Tapestries of movement, history and human connection: Rachel Linsky’s ‘Inspired by Weinberg’ at the Vilna Shul

Dancer Cassie Wang. Photo by Nicole Volpe.
Dancer Cassie Wang. Photo by Nicole Volpe.

The Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, Boston, MA.
September 10, 2023. 

A former mentor once said, critiquing a review of mine, “where’s the context?”. As I’ve grown as a critic, I better understand the importance of the context in which a dance work is created and presented. Every so often, I see a work which brightly highlights that importance. 

Inspired by Weinberg presented the latest installments in ZACHOR from Boston-based choreographer Rachel Linsky – for me, certainly those kind of works. ZACHOR is a series preserving and honoring the memory of World War II Holocaust survivors through dance. These most recent works in the series, Z’L and Forgotten Flame, shine a light on the life and work of composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Linsky created these works with support from the Jewish Arts Collaborative and Combined Jewish Philanthropies Community Creative Fellowship, as well as The Beker Foundation.

Yet, the total experience of Inspired by Weinberg, from stepping into the Vilna Shul to stepping out, was much more than the presentation of these two works. It was an education of its own: on the Shul as a space of community and shared faith, on the history that scaffolded these two works, and a chance for we audience members to try out some of the movement in our own bodies. 

The first part of the Inspired by Weinberg experience had us in the audience hearing from Elyse Winick, director of arts and culture at the Vilna Shul, to learn more about the space. We learned that community members, immigrants of the Jewish faith, together raised the funds to build the space for themselves: as a place to gather, pray, learn and much more. 

This community wasn’t isolated from other communities in the area, Winick affirmed – for example, the pews came from a former Baptist congregation nearby. In 1985, once there was no longer a community to support the Shul, it closed its doors. Yet, from the efforts of local leaders, 20 odd years later, the space was restored and began a new life as a Jewish cultural center. These were all layers of history and human connection that we were together peeling back, learning as we did so. 

Discussion on elements of the space, such as on the stained glass windows and the Ram’s horn, taught me even more about the faith and culture that are this place’s foundation. One might ask why all of this mattered when it came to the works of dance art that we were about to experience – fair question. Yet, this learning absolutely deepened and broadened my experience of those works. I took them in as not isolated works of art, yet those enmeshed in layers of living history. 

Then came Z’L – a dance film shot in the very pews where we just sat. Linsky, introducing the work, explained how the title is a Hebrew honorific that comes after the names of those who have passed. In the plural form, it translates to “may their memory be a blessing”: offering the sense of multiplication, of legacy rippling out far past the life of one person. In the process of creating the work, Linsky pondered on how so many lost in the Holocaust have gone unnamed – and thus may never have their names written with this honoric. Yet, we can wish for the blessings of their memory. 

The score for the work is Weinberg’s 1949 Moldovan Rhapsody (recorded by Adam Millstein, violin, and Dominic Cheli, piano). It’s one of many of his works that may very well been much more well-known and respected if not for the antisemitism humming through his time. Weinberg’s music had clear Klezmer themes, thus rich with his Jewish faith and culture. The silencing and targeting that emerged from this bigotry did not stop him from creating such work. That is another way in which the work creates a sense of remembering and honoring what was forgotten and silenced.  

The film opens with one older woman (Skye Robinson) moving alone in the space. She sits in a pew and rubs her hands together, almost with a sense of ferocity and anxiousness. The space is dim, bathed in a grey light of twilight (by Director of Photography Ernesto Galan). The film soon cuts to the space in a much brighter light, filled with a whole ensemble of dancers. 

They move together through and around the pews, embodying the qualities that Linsky had also described in her introduction to the work: torque, opposition, angularity, and asymmetry. These qualities characterize Yiddish folk dances, Linsky had explained. Dancing in pairs, opposition and torque allow ensemble members to elegantly counterbalance each other’s weight. 

