Dancer and choreographer Ida Arbeit, 99, will be featured in a performance on June 7 at the St. Paul JCC
By ERIN ELLIOTT /Â Community News Editor
Maria DuBois Genné first described Ida Arbeit as a “99-year-old dancer.” Then she changed her mind, saying Arbeit is “a dancer who happens to be 99.”
Genné is the artistic director of Kairos Dance Theatre (KDT), a 16-member intergenerational modern dance company. When Arbeit moved from New York to St. Paul nearly two years ago, she and her family learned about KDT and Arbeit began attending rehearsals.
Currently, KDT rehearses on Fridays at the Wellington in St. Paul, where Arbeit lives. On May 15, Arbeit joined Genné, Peter Podulke, Jesse Neumann-Peterson and Carla Vogel to work on “Dancing with Ida,” which will be performed on June 7 at the St. Paul JCC.
“I’m back to where I was when I first started dancing,” Arbeit told the Jewish World. “For me, it’s just like going back again. It’s just giving back to me what I gave to others.”
- Ida Arbeit (center) rehearses with Kairos Dance Theatre members (l to r): Maria DuBois Genné, Peter Podulke, Jesse Neumann-Peterson and Carla Vogel. The scene will be featured in a dance performance at the St. Paul JCC on June 7. (Photo: Erin Elliott)
Arbeit was born into a Jewish family on Dec. 7, 1909, in New York City. And from an early age, she knew she wanted to be a dancer.
“If you want to do something badly enough, you’ll climb mountains to do it,” Arbeit said. “That’s what I had to do.”
In the first half of the 20th century, she wanted to dance with a new group that had been created under the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). This was a New DealÂ initiative to fund theater and other live artistic performances in the United StatesÂ during the Great Depression.
It was one of five Federal One projects sponsored by the Works Projects Administration (WPA), and the FTP’s primary goal was to employ out-of-work artists, writers and directors. (A 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock, is based on Orson Welles’ attempt to stage a musical about a steel strike under the FTP.)
Arbeit changed her name, address and entire life story to appear unemployed and destitute in order to get a job with the group.
“I wasn’t ashamed of what I did because I wanted to dance so badly that I made up a story of my life that changed my whole life,” Arbeit said. “So I lied. So what if I lied? I gave something to the world. I danced.”
Arbeit auditioned for legendary choreographer Helen Tamiris (originally Helen Becker), who was also Jewish, and she danced with Tamiris’ company for 12 years under the name Ida Little.
“They used to called me little Ida because there was a bigger Ida, so I reversed the name,” Arbeit said. “I loved every moment of it.”
Arbeit danced in Tamiris’ 1937 concert piece “How Long Brethren?” which depicted the despair of unemployed Southern blacks. The piece was danced to Lawrence Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest” sung by an African American chorus.
“Later, they did it on Broadway for five months,” Arbeit said. “It was a beautiful thing to see. [Tamiris] was never given enough credit for what she did.”
When Arbeit began working with KDT, Genné originally wanted to recreate “How Long Brethren?” — Arbeit still remembers the choreography — but choreographer Dianne McIntyre had already recreated the performance in 1991 with Arbeit’s help.
“Ida has always said to me, ‘I am not about the past, I am about the future,’” Genné said. “So I said, ‘Ida, how about we make something new together?’ And that’s how this all started.”
Genné said that on Fridays, the dancers become Arbeit’s company.
“Ida’s the lead, so Ida gives us ideas and we try to translate that into choreography,” Genné said. “We come to listen and learn and dance under [her] direction.”
The performance is part of a KDT series inspired by the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. The artists use dance, storytelling and music to create a dialogue between past and present, movement and sound, and performer and audience.
Vogel, who is a Jewish storyteller, talks with Arbeit during a piece that is danced to “Autumn in New York.” Vogel said the show is a “tribute to Ida.”
“I’ve lived a long time and I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” Arbeit said. “And if I laugh enough, I’ll laugh myself into 100.”
“Dancing with Ida” will be performed 3 p.m. Sunday, June 7 at the St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students, children and seniors, with a $15 maximum for families. The performance is partially funded by a grant from Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. To make a reservation, call the St. Paul JCC front desk at 651-698-0751.
For information about Kairos Dance Theatre, visit: kairosdance.org.
- Ida Arbeit (right) talks to Carla Vogel about New York’s Central Park during a recent dance rehearsal at the Wellington in St. Paul. (Photo: Erin Elliott)