February 25, 2020

In This Corner — the Choreographer

Choreographer Keith Glassman always wanted to learn more about his grandfathers and why they both pursued boxing careers in their youth.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions in my family,” he says. “My grandparents and their generation were very reticent when it came to talking about their personal histories.”

Known for dances that blend natural, athletic movement with sociological commentary, Glassman decided to make a piece that would allow him to explore whether other Jewish men in his grandfathers’ generation also boxed “to make money. I was surprised to find out that there were a lot of Jewish boxers,” he says. “It was an immigrant’s way of trying to make it in America.”

Using archival photos and films of Jewish boxers dating from the 1920s for inspiration, the 50-year-old Glassman created “Goldman.” Premiering at Highways, a performance space in Santa Monica on June 15 and billed as “Yiddish-speaking postmodern dance,” “Goldman” includes one male dancer (the “boxer”) and three fluent male Yiddish speakers, ranging in age from mid-50s to 70s. While the dancer performs a sequence of movements ranging from slow, isolated gestures to faster, more full-bodied motion, the three Yiddish speakers, all nondancers, form a separate group and “haunt the boxer.”

“I’m trying to create a relationship between the past and the present,” says Glassman, who notes that many of the immigrant Jewish boxers barely spoke English yet managed “to make their way in the world. I see their situation as similar to immigrants today, doing whatever they can to make a living, while trying to retain their cultural identity.”

Glassman had to do “a lot of networking” to find the right Yiddish-speaking men for the project and wound up attending various Yiddish conversation classes. “Women in their 70s kept asking me how old I was and if I was married,” he says. “But seriously, I admired how these people have such a strong connection to the language.”

“Goldman” marks the second time that Glassman has explored his Jewish roots as a choreographer. When he lived in New York, he created a “more autobiographical” dance about growing up in Philadelphia. “This is a much bigger project,” he says of “Goldman,” which will become part of a larger work on how different immigrant cultures assimilate while remaining connected to their roots. “I figured I’d start with the Jewish experience first. It’s a part of who I am, and it will always be with me.”

Glassman has always been fascinated with subcultures and incorporating performers who lack formal dance training. One of his best-known works, “Mavericks,” explored the passion and devotion of surfers and involved performances by both dancers and surfers. An early dance, “Backfield,” examined the appeal of sports among both fans and players, while “Audacious,” performed at Highways last year, involved interviews with scholars and clergy on the subject of hope in a conflict-ridden world.

“The world is filled with movement and the vocabulary we’re taught in dance programs is not always relatable to people,” says Glassman. “I’ve never been moved by someone who can do six pirouettes. I’m much more interested in movement that’s pedestrian and recognizable in the everyday world.”

Raised in Philadelphia, Glassman used to attend musicals with his parents and afterwards, teach the dances he saw onstage to the kids on his block.

“We also had ‘showtime’ in my family after dinner, where the kids would perform,” he recalls.

Mostly, Glassman played basketball and didn’t think of studying dance until he graduated from Brown with a degree in sociology. “But as a basketball player I was always more interested in form than in scoring,” he says. “And when I worked as a lifeguard after college, I found myself very inspired by divers.”

After moving back home and trying a dance class at Temple University, Glassman opted to pursue formal training at San Diego State University and subsequently moved to New York for 12 years. He performed in several modern dance companies before forming Keith Glassman & Dancers in 1989. Though his company performed regularly and received a number of grants and awards, Glassman could not make a living as a choreographer and decided to apply to graduate school.

“I didn’t want to see myself 10 years from now waiting tables,” he says.

After receiving his MFA from UC Irvine in 1996, Glassman re-established his company in Los Angeles. Currently, he works as a Pilates and dance teacher while continuing to choreograph.

“While I wouldn’t say I’m ‘called’ to do this, I know I love dance more than anything else,” he says.

And while Glassman still has many unanswered questions about his grandfathers, “Goldman” has allowed him to feel closer to his family’s past. “I’ll never know everything,” he says. “But I do feel that I’ve created my own history from these two-dimensional images.”

Keith Glassman presents “Goldman” as part of “4 Headed Dance,” featuring work by three other choreographers, June 15-18, Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. 8:30 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 2:30 p.m. (Sun.). $15. Call (310) 315-1459 for reservations.