What’s white, forty feet long, and resembles a serpent , robe, placenta, Torah-scroll, chuppah and/or Tree of Life? If you’re stumped, don’t worry. Unless you’re familiar with the extraordinary work of 58-year-old dancer/choreographer Fanchon Shur, you wouldn’t guess that a mammoth tallit, or ritual prayer shawl, could be used in so many innovative ways.
As the central motif of her two hour ceremonial dance called Tallit, Shur’s prayer shawl is a forty foot square of silky, knit fabric. In the hands of the dancers, this oversized cloth undergoes many transformations, including becoming a child, a wall, and an umbilical cord. As the dance recapitulates life’s journey, the spectators are invited to join in. Gone are the distinct boundaries that separate performers from audience. According to Shur, Tallit is “a movement prayer that turns the theater into a sanctuary and an audience into a sacred community.”
The response to Shur’s work has been overwhelming: per formed over twenty times at schools, synagogues, churches and concert stages across the country, those who witness Tallit have felt the pull of Shur’s potent imagery. Says Catherine Keller, a theology professor at Drew University, “In its joyful release and fierce purity, this dancing surpasses any other dancing I’ve ever been part of. It was hard to make us stop at all—we might all of us, women and men, old ones and children, have danced to the point of collapse, if not gently calmed and spiraled together into a single Tree of Life.”
Part of the power of Shur’s work stems from her feminism, which is both radical and concrete. In Tallit she uses the symbol of a garment that was (and still is, in many circles) exclusively male, aggressively enacting new meanings for the symbol in order to include those outside its scope: Women. Says Shur: “Once my eyes were opened by feminist analysis, the traditional religious forms, with their message of female inferiority, became sources of pain rather than healing. But as I attempt to make a fresh start by creating new symbols and rituals, I try to speak to our deepest selves, to create something that resonates with shared, inclusive meanings.”
Born in 1935 in Chicago, Fanchon derived her name from a vaudeville dancer much admired by her mother. Reared in a non-religious, culturally Jewish, single-parent household in Los Angeles, she experienced the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 as an event that pivotally raised her Jewish consciousness. Eventually her kindled Jewish identification led her to Israeli folk dancing, which Shur describes as “a radical act, filled with women leaping and striding, women reveling in their own strength and power.” Her passion for dancing didn’t wane, even as a student at UCLA, and she left school in her third year to pursue a dance career in earnest
While still a student, Shur married a young man she met in her chemistry class; by the time she was 24, her first child had been born. “Motherhood was filled with conflicts for me,” she confesses. “I was just emerging as an artist. It was hard.” The birth of a second child made it harder still. When an Israeli composer named Bonia Shur moved across the street, Fanchon’s marriage was already in trouble. And when she and Bonia began collaborating (he was now writing the music for her dances), she could no longer deny her feelings for him. She left her husband and married Bonia, with whom she had two more children, as well as raising the two from Bonia’s first marriage. Needless to say, raising six children made for alterations in her dreams and career.
Fanchon was teaching movement at the religious school in a local synagogue (where her husband had been commissioned to compose a concert of Jewish music) when she was asked to choreograph an evening event. “That was how I actively started using my own dancing and choreography to tap into my Jewish roots,” she explains. Then, while she and her husband were teaching at SWIG (a wellknown Jewish camp in Saratoga, California) in the mid-1960s, Fanchon met a fabric artist with whom she developed a rapport. The two decided to collaborate on a project, and the result was the very first performance of Tallit, done with a 50 x 80 piece of muslin. “Muslin doesn’t stretch,” says Shur. “It doesn’t give. So the first incarnation of Tallit was very angular and geometric.” Bonia created the sound track, and a photographer friend took pictures of the dancers which were then blown up and projected onto a screen during the performance. “When we had finished, there was an ovation,” Fanchon remembers. She’s been dancing Tallit, with various modifications and transformations, ever since
In her thirty-year career, Shur has choreographed over 100 pieces, including Lullaby, a dance film with an anti-nuclear message, and dances for Revolt in Modern, an ABCATV production. She helped create the New Dance Theater in Los Angeles, and, later, Dance Theater Seattle. (Her husband had become the music director at the de Hirsch/Sinai Temple in that city.) Shur and her husband continue to do much collaborative, mutually supportive work. Currently, Bonia is the director of liturgical arts at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, while Fanchon has started the Cincinnati-based Growth in Motion Center and the Fanchon Shur Ceremonial Dance Company, an intergenerational dance troupe whose members range in age from their 20s to their 50s, and whose physiques and ages challenge the idea that dance is the exclusive domain of the slender and young.
More and more, Shur is interested in the potential of dance as therapeutic ritual. She is certified as a movement psychotherapist, and is supervised by a psychologist. Recently, at the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education’s annual conference (which this year addressed issues of sexuality), Shur led ceremonial dance performances (called “God is the Roaring Blaze” and “The Uneasy Grace of Sexuality”) in which 500 priests, pastors and ministers, each carrying two fire-colored scarves, entered a huge ballroom in silence (as an African drum ensemble played), and joined in chanting and choreographed movements. Shur calls these inspiring pieces “congregational prayer through motion and sound.”
Conceptually, Shur sees her work continuing to grow and evolve. “Embodying and transcending are irrepressibly linked,” she says. “My goal is to use movement to make embodiment and transcendence function like a hologram— where you can see the whole picture of life.”