‘Tov’ Gallops Onto Stage in Blend of Jewish History, Tradition, Dance

Dancers simulating the behavior of horses gallop across the stage, stepping, prancing, tossing their heads as though shaking their manes.  Their performance is mixed with spoken text, music and vocals in “Tov,” a dramatic dance work by choreographer-director Rosanna Gamson linking her Jewish heritage with the attempted reviving of the extinct Tarpan horses by the Germans in the 1930s. The work has its world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall’s REDCAT through March 27.

Gamson was inspired to create this piece after seeing the CHOREA Theatre Association, a Polish company based in Lodz that was visiting Los Angeles, and being struck by each performer’s ability to sing, dance and act. She visited Poland last summer and spent three weeks training with CHOREA (the name is based on the Greek idea of “chorus”). Because
Gamson is half Polish, she asked her father about her relatives. He told her that family members had been horse traders for many generations.

“That surprised me, because horse traders didn’t seem very Jewish to me. But that was the family business, and Poland is a big horse culture,” Gamson said. “Then I came across the story of the Tarpan horses, and things started to stew around in my brain about the reconstruction of an Aryan race of horses. At the same time, I started looking at the underpinnings of eugenics and breeding and thinking about my own ancestors as a tribe, and then everything started stirring together, and it came out in this piece.”

From her research, Gamson learned that, leading up to World War II, German zoologists at the Munich Zoo believed they could re-create the Tarpan by selectively breeding for the most Tarpan-like characteristics in domestic horses, trying to bring this extinct strain back to life as an Aryan horse.

For Gamson, the crux of her work lies in the irony of the Nazis trying to resurrect a lost genetic line while trying to destroy the Jewish genetic line, but she doesn’t deal directly with the Holocaust. The title of the production, “Tov,” means “good” in Hebrew, and the director said she wants to focus on the good and to present images of beauty.

In that vein, the evening begins with the lighting of a candle and a depiction of the Shabbat blessing.

“I’m only trying to show tov, because the real tragedy is much stronger and more horrific than anything I could put on stage,” Gamson explained. “It’s going to be apparent, hopefully, because I’m making visual metaphors that you’re going to understand on some kind of gut level. You’re going to see the horses; you’re going to feel the menace in the air; and you’re going to have a response to things on a metaphoric level.”

The only actual reference to the Holocaust occurs when a graveyard is made on stage, where the performers lie down, their outlines drawn in salt.

“We’re basically koshering the stage. We’re trying to pull out the blood of violence,” Gamson said. She stressed that she’s alluding to genocide in general, through the example of what the Jews experienced.

“We make this graveyard, and then a horse comes and desecrates the graveyard. When you see a herd of horses charging around, they look so strong, and they make decisions as a herd. It’s a metaphor for a mob, or the idea that once you’re in a group of great power, you get carried away by that group.”

Emphasizing the universal meaning of her work is a multiracial, multiethnic cast, along with three performers brought over from CHOREA — two Polish, one Bulgarian — who will create music for the piece in the Slavic tradition. And, while most of the text is in English, the audience will also hear a little bit of Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish, with a great
deal of singing in Polish and Bulgarian.

Tomasz Rodowicz, CHOREA’s artistic director, was drawn to Gamson’s vision largely because, although he was raised as a Catholic in Poland, he is actually Jewish on his mother’s side. Rodowicz, 60, said one reason his family never told him about his roots is that during his childhood it was not easy for people to identify themselves as Jewish.

Rodowicz added that his father, who was not Jewish, spent four years in Auschwitz for being in the underground.

“He told me stories from before he was in the camp about what he saw of the Warsaw Ghetto, and then he told me of some of the terrible experiences in Auschwitz. It was very emotional when I talked of these things to Rosanna, but, when I was finished, she said that the work she wanted to do was not about these terrible events, with their pain and suffering. She wanted to create something about beauty and the need to find hope.”

There is another aspect to the story, according to Gamson. She has an ancestor named Nachum ish Gamzu, who was a rabbi and lived during the days of the Roman Empire.

