at it.
“I danced in the high school dance department in Kfar Saba. And there I blossomed. I had great teachers in ballet and people who influenced me as a person, not only as a dancer.”
She ended up at an audition for a small new dance company because the rest of the girls in her class were going.
“And I got in,” she said, still sounding a bit amazed. She was 17. The company, Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company, was just breaking through, embarking on international touring with innovative and highly theatrical dance works.
“I grew up in that company,” Rothschild said. “I was a rebel, so the company fit my personality. We were acting and dancing and I always had a special character in the shows. It was like a small family, but it was very challenging and I also still didn’t know if I wanted to be a dancer.”
Now 32, she’s sure she wants to be a dancer — and choreographer. After four years with Pinto and Pollak, she moved to Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s largest and most renowned contemporary troupe, helmed by preeminent choreographer Ohad Naharin.
“It was exciting, full of new things,” Rothschild said. “The choreography was not theatrical at all. It was all about body and movement and abstraction. It was interesting in an opposite way. I also started to create there because there was a program called Batsheva Dance Creates.”
“I started to make small fantasies, what I wanted. It was my playground. And then I understood that I wanted to be a dancer.”
Introducing the Ohad Naharin-invented movement language called Gaga to her Howard students has been an exercise in expanding her own knowledge and passing it along to a new generation.
“Gaga uses sensations and images to make your body more aware. One crucial element is to connect movement to pleasure,” she said about this nontraditional teaching and compositional method.
In a Gaga class, all mirrors in the studio are covered and dancers take instruction from the teacher but do not perform specific steps or moves. Instead, she provides descriptive images that encourage the dancers to move, explore and expand their physical and intellectual awareness and push themselves into new realms. They might focus on the sensation of their skin or undulating their arms like cooked spaghetti.
Senior dance major Vicqueria Smith had never heard of Gaga before, nor had she ever met anyone from Israel. “It has changed my dancing,” the South Florida native said. “I’m now learning to be more comfortable with improvisation and my movements feel more free and self-confident.”
Baltimore native Tyla Hairston, a sophomore dance major, calls her new teacher “simply amazing.” She added, “Covering up the mirrors forces you to feel your body. You can take it inward without being critical of yourself.”
Hairston is one of the few students in the group who has traveled to Israel, on a family vacation three years ago. That experience has become more vivid and even more personal now that she’s heard about Rothschild’s experiences living there and working as a dancer.
Howard’s Dance Department head coordinator Royce Zackery said he has seen the students blossom under Rothschild. And they have also expanded their world view.
“I’ve definitely noticed more openness, more conversation, again, especially because Ella has really talked about the work and how it deals with issues of housing and gentrification and poverty and not having.”
Ella Rothschild: Retrospective and Gaga Class, Nov. 13 at 2:00 p.m., Community Hall, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St., NW. Email [email protected] to be added to the waitlist.