“Inflatable Trio,” choreographed and performed by Lionel Popkin (left), is set on and takes place around a plastic living room set. Three dancers deflate, refill and rearrange the furniture throughout the show. Photo by Isaac Obaka.

Blowing up his set, a choreographer steps beyond his Indian-Jewish roots


The dancer and choreographer Lionel Popkin, who is of Jewish and Indian descent, finds inspiration in his mixed heritage — two cultures that emphasize dance as a form of social expression. His projects take on big topics, like historic legacy and cultural appropriation, but are infused with whimsy and playfulness.

The L.A. premiere of his latest piece, “Inflatable Trio,” will be staged at the Skirball Cultural Center on Feb. 23, with additional performances the following two nights. Discussions will be held after the first two performances.

“Inflatable Trio” dissects the daily rituals of life and of home. The performance takes place on and around an inflatable plastic living room set, the type you might find in a college dorm room. The three dancers — Popkin, Carolyn Hall and Samantha Mohr — deflate, refill and rearrange the pieces throughout the show. They wrestle with them, jump on them, throw them around and drape themselves on top of them.

The dancers’ interactions with the plastic furniture suggests the impermanence and ever-changing nature of our domestic and social lives. It’s also a meditation on breath and breathing, an act that’s central to life and to dance.

“The piece itself became a question of: What are the systems of support that we use, in terms of how we buoy ourselves up, and how effective or how fragile those are,” Popkin said. “The furniture itself looks very solid. But as soon as you pull the plug, it just completely vanishes. And that became a metaphor for how we intake air and support ourselves and then how it expels and we siphon out like a balloon.”

In some sections of the piece, the dancers butt up against one another, wrestle and roll around — scenes that are both intimate and confrontational. In other sections, they take the place of the inflatable furniture and hold one another up in an intricate and constantly shifting arrangement.

Popkin spoke on the phone from Oberlin, Ohio, where he was working with Tom Lopez, who teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and composed the music for “Inflatable Trio.” The multimedia performances also feature video art by Cari Ann Shim Sham and costume design by Maria Garcia.

Popkin, 47, was born and raised in Bloomington, Ind. His father is a Jew from New York and his mother is Indian.

“By traditional law I’m not Jewish, because my mother wasn’t, but she was still the president of the local Hadassah chapter, in her sari and everything,” Popkin said.

His family attended synagogue, he became bar mitzvah, was part of the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea, and attended Tel Yehudah, a summer camp in the Catskills.

“When I was at camp there was a lot of Israeli folk dancing. That was done a huge amount and I enjoyed it. I loved it,” he said.

When asked what it was like to grow up with his feet in two cultures, Popkin pointed out that it was more like three cultures.

“There is the iconography and imagery and food of India, the religious and social aspect of the Jewish community in Indiana, and then there was also Midwestern America,” he said. “For me, it just created this sense that there’s always another way to look at things. And as an artist, that seems to be an incredibly important principle.”

Popkin’s work often grapples with these issues of cultural identity. His multimedia work “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” considers the legacy of modern-dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, who was born in New Jersey but borrowed heavily from South Asian cultures in her solos. In the piece, Popkin uses a leaf blower to blow items of clothing around the stage, a metaphor for St. Denis’s habit of incorporating styles from different cultures into her work. The piece asks whether it’s ever appropriate for someone to appropriate styles of art that are native to a culture different from the artist’s. It also takes on the issue of how European cultures often stereotype Eastern cultures in ways that can be patronizing.

“I lived in India for about six or seven months when I was in college and I realized how American I am, even though in Indiana, I didn’t feel very American, because I’m the son of immigrants and there was a sense of displacement, of not quite getting involved in the local culture,” he said.

Popkin started training in college and joined the Trisha Brown Dance Company in New York. He currently serves as the chair of the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA, where he has been a professor of choreography and performance for the past decade.

Popkin’s choreography has been presented at local venues including the Getty Museum, REDCAT and Highways Performance Space and Gallery. His work also has been performed around the world, at Danspace Project and Abrons Arts Center in New York, London’s Palace Theatre and the Guangdong Dance Festival in China, to name a few.

After choreographing a decade’s worth of performances that examined his mother’s Indian heritage, culminating with “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Popkin sees “Inflatable Trio” as a shift from a broader cultural perspective toward our everyday relationships.

“My past work has been much more about cultural identity,” he said. “I wanted to create this domestic setting and see what it was like to work within a close family unit.”

Lionel Popkin’s “Inflatable Trio” will be performed Feb. 23-25 at the Skirball Cultural Center. For more information, visit this story online at jewishjournal.com.

Indian court stays deportation of Israeli couple


An Indian court has stayed the deportation of an Israeli couple in the city of Kochi.

The couple had claimed to be Chabad emissaries, but they are not official emissaries according to Chabad.org.

The Kerala High Court on Tuesday issued a stay of the deportation of Shneor Zalman and Yaffa Shenoi for what police term “suspicious activities.” The couple was ordered deported a week ago for violation of their tourist visas, since they did not indicate that they would be organizing religious activities, the Times of India reported.

The couple will be allowed to present their case to the court on Wednesday, at which time the court will decide whether they should be deported.

They had arrived in Kochi in March 2010, and raised suspicion by paying higher than market rate to rent a house in the city on a block populated with other Jews.

Zalman told The Jerusalem Post last week that the couple was invited to Kochi by the small Jewish community to open a Jewish outreach center.

