If a Chagall painting could move, it might be “Ketubah,” a contemporary ballet created by Jewish choreographer Julia Adam.
The ballet, which will have its Pittsburgh premiere March 7 to 16 at the August Wilson Center, performed by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, is a celebration of Jewish marriage rituals set to klezmer music, and is evocative of the surreal yet folksy Jewish weddings prominent in many works of Chagall.
In fact, during the portion of the ballet depicting the wedding feast, a dancer even dons the head of a chicken, which is a recurring image in the famous painter’s works.
“I pulled other shapes from Chagall’s paintings, too,” said Adam, speaking from her home in California. “The shapes that the bride and groom take are also a nod to Chagall.”
Adam created the ballet in 2004 — a commissioned work for the Houston Ballet — in dedication to her mother and inspired by her Jewish roots.
The piece follows a couple through the different phases of marriage, including matchmaking (portrayed as a lively game of musical chairs), mikveh, the wedding ceremony and the feast.
Adam used elements from classical ballet in combination with movements drawn from traditional Jewish folk dances, she said. A piece of fabric moves with the dancers throughout the ballet, serving as the water in the mikveh, then as the chuppah, then as the sheet on the marriage bed.
Jewish wedding rituals and traditional Jewish folk dancing provide a sense of spirituality to the ballet, according to Adam.
“This was really fun to do,” she said. “It’s like joining through dance to God. It’s what Jews used to do — losing yourself so much in dancing and prayer.”
Adam was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and is a former ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet. This is her first project with the PBT, although Terrence Orr, the PBT’s artistic director, has wanted to work with her for a long time.
In fact, he was working with Adam about 14 years ago, hoping to commission a new work for the PBT, when she became pregnant, and the project had to be put on the back burner, he said.
When he heard of “Ketubah” about two years ago, he decided to try to bring it to Pittsburgh.
“I thought it fit the bill,” he said, adding that it is a great piece to include in the PBT’s March mixed repertory performance, “3X3,” which also includes Dwight Rhoden’s “Smoke ’n Roses” set to the live vocals of Pittsburgh’s Etta Cox, and a world premiere.
“ ‘Ketubah’ has wonderful sensitivity and musicality,” Orr said. “It is a fabulous piece, full and rich in its own right.”
Adam came to Pittsburgh to stage the ballet last fall, and will be back prior to the opening of the show for rehearsals.
“My dancers had a wonderful time working with Julia,” Orr said. “She is very hands-on, and she has a warm, relaxed relationship with the dancers.”
Principal dancer Alexandra Kochis, who dances the part of the bride, has had fun working on “Ketubah,” learning about Jewish wedding rituals, and taking on some of the challenges this ballet presents.
“The music is beautiful,” Kochis said. “And there are a lot of contrasts in the choreography, moving from folksy to balletic. It’s nice how it changes, and it’s cool how [Adam] used very sparing props, but they do represent well the different aspects of the wedding.”
Kochis also appreciates that the ballet takes much of its inspiration from the work of Chagall.
“Part of it is like a Chagall painting,” she said, “soft and melty and not quite formed.”
Want to go?
“3 X 3”
3 Ballets by 3 Choreographers
Friday, March 7, 2014 – Sunday, March 16
August Wilson Center
Visit pbt.org for tickets
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)