Sept ’08 Spotlight

Eduardo Vilaro was born in Cuba in 1964, his adult face now a striking blend of Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and Chinese gene pools. As the Artistic Director of Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater, Eduardo is committed to exploring all aspects of Latino culture, and as someone with intimate personal knowledge of exile and diaspora, he is determined to include Sephardic Jews in his choreographic mix.

Eduardo gave me special permission to watch a rehearsal of his latest piece Deshar Alhat (Leave Sunday) last month, and even in a bare room with recorded sound, the images were evocative. Deshar Alhat presents twelve dancers (six women and six men) in multiple tableaux which depict a variety of moods, from prayerful to self-lacerating to sensuous, all of them haunting.  Based on what I saw, I have no doubt that the full stage performance, adding lights and costumes, will be magnificent. Also LA songstress Stefani Valadez will be on hand, to add her thrilling voice to the mix of live elements.

Deshar Alhat is one of three new works featured in Ciclos (Cyles), to be presented at the Harris Theater on Randolph on Fri Sept 26 and Sat Sept 27. For tickets, call the Harris Theater box office at 312.334.7777 or visit www.harristheaterchicago.org. For more on Eduardo Vilaro and his company, visit www.lunanegra.org.

ALSO COMING SOON: ONE NIGHT ONLY

Speaking of Spanish, the final film in this year’s International Summer Screening Series is Novia Que Te Vea (Like a Bride), a Mexican film from 1993. The main characters are “Rifke” and “Oshi,” two lifelong friends who meet as teens in a Hashomer Hatzair group. Oshi’s grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Turkey right after WWI, and her enormous Sephardic family still speaks Ladino at home. Rifke’s parents came from Poland right before WWII. Her tiny Ashkenazi family, consisting of Rifke, her parents, her brother, and her mother’s brother (the one family member they know of who managed to survive the Holocaust), still speaks Yiddish at home. Most of the time the girls speak Spanish when they’re alone together or with siblings and friends, but there’s lots of Hebrew in the synagogue, and anyone who’s ever belonged to a Zionist youth group will recognize Hebrew songs like “Erev Ba” and, of course, “Ha Tikvah.”

It’s fascinating to watch so many familiar plot elements played out in this new context, but I don’t want to reduce Like a Bride to a didactic exercise. The characters are fully inhabited, and the cavalcade of costumes (from the 1920s through the 1960s) is thoroughly rewarding in and of itself! Kudos to director Guita Schyfter for fluidly incorporating “melting pot” debates into an insightful coming-of-age dramedy.

The International Summer Screening Series is cosponsored by Cinema/Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center, in collaboration with participating Midwestern consular offices. Like a Bride will show one time only at 6:30 PM on Weds Sept 17 in the Claudia Cassidy Theatre at the Chicago Cultural Center. The screening is free but space is limited, so come early if you want to be sure of a seat.

CURTAIN CALL: STAGES 2008

“There was two little minks in the woods. A hunter comes by and shoots one and aims at the other. The first mink turns to his friend and says, ‘See you in shul.’” Belle Barth’s Borscht Belt humor typically involved body parts, so this may well be the cleanest joke she ever told, but I think it captures her savvy, self-mocking schvester style. Belle is the missing link between Sophie Tucker and Bette Midler, and I thoroughly enjoyed the new show Belle Barth: If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends, presented last month as part of STAGES 2008 (an annual festival of new musicals performed at the Theatre Building Chicago on Belmont).

The book for Belle Barth was written by National-Louis University professor Joanne Koch, with original songs by Ilya Levinson (music) and Owen Kalt (lyrics). I called Joanne afterwards and she told me she started researching Belle’s life when she wrote the play Sophie, Totie & Belle with Sarah Blacher Cohen in the 90s. Although it was a hit Off-Broadway, no one in Chicago ever mounted a full production of Sophie, Totie & Belle. After that, Joanne wrote the book for the musical American Klezmer with Levinson and Kalt. They presented it at STAGES 2004, and polished it up in several LA-based productions. A Chicago production is planned for 2009 with hopes for a subsequent national tour.

We typically think of the 1950s as the calm before the storm, but the winds that eventually blew Donna Reed’s skirts to smithereens didn’t gather momentum over night. Watching Belle Barth, I was always aware of two more Jewish-American women, also big and brassy, waiting in the wings: Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan. Did either of them ever see Belle perform live? I can’t say, but I’m willing to bet they both had copies of her best-selling LPs.

TZIVI’s DVD COLLECTION: Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival

 

“Velt mit Veltelech” (“worlds within worlds”), that’s how Alan Todres described his childhood in Cape Town to me, his accent still strongly South African even though he’s lived in the USA for over thirty years now. When their mother died in 1998, Alan and his brother Philip began collaborating on a musical festival in her honor. Starting small, the Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival has now grown into an annual event that draws people from all around South Africa and beyond. It is so popular that it has expanded to include a weeklong Yiddish film festival in Johannesburg, and a Yiddish language retreat (called Ot Azoy!), similar in structure to American KlezKamps.

 

Last year, a crew from South Africa’s public television station filmed the 2007 festival, and Alan showed the DVD they produced at the Wilmette Public Library on July 22. While technically professional, the 30-minute DVD is definitely heymish. Top quality performers with strong voices and plenty of charisma share the stage with youngsters who can’t quite pronounce the Yiddish vowels, but enjoy the effort nonetheless. With the holidays approaching, I can definitely see families joining together for a living room sing-along.

To order the DVD, send Philip an e-mail message (cjsa@icon.co.za) or call him (from Chicago, call 011-27-21-434-9691). The cost is $23.00 for each copy of the DVD, and all profits from the sale of DVDs will go to the Cape Jewish Seniors Association (a registered not-for-profit welfare organization).

Kudos to Frieda Landau, coordinator of the summer series sponsored by Chicago YIVO. Maybe she can ask Alan to show his DVD again next summer, and we can all sing-along!

*****

Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.

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