Jewish Dancer Examines His Indian Side


Choreographer Lionel Popkin says that for the last number of years he has found that questions about the Indian side of his heritage have been surfacing not only in his personal life, but in his work as well.

When Lionel Popkin returns to Philadelphia to perform his latest modern dance composition at the Painted Bride on March 8 and 9, he will be unpacking a lot of baggage.

Popkin is the son of a Jewish father and an Indian mother, and he was raised Jewish. But for the last number of years, he says, he has found that questions about the Indian side of his heritage have been surfacing not only in his personal life, but in his work as well. So, he did what many artists would do: he incorporated the process into his work.

The result, the full-length trio, Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is, Popkin says, his opportunity to “explore something about lineage and legacy — to source India from a cultural standpoint.”

And he was uniquely positioned to cultivate source material into an original composition: As a professor of choreography at the University of California, Los Angeles, he had unfettered access to the university’s extensive archives of his chosen inspiration, the modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis.

Popkin says that exploring aspects of his self-described “hybridized upbringing in Indiana” through the career of St. Denis “seemed like a nice way to investigate what cultural sourcing is — why do it and who does it.” This way, he explains, the purpose of his exploration “is not to just be about me, but to have a conversation about the source itself.”

St. Denis was indeed a transformational figure in American dance history. Beginning in the early 1900s, she gained fame for introducing elements of Asian dance into modern choreography, both on her own and with her company, Denishawn, which she ran with her husband, Ted Shawn. St. Denis’ approach became hugely successful, and she counted among her students Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Louise Brooks. She and Shawn were also two of the founders of Jacob’s Pillow, the annual summer dance festival in the Berkshires.

In Popkin’s eyes, St. Denis, who created an entire career out of appropriating ideas from another culture, was the ideal source material, and would allow him to continue the exploration of his own identity that he began with the 2009 composition, There Is an Elephant in this Dance. One of the more notable elements of the piece featured dancers in various assemblages of elephant costumes as a way of evoking the Hindu god Ganesh, revered as the Remover of Obstacles.

While St. Denis is an undeniably important figure in modern dance history, she is also undeniably obscure to the vast majority of audience members.

Popkin did write a brief synopsis of her life to put into the program, but he emphasizes that for him, “the trick to this piece is to make it accessible to someone who knows nothing about her, but also filled with pleasure and joy for people who know a lot about her. I liken it to those children’s movies that also appeal to adults — they work on two different levels.”

Although Popkin focused on exploring interpretive expressions of his Indian heritage, he has also given a nod to his more established Jewish identity. Instead of the more expected East Asian-inflected music, he instructed his composer, Guy Klu­cevsek, to create a score for accordion and violin. Odds are good that the Painted Bride will be the only place in town where you can watch an Indian-influenced dance with a klezmer-tinged soundtrack.

Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Painted Bride Art Center
March 8 and 9 at 8 p.m.


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