Rena Gluck, modern dancer who reshaped Israeli stage, dies at 89
In the mid-1950s, a Juilliard-trained dancer who had studied with the famed choreographer Martha Graham was putting the finishing touches on a small troupe in her new home, Israel.
Rena Gluck’s company visited theaters, village squares and kibbutz collective farms with modern dance performances built around Graham’s percussive and muscular techniques of form and flow. The conditions could be unusual, such as kibbutz tables lashed together as a makeshift stage after the evening meal.
“We were . . . always knowing what they had for dinner,” said one of the dancers with Gluck, Ze’eva Cohen.
For Israeli audiences, however, the performances were the beginnings of an artistic shift. Israel had a deep affinity for dance — at the time mostly linked to European folk and expressive traditions — but was still looking for its own cultural vernacular. Gluck, who died Jan. 13 at her home in Tel Aviv at 89, helped introduce modern dance to Israel and build the foundations for the country to become a global center for contemporary and experimental choreography and performance.
Part of Gluck’s legacy is Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company, where she was a founding member as it became one of the country’s flagship troupes. Gluck also mentored generations of prominent dancers including Cohen, a renowned performer and choreographer, and Ohad Naharin, the creator of an improvisational dance genre called Gaga that is now taught in studios around the world.
“My first challenge was finding dancers and a place to train and rehearse,” Gluck wrote about her years after emigrating to Israel in 1954 as a newlywed with her husband, Moshe Murvitz, a violinist who went on to become concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
A defining moment came when Gluck helped persuade Graham and her company to make a visit to Israel in 1956.
“It totally changed our perspective,” Cohen said during a 2013 tribute to Gluck. “The dancers were so professional that the Israelis were shocked. They decided that a change must occur because we have to catch up. It’s time to be part of contemporary dance.”
Gluck and another former Graham student who moved to Israel, Rina Shaham, became sought-after teachers of Graham’s style of emphasizing power and precision.
Gradually, Gluck melded her own elements, often inspired by musical scores. “Uprooted,” among the first of her works performed in Israel, was built around “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” (1938) part of a series of suites by Heitor Villa-Lobos as an homage to the music of his native Brazil and the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
“This dance expresses the loneliness felt by a newcomer to a foreign land and it was created two years before I had thought about immigrating to Israel,” Gluck wrote in a 2014 publication for the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
But Gluck was also making influential connections in her new country. Baroness Bethsabée de Rothschild, an heiress to the Rothschild banking fortune and benefactor of Israeli arts, took Gluck under her wing. She upgraded Gluck’s Tel Aviv studio with a wooden floor, a coveted commodity in 1950s Israel.
Rothschild established Batsheva (the baroness’ first name in Hebrew) in 1964, naming Graham as its initial artistic adviser. Rothschild later said Gluck was an inspiration for starting the company.
Gluck performed and directed at Batsheva for 16 years, taking leading roles in reinterpreting pieces that Graham had debuted in the 1940s including “Herodiade,” based on a work by French poet Stéphane Mallarmé; “Cave of the Heart,” inspired by the Euripides drama “Medea”; and the ballet “Diversion of Angels.” In 1974, Graham created the dance “Jacob’s Dream” for Batsheva’s 10th anniversary.
As a choreographer, Gluck created pieces that were performed in Israel, the United States and Europe, including “Let the Stranger Come Amongst Us” (1956), with music by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók; and “Women in a Tent” (1966), inspired by baroque music.
“Batsheva had inexperienced but enthusiastic dancers who were fearless and beautiful,” wrote Judith Brin Ingber, an Israeli choreographer and dance historian. “They had already danced on the kibbutz and had served in the army. They had courage.”