By Dan Nolan
With an electrifying energy reminiscent of a rock concert, Alicia Svigals’ four-piece traditional Klezmer band began their show with a fast-paced instrumental, featuring Svigals’ lightning-speed violin solos and Aaron Alexander’s pounding, complex drumwork. Rounding out the band was upright bassist Brian Glassman and accordion player Lauren Brody, who supported the soloists with a driving, rhythmic accompaniment.
Playing to a nearly full Rosse Auditorium on Saturday night, Svigals, founder of the Grammy Award-winning group the Klezmatics, and her band performed Klezmer music, a type of Jewish folk music most commonly played at celebratory events such as weddings and birthdays. Similar to jazz in its rhythm section and focus on improvisation, the music is set apart by its inclusion of the accordion and Yiddish lyrics.
In addition to their instrumental work, the group also included vocal pieces sung by both Brody and Svigals. These included sweet songs about motherhood, arranged by Svigals, whose son, Ben Marakowitz-Svigals ’17, is a Kenyon student. Other songs included “Borscht,” which compared the singer’s love to a bowl of the titular Eastern European soup, and a song that Lauren Brody prefaced with what she called a “Yiddish crash course” so the audience could accurately sing along.
For the second half of the performance, the stage was opened for dancing, which rested on the lively personality of the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of Yiddish Dance,” Steven Lee Weintraub. The day before, Weintraub led a master class open to students, faculty and community members on Yiddish Folk Dancing in the Bolton Dance Studio. In the class, Weintraub stressed free expression rather than concentrating on the accuracy of the dance moves. In keeping with the “Pied Piper’s” goofy attitude, Weintraub threw out aphorisms like “Hips are the shellfish of Yiddish dance” — as shellfish are not kosher — to keep the atmosphere lively and, most importantly, fun.
“A lot of Yiddish dancing is improvisational,” Weintraub said. “It’s like you’re telling a little story about your mood and the music.” The “little stories” students told with their dancing further added to the relaxed and enjoyable mood: It was not uncommon for the students to break out laughing when inspired by the music to invent a new dance move.
On the night of the performance, Weintraub appeared again and led members of the audience on stage to dance to the final few songs of the band’s music. Though cramming around 30 people onto the cramped right half of the stage in Rosse resulted in a cluster of confused, inexperienced dancers, it was joyous nonetheless. Nearly every dancer laughed and smiled throughout the whole affair. At one point, Weintraub brought out six volunteers and a silver plate, having three of the volunteers place their feet on the plate in a circle and the other three grab their hands and run around, spinning the volunteers in a merry-go-round effect.
At the end of the concert, Weintraub led his ragtag group of dancers through a series of motions to thank the band for their performance — a performance that will, for many of those who attended, stand out as one of their most unique and whimsical experiences at Kenyon.