American-born Israeli choreographer Barak Marshall has returned to dance after a forced pandemic hiatus.
Marshall is staging his piece “Monger” four times this year, including a stop in Pittsburgh as part of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Light in the Dark” season opener.
He is excited about the timing.
“It’s 15 years after I created it,” Marshall said. “It was not planned, but I think that’s the nature of dance. It has a cool dynamic and I’m so grateful to be able to work.”
Despite not initially intending to enter the field, Marshall has a storied career in dance.
His piece “Aunt Leah” won first prize at the Suzanne Dellal Centre’s Shade of Dance Choreography Competition in 1995. Three years later, his work “Emma Goldman’s Wedding” swept the Bagnolet International Competition in Paris, the Prix d’Auteur, the Bonnie Byrd Award and the ADAMI Award. His company toured Europe before he was invited to become Israel’s Batsheva Dance Co.’s first in-house choreographer in 1999.
Marshall’s career has defied his late entry into the field — he studied social theory and philosophy at Harvard University before immigrating to Israel in 1994 — and his occasional hiatuses from the arena.
The choreographer’s mother is Israel’s Yemenite prima ballerina Margalit Oved. He traveled with her as a child and studied music and theater as a youth but didn’t plan to pursue a career in the arts.
When his mother was appointed the artistic director of the Inbal Dance Theatre in Israel, Marshall’s father urged him to accompany her. Six months after the two moved to the Jewish state, his aunt Leah died.
“During shiva, in my grief, I would go back to the studio. I closed the studio door, put on music and tried to imprint everything so I would not forget it, so she would remain living with me — how she would clean the floor, how she would curse, how she would bless, how she would kiss me. I put on music, and I was crying and I was mourning,” he said.
A friend who secretly watched from a balcony in the studio suggested he turn the movement into a dance, which became “Aunt Leah.”
Marshall created “Monger” during a pause from dancing.
The choreographer broke his leg in 2000 and couldn’t properly walk for a year and a half. He moved back to Los Angeles, the city he called home before relocating to Israel, and didn’t dance again for eight years. It was during this hiatus from the stage that he wrote “Monger.”
The piece explores the dynamics of hierarchy, power and dignity and the compromises that one makes to survive. It’s inspired by the work of Polish novelist and painter Bruno Shultz, Jean Genet’s play “The Maids” and Robert Altman’s film “Gosford Park.”
“It’s not an easy road to navigate as an American in Israel. I think it was an incredible time in my life but also very trying, to be a polite American in an impolite society,” he recalled.
Marshall also drew inspiration for the piece from the world of dance, which he said is hierarchical.
“But I don’t think I can give you an origin story because I think there are many origin stories, as there are with all my works,” he said, noting that his choreography involves a collection of influences that resonate with one another to help create a new story.
Marshall said he was involved in the selection of dancers for the production of “Monger” in Pittsburgh, a city whose Jewishness surprised him.
“I didn’t realize how Jewish the city was,” he said. “It was surprising to see Orthodox Jews on a plane to Pittsburgh. I pretend that I’m worldly but don’t know the United States very well. I also know the Tree of Life. It’s fascinating to see anytime a Jewish community is existing or thriving and see the factors that have allowed for that.”
Marshall said his Jewish identity is the main influence on his work, noting his father’s background — a Bronx, New York, native whom he calls a “Catskills crooner” — and his mother’s heritage, which he referred to as “a rich dowry” from which he’s able to draw.
That doesn’t mean, though, that he hasn’t faced challenges.
“There was an old guard that didn’t like that I was using my Mizrahi heritage,” he noted. “There was definitely a pushback. It was, ironically, European presenters that gave me my credentials.”
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Adam W. McKinney said that the company is “overjoyed” to feature “Monger” in its 2023-‘24 season opener, “Light in the Dark.”
“‘Monger’s’ core message and roots in religious and cultural diversity perfectly align with our mission and values,” McKinney said. “‘Monger’ will also help us collectively commemorate, promote healing and create community connections on the fifth anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre.”
Marshall, too, is pleased to be working with PBT and McKinney.
“It really speaks to his vision and the ability of the dancers,” Marshall said. “I think he’s really trying to open up this company to many different styles and to really be inclusive.”
PBT is staging “Light in the Dark” Oct. 27-29 at the Byham Theater. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.