“He was famous for saying, ‘Gamzu l’tovah,’ meaning, ‘Even this is for the good.’ He meant that God makes everything, thus everything is good, even though we don’t understand why, and, given the horrific events that have come to pass, this position, philosophically, becomes incredibly suspect. I’m not saying that he’s wrong or right. I am presenting [these questions]: ‘Is there good? Is there evil? Is everything good?’  I think I’m illustrating it by telling the story of the Jews and the Tarpans.”

And did the Nazis succeed in bringing the Tarpans back to life?

“Well, you can’t bring anything back from the dead,” said Gamson. “They bred horses that looked like the Tarpans, but, scientifically, they were not the original breed. The experiment was a failure. They were trying to resurrect one animal species while exterminating a whole group of people, and both experiments failed.”

Cohen Jockeys for Position in Racing

What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in a profession where he can’t eat? If his name is David Cohen, he is making the mealtime sacrifice to break into the ultra-competitive Southern California jockey colony at Hollywood Park.

Although his diet could place him at the same table as Gandhi or Twiggy, Cohen knows that overweight and underemployed go hand in hand in the horseback profession.

Cohen, 19, launched his career during Memorial Day weekend, one year after graduating from Laguna Beach High School. He is the son of Morry Cohen, a longtime owner and breeder who races under the name 5 C Stable.

“Because my father owned horses, I pretty much started from the ground up,” said Cohen. “I groomed horses for six or seven months for our trainer, Jorge Gutierrez, and learned everything from feeding to medication with the vets. I did most everything with about 20 horses last summer at Del Mar.”

Cohen envisions a long-range future in racing as a trainer but wants to ride for the next decade or longer. To make that adjustment, he reduced from 122 to 109 pounds.

“I was lifting weights and balanced my diet out,” Cohen said. “I started to eat less quantity and take more vitamins.”

His limited diet nevertheless has a Jewish flavor.

“I start each morning with a wheat matzah and tea,” he said. “Sometimes the matzah is flavored apple, sometimes cinnamon, sometimes peach. A big square is about 100 calories.”

For breakfast, Cohen will eat a small portion of scrambled eggs, for lunch a small salad, for dinner a little chicken with vegetables.

Cohen also has been forced to sacrifice socially.

“I wake up at 3:30 in the morning and am at work at 4:45,” said Cohen of his routine of galloping horses for several trainers. “I haven’t gone out at night in four years.”

Cohen lives with his father in Arcadia, near Santa Anita, and had been exercising horses for about two years before acquiring his apprentice license in May.

He won his first race at Del Mar on Aug. 11 with a bold come-from-behind victory along the rail aboard Quiten Boy, a 45-to-1 long shot. Cohen scored his sixth victory from 87 mounts during the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita on Oct. 1 with Holy Request, another longshot at 47-to-1 odds, for trainer Barry Abrams.

Jewish jockeys are a rarity. Walter Blum, who rode primarily in New York during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s before becoming a racing official at Florida tracks, is the only Jewish rider to have earned a spot in the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

In California, the most successful Jewish jockey has been Bill Harmatz, a contemporary of Bill Shoemaker who won several major stakes during the ’50s and ’60s. Harmatz, a scholastic gymnastics star from East Los Angeles, won the 1959 Preakness Stakes aboard Royal Orbit. He later became a successful businessman in Vista and remains nearly as fit in his 70s as during his riding years.

Cohen has a long way to go to be mentioned in the same breath as Blum or Harmatz. His apprenticeship is considerably different than that of Duddy Kravitz. As a neophyte jockey, he is allowed to ride with a 10-pound weight concession from what his horse is assigned to carry until he wins five races. The weight concession is dropped to seven pounds and later to five until he wins 45 races or one year passes, whichever comes last.

Cohen has ridden most of his early races for his father’s stable.

“I wouldn’t use him if I didn’t have total confidence in him,” Morry Cohen said.

David Cohen will continue to ride at Santa Anita through the conclusion of the Oak Tree meet on Oct. 31 before shifting to Hollywood Park for a meet beginning on Nov. 3.

Steve Schuelein is a freelance sports writer based in Playa del Rey.