Ballet at Kennedy Center
by Lisa Traiger
Shira Lanyi didn’t know what to expect the day in 2009 when she walked into a rehearsal with Ma Cong, a new choreographer for the Richmond Ballet. The then 21-year-old young dancer, who attended the Rudlin Torah Academy in Richmond until ninth grade, had been a company member only briefly at that point.
When choreographer Cong came in and Lanyi, now completing her seventh season with the company, recalled, “He’s Chinese, he has a very thick Chinese accent and he’s from Tulsa, Okla.,” where he was then a principal dancer with the Tulsa Ballet. Then, Lanyi said, “He started talking about the Jewish ghettos in World War II. I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ I was so thrilled when he mentioned the subject matter [because] I always felt that being Jewish was such a special thing to me and my family was very strongly affected by the Holocaust, so it’s something that’s very close to me.”
The work that Cong created that summer of 2009, Ershter Valse, has become a repertory standard that the ballet has performed at its home season as well as on a 2012 international tour to the Linbury Studio Theatre of London’s Royal Opera House. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the company has been invited to the Kennedy Center as part of the prestigious Ballet Across America series, which brings regional ballet companies from around the country to the nation’s premier performing arts venue. The work the center requested? Ershter Vals.
Richmond Ballet’s artistic director Stoner Winslett said she had Cong on a short list of choreographers she wanted to work with. That summer he crafted a brief 15-minute section of the work that would become Ershter Vals. She asked him back to extend the piece that proved so successful.
“He was originally inspired by the music,” Winslett said last week, about the Yiddish and European folk melodies that accompany the work. Cong selected songs that came out of the Jewish ghettos in a recording by KlezRoym, an Italian klezmer troupe that blends Sephardic and even jazz influences in its music. “When he researched it,” Winslett said, “he realized it was based on these poems from the ghettos of World War II and that the tunes were folk tunes.”
Cong said in a 2010 interview, the musicians “managed to add a lot of flavor – a jazz flavor – so the music sounds not dark at all. It sounds very, very peaceful and joyful.” Winslett added that Ershter Vals, which means last dance, is “not really a Holocaust-themed work: it’s much more about humanity seeking light, even in the darkest of times, and that was one of our darkest times in history. It’s an uplifting piece.”
For Lanyi, who has balanced intensive six-day a week training at the School of Richmond Ballet since she was 8, the chance to dance in a work that is so close to her heritage was important. “The two most important things in my life [are] my Jewish identity and dancing,” she said. “It’s challenging at times to balance them … and sometimes here it’s very difficult.” A dress rehearsal might fall on Yom Kippur, or a performance on the night of the Passover seder. Lanyi, whose parents live in Rehovot, Israel, six months out of the year these days, credits the ballet for being understanding of her religious observances, even amid a schedule that features more than 50 days of performances at home in Richmond.
Lanyi noted that her first ballet contract came from the Israel Ballet in Tel Aviv, when she was just 18. She decided not to take it at the time, preferring to stay close to home in Richmond. But she travels yearly to Israel, to visit her parents, an aunt, a sister and many other family members there, where she also takes classes with the dancers of the Israel Ballet to stay in shape.
Her father, she said, attended Hebrew University as a college student in the 1960s and his sister, Lanyi’s aunt, lives in Savyon, where she served as mayor a few years ago. Lanyi’s parents maintain an affiliation with Chabad of Virginia, and Lanyi shared how memorable it was celebrating her bat mitzvah atop Masada.
Even after dancing Ershter Vals for five years, Lanyi said she continues to find new depths in Cong’s choreography and in the heartfelt musical accompaniment. “Ma shows those relationships and the happy moments and the love that these people had for each other within the walls of the ghettos,” she explained. “I think it was a really interesting concept, because a lot of times, you do see these World War II videos about the depression and the sadness, which we all know existed, but we don’t often hear what was happening among the Jewish people themselves. I think [Ershter Vals] is a really great concept … about how they maintained those bright days, even in a time of darkness.”
Ershter Vals with the Richmond Ballet will be onstage at the Kennedy Center Opera House in the District, June 4-5. Tickets, $15-$69, are available by calling 202-467-4600 or at www.kennedy-center.org.