In ‘Dances to Strings,’ storytelling through movement and music

Maile Okamura (right) and Colin Jacobsen perform “Bits and Pieces.”
(Courtesy photo by Doug McMinimy)

LITVAKdance presents a collection of eight dance videos that pair renowned musicians with original choreography


Travel restrictions and social distancing have nearly crippled live dance concerts and yet, it’s not all bad news.

Performance opportunities that would not otherwise be available have made it possible for hope and creativity to flourish.

“Dances to Strings,” a collection of eight dance videos that pair renowned musicians with original choreography, is a good example.

The collaboration came to fruition when LITVAKdance director Sadie Weinberg discovered that world-class artists were quarantined in San Diego.

“That’s the thing about all of this,” Weinberg said. “There are magical people in San Diego, and we should use them while they are here.”

Those magical people include an interesting mix of local and nationally renowned musicians and choreographers who were eager to use their talents while their careers were put on pause.

Magical lineup

Weinberg capitalized on the availability of jazz pianist and recording artist Joshua White, and she contacted New York-based choreographer Rebecca Margolick, (named among the Top 25 to Watch in 2021 by Dance Magazine), who created “taoide,” a melancholy work danced by Erica Ruse.

New York-based married couple Maile Okamura and violinist Colin Jacobsen also agreed to participate. They were staying in San Diego with Okamura’s parents during the pandemic.

Okamura, a dancer/choreographer, grew up here and her parents were neighbors of Weinberg’s parents.

A longtime member of Mark Morris Dance Group, Okamura recently choreographed her solo, “Bits and Pieces,” for Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra, a video that was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Musical Instruments and recorded at the Harrison House near Joshua Tree National Park.

Jacobsen, her husband, also played violin on that video. He’s a touring member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and co-founded the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the adventurous orchestra The Knights.

“Dances to Strings” was filmed at two La Jolla venues, the Baker-Baum Concert Hall at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center and at the La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage.

Additional musical contributors include composer/educator Kristopher Apple, Art of Élan director Kate Hatmaker, traditional Irish music expert Pete Polansky, klezmer revivalist Yale Strom, award-winning film composer Sean G. Walsh and former schoolmate, violinist/thereminist Meredith Yayanos.

Yayanos wears a black witch-like costume and provides a ghostly sound score of voice and violin for the first solo dance, titled “Esther’s Truth.”

The work, choreographed and danced by Weinberg, was inspired by the biblical Esther, a woman who hides her Jewish identity and weds a Persian king in order to save her people.

Weinberg is dressed in regal red, weaving with dramatic purpose through the columns behind the Wisteria Cottage.

Later, she removes her dress, a reference to Esther exposing her identity and risking death in the process.

Dancer’s dream

The choreography for Okamura’s “This Time” is accompanied by “Andante and Allegro” from Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003. There are two solo dances: LITVAKdance company dancer Beverly Johnson is performing the tender, pulsing “Andante” and Okamura is dancing to the rushing fluidity of “Allegro.”

“When we went into lockdown, Colin and I decided to bring it back, primarily because it was the only piece we had ever made together,” said Okamura, who also designed the black-and-white costumes for the dance.

“It was like, work with the one you’re with. We are in lockdown together, and yes, we are going to do something together. We have had to be flexible, so I feel like it speaks to the resilience and adjustability of people during this time.”

The performance was filmed at the Wisteria Cottage, which brought back old memories and a refreshed enthusiasm for dance.

“Working with Beverly was the first time I was in a studio with another dancer since this all started,” Okamura said.

“So that was a joy, and luckily, she was just the kind of collaborator you want. I didn’t have to explain a lot to her, we just worked through the movement. I had been to the Wisteria Cottage when it was a bookstore, when I was a kid. It was wonderful. The floor was perfect for dancing, it was a dancer’s dream, an empty house with a wooden floor.”

Some of the company dancers choreograph as well as dance.

Berlin Lovio and Ashley Akhavan perform to Akhavan’s choreography in “Bridge to There,” outside on the patio of the Prebys center. The dancers are accompanied by violinist Kristopher Apple, who also plays on April Tra’s dance “Ever Ever.”

Akhavan switches from choreographer to dancer in “The Sisyphus and the Cucala,” a work created by Emily Miller and accompanied by an original Strom composition. And company dancer María José Castillo choreographed “Not Me,” danced by Johnson to Hatmaker’s “Between Worlds.”

In the moment

Even at live auditions, an artist has spent time in preparation.

But “Stealing Myths,” the final dance choreographed by Weinberg and accompanied by pianist Joshua White, was an exercise in spontaneity.

The music White played was inspired by two somber Sylvia Plath poems (“Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers” and “The Death of Myth-Making”) and showcases solos by Castillo and Jordan Daley.

“That was the only thing we knew about the music — that the pieces were inspired by those poems,” Weinberg said.

“They just went with the flow, and they did a beautiful job. Joshua is so phenomenal, and his music lives in the moment, so I hope we will be able to do it live someday.”

For now, “Dances to Strings” will be live on the LITVAKdance site on April 10, and Weinberg said the Zoom presentation will include artist interviews along with a link to the YouTube performance that will be available for days after the premiere.

Weinberg’s intent to support diversity in her company is evident in her choices. For “Dances to Strings” she purposely sought female choreographers and musicians and her dancers reflect a range of cultures.

“I want to create a platform that makes space for the multiplicity of voices that make up our community,” Weinberg said.

“I want people to see dancers not just as entertainers, but as human beings with stories to tell.”

‘Dances to Strings’

What: LITVAKdance Spring 2021 Zoom Presentation

When: 7 p.m. April 10

Tickets: $8 to $25, a zoom code will be sent the day before the presentation


Marcia Manna is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.