Striding assuredly around the perimeter of an airless, humid rehearsal space that once housed sweating bodies devoted to an entirely different form of physical activity, Roni Koresh knows exactly what he wants from the dancers of his eponymous company.
Moving fluidly through the space that once housed the Rittenhouse Square Fitness Club, his signature locks pulled into a bun, Koresh works with the two dancers rehearsing the title piece from Koresh Dance Company’s latest show, Promises I Never Meant to Keep, which opens May 2 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Center City.
Speaking in an encouraging, conspiratorial Israeli lilt as he makes adjustments in their movements, the other eight dancers in the company watch the proceedings in various states of attentive repose. In a 15-minute span, the trio — dancers and director — run through the piece at least five times before Koresh, defying the heat in a plaid scarf and shirt, skinny jeans, high tops and a fisherman’s cap, calls an end to the rehearsal.
Later, in the company’s open office, Koresh delights in showing off what he hopes will be his long-term base of operations. He took over the space last July in a lease-to-own agreement that he says is very close to completion. For him, it was a double beshert. In addition to the space being a longtime temple of physical activity, he explains, renovations revealed that the double-wide building just off Rittenhouse Square was also a theater in a previous incarnation.
“We’ve brought it back to its original purpose — as an artistic venue,” he says with no small amount of pride and satisfaction.
For the 52-year-old native of Yehud, a small town 20 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv, establishing a permanent home for the company he founded in 1991 allows him to focus not just on artistic pursuits, but on the well-being of his dancers.
“Our mission is to grow, to hire more dancers, more staff, more teachers,” he says emphatically. “The purpose of this whole organization is to create jobs for artists. Dancers always have to hold down a few jobs; I want to change that so that this is the only job they need to have. There is nothing desirable about starving for your art.”
Judging by a recent weekday visit, Koresh seems to be providing plenty of employment opportunities. In addition to the rehearsal, activity buzzed in almost every room of the building’s 8,700-plus square feet. In one space, a pre-kindergarten dance class was in session; another housed a session of the company’s youth dance group; and behind a locked door, a recording studio awaited musicians who would be recording music for upcoming dance pieces.
No one seems busier than the grizzled Koresh, who readily acknowledges that between running the day-to-day operations, choreographing shows and teaching dance at University of the Arts, he works seven days a week.
“I’m not happy about it, but it’s necessary until the organization is in a place where I can relinquish some of these jobs,” he says. “And when the deal is finished” for securing ownership of the building, “I might look a lot better in a month.”
The new show, which will feature a multitude of different dance styles and music, from industrial to classical, modern to Israeli folk, is a reflection of Koresh’s hedonistic approach. “I’m a great advocate of, whatever feels right, you should do it,” he says. “The less stylistic I am, the more open I am.”
The variety of styles employed in the show, he says, “is really a very Israeli thing. It’s not one dish — it’s 20 different dishes. You have the red salad, the green salad — it’s a mezze,” the Hebrew word for a sampling of many different preparations.
For the past few years, the closest he has gotten to Israel has been references like this and telling his life story in a talk he calls “Focus on Israel” at pre-show events across the country and for fundraising events like one he did at Old City’s Zahav recently. “I haven’t been back in four years,” he says of his birthplace, where his mother still lives. “Every time I’m going to go, some work comes up, and I can’t say no — we need the money for this space.”
As for the enigmatic title of his latest production, Koresh says that it is open to interpretation, and was designed to get people thinking and talking even before the curtain goes up. Does it signify an oath uttered but never intended to honor, or does it refer to a pledge made and kept long after the original intent has been fulfilled?
For Koresh, it is the latter. When he first came to the United States in 1983, after serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he says, his plan wasn’t that well thought out. Some of his friends and fellow dancers at the Martha Graham Batsheva 2 dance company were going to study in New York City, so he applied for a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, where he was accepted. Barely a year later, Shimon Braun, leader of the Philadelphia dance company Waves Jazz recruited him as a performer.
He has been here ever since, he says bemusedly. “I kept a lot of promises, even though I wasn’t that serious when I said, ‘I’ll be a dancer.’ I never thought, ‘Oh, I’ll own a dance school and a dance company.’ I just wanted to dance!” Three decades later, he is the one calling the tune — and choreographing the dance set to it.