Between Vashti and Esther
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Between Vashti and Esther

Jersey City dancers look at women in the Purim story

What exactly is the relationship between Vashti and Esther?

According to the Book of Esther, the relationship is simply that of predecessor and successor. Vashti is the queen who refused to dance naked before the king and his guests; Esther is the carefully chosen young woman who took her place.

But midrash exists to create new relationships and tease new understandings out of classic texts – and who says that midrash always has to use words?

Choreographer and artistic director Ariel Grossman and her husband, composer and executive director David Homan, have performers dance it.

Ms. Grossman and Mr. Homan, who live in Jersey City, have taken a fresh look at Vashti and Esther in a two-part work called “The Book of Esther: The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Esther.” In doing so, they have taken on quite a few challenges – the dance-world problem of how to go from an emotion-based style to a story-based one, and the larger one of how to take a very specific, culture-bound story and make it universal, without losing its specificity.

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Dancers perfrom as Vashti and “her group of women” in a scene from “The Book of Esther: The Journey of Queen Vashti and Queen Eshter.”

Although neither had tackled a Jewish subject before, both Ms. Grossman and Mr. Homan live deeply inside the Jewish world. They hold dual citizenship, with strong roots in the art world as well.

Mr. Homan, who comes from Florida, is the son of an arts administrator and a Shakespearean scholar. He also is the executive director of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. He went to Bard College, where he majored in music and drama, and then on to NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, where he earned a master’s degree in music composition.

Ms. Grossman, who grew up on Manhattan’s far east side, went to Skidmore College, where she majored in dance, and then to Bank Street, where she got a master’s in early childhood education. She now teaches in the early childhood center at the Jewish Community Project in Tribeca.

Much of her father’s Orthodox family lives in Jerusalem, and her mother is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “She was born in a DP camp in Germany,” Ms. Grossman said. “I’ve always thought about how my mother is one of the smartest people I know, but she can never be president.” Her grandfather – “who is even smarter than her mother,” Mr. Homan added, still lives in Manhattan. “Ariel’s whole life has been in that shadow,” Mr. Homan said.

The first half of the dance that Ms. Grossman choreographed and Mr. Homan scored is about Vashti. Originally, it was meant to stand alone. “David wanted to do a 25-minute work that he would compose – and have live music – and he wanted it to be narrative,” Ms. Grossman said.

“That was hard for Ariel because she grew up in a ballet structure,” Mr. Homan said. “Her initial choreography had been based on raw emotion, and here she had to impose a structure on it.”

Once they decided that they wanted a narrative structure, they had to find a story. “We were thinking of Greek mythology,” Ms Grossman said. “Maybe Eurydice. And then my dad said, ‘Why don’t you do something Jewish?’ He said either Esther or Vashti. And I said, ‘That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard.'”

To prepare, Ms. Grossman did some research. Vashti, she learned, is disposed of in the first chapter of the Book of Esther; her name is brought up twice in the beginning of chapter 2, and that’s that for her.

In the straightforward text, she is said to be very fair; the king, Ahasuerus, wants to show her off to his drunken friends, but Vashti, who was entertaining their wives, refused the demand. She then was told that she was no longer welcome, and that she would be replaced. Ahasuerus decrees that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small,” we are told in chapter 1, verse 20, and the hunt for Vashti’s replacement is on.

Although there is not much in the text to encourage such an interpretation, Jewish midrash and folklore generally see Vashti as bad. “When you think of Vashti, you think of someone with pimples and a tail,” Ms. Grossman said; indeed, midrash does give her those characteristics. “But the head of the nursery school at Brotherhood” – that’s the Gramercy Square synagogue to which the couple used to go before they moved to New Jersey – “said no; really, she was the first feminist in the Bible.

“That was the inspiration for the story.

“I decided not to decide if she was the most pious person in the world, or if she was evil,” she added. “We explore the choices she had to make, and the choices of the women she was involved with.”

This year, the couple added the story of Esther. “But let’s not make it just about pretty little Esther,” Ms. Grossman said. “Let’s make it an interesting story.”

The same dancers perform in both halves of the work, “and each has her own arc,” Mr. Homan said.

The first half has Vashti and four other dancers. “Her group of women,” Ms. Grossman said. “And of that group, one becomes Esther, one becomes Mordechai, and one becomes Haman.”

“There are moments in Vashti where Esther” – that is, the dancer who would become Esther in the performance’s second half – “almost took the lead, as if she would be chosen queen,” Mr. Homan said.

Even more strikingly, the second part “begins with what we call two old friends – Mordechai and Haman. Then they have a falling out, because of the lure of power.

“Haman goes through what I call a Darth Vader transformation.” He goes over to the dark side. “It’s also like the lure of the crown,” which Mr. Homan compared to the Lord of the Rings. It’s as if Haman is Gollum, and the ring is his precioussss.”

All the dancers are women. “The only male presence in the show is the king.” He is represented by a bright light. “We call it the king light,” Ms. Grossman said.

“The women are always being watched,” Mr. Homan said, “They are being subjugated. They are being challenged, but you never see their challenger.”

When the two dances are combined, “it becomes a complete work about power, women’s empowerment, and the choices that each of these women make in support of each other, to actually stand up for their principles, their morals, and their dignity,” Mr. Homan said.

“Vashti is a mirror for Esther,” Ms. Grossman added. “We have Vashti come back. She is one of the women who nobody recognizes, but she reveals herself to Vashti [Esther?] at the beginning of the piece. She is there to support Esther, and to mirror her.

“There is a beautiful duet between Vashti and Esther, where Vashti shows Esther the path.”

The couple hope that the work will appeal to non-Jewish audiences as well as Jewish ones. They also hope that it is accessible enough to appeal to people who do not know a great deal about dance.

“We want people to enjoy it,” Ms. Grossman said.

“I attempt to end every work I write with a moment of joy,” Mr. Homan said. “Of resolution. Of epiphany.”

The ending of this dance is not pure joy – “that would be too kitschy,” Ms. Grossman said – but the story is resolved. It does not end with a massacre, as the Book of Esther does, or even with Haman’s death; instead, “he is exiled,” she said.

And the audience, she added, “gets a real sense of empowerment.”

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