Kol B’isha, a dance performance five years in the making, opened Thursday night at Linda Austin’s Performance Works Northwest for a four-night showing as part of the Alembic Residency Co-Production series. Translating literally from Hebrew to mean “voice within—or that exists from inside—woman,” Jennifer Gwirtz’s strikingly meaningful work culminates in a post-performance panel discussion on the traditional Jewish custom surrounding women’s voices, featuring Rabbi Ariel Stone and other distinguished speakers.
Choreographer Jennifer Gwirtz made her way to Portland from the Jewish day schools of Philadelphia by way of California’s Bay Area, where she pursued a master’s degree at New Genres at San Francisco Art Institute. Through clowning studies with Bill Irwin and Ron Campbell, Gwirtz began dabbling in performance art and puppetry, inspiring her to found the experimental company Right Brain Performance Lab (1998-2017) before returning to her Jewish Roots through studies with American (and also Jewish) postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin. Gwirtz, who is no stranger to the dancemaking process, has been delivering works somewhat consistently for the last 20 years.
While immersed in decidedly Judaic themes such as renewal, religious definitions of nakedness, the cyclical spirit of nature, and the prohibition of women reciting an important holy prayer called the Sh’ma Israel, Kol B’isha also finds its voice in universal concepts such as age, breath, self-acceptance, perseverance, and dismantling systems of oppression. Gwirtz adds a documentarian approach to an otherwise dramatized, experimental, and tableaux-driven performance through projected video interviews of dancers and friends (Robin Napichek, Emma Lugo, and Jessaiah Zuré, to name a few) punctuated with moments of energetic choreography, humor, and lightness. What makes this piece unique, in addition to its Jewish representation uncommon in Portland’s dance scene, is the presence of maturity within her cast. It’s danced by Jennifer Gwirtz, Janet Goulston, and Leora Troper with live music by Eric Stern, and all members of this show are over the age of 50— a refreshing departure from the young, classically trained performers often featured by American dance companies large and small.
Throughout the 75-minute performance, the three dancers don gray, purple, and brown cotton pants, dresses, and tunics, swaying their hair freely while traversing the stage. They alternate between picking up a portable projector to cast visual recordings, covering themselves in heaps of material, breaking into melodic song delivered in partially translated Hebrew passages, and whispering prose into microphones—uttering the common Judaic question, “what is hearing and/or listening?” followed closely by “human beings are resonant animals…” and “voice that is within woman is nakedness.”
Grounded and soft, weaving seamlessly into the floor and up again, the dancers stomp, wiggle, and shout to varying live renditions of an Eastern European-sounding polka while bordered by loose skeins of fabric. When not performing choreography, they explore subtopics such as Darwinism, the evolution of the human windpipe, and why birds can sing the way they do—delivering anecdotes ranging from tragic and solemn to downright punchy, and promising a weekend filled with portraits of people who feel at home in their bodies—the resounding call of women’s voices, triumphant in their disobedience, displaying an American Judaism rooted in matriarchal points of view.
Tickets to Kol B’isha are still available at a sliding-scale range of $12-$20 for in-person and virtual showings. Join Gwirtz and the cast for a Havdalah, the ritual that closes the Jewish Sabbath, at 9 p.m. Saturday, April 29, after the show.