Police said they were suspicious of what they called late-night meetings in the house, which the couple told Ynet they believe were Shabbat dinners for travelers and members of the local Jewish community.

Indian court finds Mumbai gunman guilty


An Indian court found a Pakistani man guilty of murder and other offenses for his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Ajmal Kasab also was found guilty Monday of conspiracy and waging war against India in a series of attacks that left 166 people dead, including six at the Mumbai Chabad house, which was targeted along with luxury hotels, a train station and a popular cafe. Kasab was the only surviving gunman among 10.

Kasab, who originally admitted to his role as part of a Pakistani Islamist organization before retracting his confession, faces a death sentence or life in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.

A temporary Chabad house is in operation in Mumbai during the reconstruction of the house that was destroyed in the November 2008 attack.

Women’s Lib Rises in Wake of Disaster


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The two young, sari-clad women, one in blue and one in orange, stand in the thatched-roof meeting hall, take hold of the microphone and join their voices.

“We don’t need any fancy materials,” they croon by heart. “What we need is just some food to live. We don’t ask for a refrigerator, a TV or a car. We just need some small capital to start a business.”

The audience of women in the village of Alamarai Kuppam applaud with enthusiasm. The few men, seated or hovering around the edges, are more circumspect, but they, too, nod approvingly.

Call it women’s lib, post-tsunami-India style.

The outpouring of financial support that followed the 2004 tsunami has accelerated efforts to improve the lives of rural women — an initiative that goes well beyond helping families recover from the tsunami.

“This disaster has given us a space to create gender equality,” says Attapan, the director of Rural Organization for Society Education (ROSE). ROSE is among the Indian nonprofits supported by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which focuses on international development based on the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

Before, says Attapan, many fishing villages functioned almost as closed societies, distrustful of outsiders, with women locked into traditional, subservient roles. It’s still a country of arranged marriages, and, in places, instances of girl infanticide and widow burning.

But in this region, when the tidal wave took everything, these villagers had to look outside for help. The women, it turned out, were eager for expanded roles. And many men quickly realized that not only could they benefit from the outsiders, who brought resources and new ideas, but also from the resourcefulness of their own spouses, daughters and mothers.

Attapan’s organization has worked with women from fishing villages to help them develop business skills, such as tailoring and growing and selling herbs.

The two singing women are performing the homemade anthem of an informal women’s “congress” from 14 villages that has gathered in Alamarai Kuppam under the auspices of the Ghandian Unit for Integrated Development (GUIDE). GUIDE is trying to make women politically powerful and to break down traditional Hindu class divisions.

The caste system, although officially abolished in 1949, remains a potent and denigrating social force. The mixture of castes among the women gathered in Alamarai Kuppam is striking: It includes Dalit participants, the group once known as untouchables; they still suffer pervasive discrimination.

At the meeting, women rise group by group to proclaim their successes.

“We stopped the men from making alcohol in our village,” one women says.

Another exclaims: “We made demands for tsunami relief and got it.”

“We got schools to reduce their fees,” a third says.

This activism is true and courageous feminism, says R. Vasantha, development consultant for GUIDE. “In traditional society, if a woman speaks out about a problem, especially a problem with an abusive husband, she is an immoral woman. These women will now go to a police station and file a case.”

A delegation of women from four villages recently demanded that a man reserve some property and inheritance for a second wife he had taken, as well as for the woman’s baby. And in Alamarai Kuppam, women and GUIDE workers went to the police to halt an arranged marriage between an unwilling 13-year-old and an older man who wanted a second wife.

The 13-year-old’s parents had made the deal for money. Villagers later raised money to help the family.

And, when it comes to the business theme of the homemade anthem, these women aren’t waiting for opportunity to come looking for them. They’ve opened fish stalls in nearby towns to sell the village catch. And they’re going to start an ice factory to keep their fish fresh and to sell ice to others.

Working with women, particularly educating them, is probably the “best single investment” that can be made in international development, said Michael Cohen, director of the New School for Social Research’s graduate program in international affairs in New York. “It helps on the income side and reduces the family size.”

Both elements, he added, are key to reducing rural poverty.

 

Some Places To Give
A partial listing of organizations involved in tsunami relief

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site: http://www.jdc.org/

American Jewish World Service
Web site: http://www.ajws.org/
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Tel: (212) 736-2597
Regional: (415) 296-2533
Toll free: (800) 889-7146

Church World Service
Web site: http://www.churchworldservice.org/
Regional office: http://cwscrop.org/californiasouthwest/
2235 N. Lake Ave Suite 112
Altadena, CA 91001
Tel: (626) 296-3195
Toll Free: (888) CWS-CROP or (888) 297-2767

Doctors Without Borders
Web site: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001-5004
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Local: (310) 399-0049

Global Fund for Children
Web site: http://www.globalfundforchildren.org/
1101 Fourteenth Street, NW Ste. 420
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 331-9003

Global Greengrants Fund
2840 Wilderness Place Ste.
A Boulder, CO 80301
Tel: (303) 939-9866

International Medical Corps
Web site: http://www.imcworldwide.org/
919 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tel: (310) 826-7800

International Rescue Committee
Web site: http://www.theirc.org/
122 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10168-1289
Tel: (212) 551-3000

Mercy Corps
Web site: http://www.mercycorps.org/
Dept. W
3015 SW 1st Ave.
Portland, OR 97201 USA
Tel: (800) 292-3355

Oxfam

Web site: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/
26 West Street
Boston, MA 02111
Tel: (800) 77-OXFAM or (800) 776-9326