Also notable is gestural shaping of hands, establishing a continuity with the older woman. The emphasis on hands also had me thinking of legacy, of one’s work in the world, to which the title refers. Their gestures create a sense of playfulness, even of bliss, but also deep sorrow: emotions on opposite sides of a spectrum that nevertheless come together in the “Jewish mood” that Linsky had described. 

Gaze is also prominent and powerful in the film. In one memorable moment, dancers lower into a pew – except for one who remains standing, looking up to the skylight directly above her, receiving grace and blessings from above. Meeting each other’s eyes, they connect. At other times their gaze remains more internal – their moving experience more solitary. 

Also resonant for me was how Robinson’s character came with a deep sense of connection to the past, and the younger ensemble of dancers with a sense of stepping forward into the future. The film cuts back and forth between them, thus weaving together past, present, and future. A joyful, vibrant section of the ensemble dancing together in a circle enhance that sense of continuity and circularity. To end, Robinson joins hands with the ensemble. The past lives and breathes in the present, and will live on in the future – through us, through how we work in the world and move forward together. 

In my own present, at the time, little had I known that ensemble members were in the space with me, even a few sitting in front of and besides me. Linsky called them to stand so that we could applaud their artistry. A sidecar train of thought had me wondering what it might be like to see the work danced in the space before our very eyes, and wondering why Linsky chose to instead make it a film. 

Maybe that’s something we can enjoy another time, maybe not. I trust that Linsky had good reasons for the choices she made, just as I have that trust of all artists. That was, again, a sidecar thought, and the main car was astonishment at and appreciation for the rich, and resonant work that I had just experienced. 

Then we saw Forgotten Flame, choreographed and performed by participants in Linsky’s ZACHOR Teen Intensive. Linsky also introduced this work, explaining how the score of Weinberg’s that these teenaged artists chose to realize in movement was Movement II of his Cello Concertino. This composition lived in a drawer for decades, never to be heard during his lifetime, only to decades later resurface in the archives of Russian musicologist Manashir Yakubov. 

Thus, for those decades the work only lived in Weinberg’s own memory – only in the fire of his own creative process. Short solos in the work illustrate that sense of solitude. Even in group sections, the ensemble moves in lines traveling in opposite directions, the dancers also not meeting each other’s eyes: missed connections, moving past experience that could have been. 

Another aspect of elegantly subtle narrative is a beginning and ending of one dancer tucking sheet music away into a drawer. I felt a sense of loss here, of the beauty of this music played out loud that could have been. Choreography also calls upon those quintessential Yiddish folk dance qualities: torque, opposition, asymmetry, angularity. 

These young artists move through all that with kinetic awareness and integration that feels quite impressive for their young years. Commendably, they ride the score’s deep emotion with immersed feeling, yet not the melodrama that artists of their age often create and perform with (I know that I did!). 

After the work, Linsky not only had them stand so that we could applaud their work, but they had an opportunity to share a bit about their experience of making the work and what it meant for them. It warmed my heart to see this space for youth, for the next generation, having a concerted voice. 

Then came a chance for everyone to dance. We gathered in a community room to move together, Linsky leading us in some basic Yiddish folk dance steps. We danced to a live Klezmer band. This was a kinetic layer of that day’s learning and aesthetic experience – us taking on history and culture in our own bodies. We laughed at our (literal) missteps and cheered on our dancing accomplishments. There was fruit salad, black and white cookies, rugelach, and soft drinks for us to share after dancing; at the risk of cliché, it’s hungry and thirsty work! 

I stepped out of the Shul still peeling back and pondering at all of these layers: of space, movement, music, history, faith, culture, community, and more. Such layers can stack upon a foundation of dedicated research, curious collaboration, and allowance for the time necessary to let works become what they will be – that which artists like Linsky are intentional about. I look forward to seeing what further layers we get to investigate in future installments of ZACHOR. Such learning and discovery is nothing short of a gift. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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