Acclaimed young choreographer Avi Scher has had to balance the rigors of ballet and of Orthodox Judaism. It hasn’t been easy.
When Avi Scher was accepted to the School of American Ballet almost two decades ago, when he was 10, he and his family faced a stark choice: they could stay in Israel with their tight-knit Orthodox community, where Scher was already training with one of the country’s prestigious ballet companies.
Or they could uproot the family, including Scher’s two siblings, for Avi to have a chance at big league American ballet. As the feeder school for the New York City Ballet and many other major American companies, an offer of admission to the School of American Ballet is an opportunity few young dancers pass up. And Scher would be no different.
“My parents decided, ‘OK. We should go back to America for now,’” Scher, now 27, recounted last week, after a rehearsal with his own small ballet company, Avi Scher & Dancers. Since founding the company two years ago, Scher has quickly become a much-watched choreographer, and this weekend marks the debut of his new piece set to Elliott Carter’s music at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series.
“He’s obviously very well-trained, and based on how many people are willing to work with him, that was enough” to ask him to participate, said Mary Cronson, the founder and producer of the Works & Process program.
Despite the increased attention, few have realized that Scher comes from a world entirely alien to ballet. He grew up in a strict Orthodox household in Israel, where his parents immigrated to after becoming religious. And even after Avi moved with his family back to New York, so he could attend the ballet school, he remained strictly observant.
“A lot of people [at the School of American Ballet] didn’t know Orthodox Jews,” Scher said. Jewish dancers are not uncommon in the ballet school, he said, but Orthodox Jews are, and for many years Scher struggled to stay religious. It was not easy: he ate separately from all the other dancers, he could not perform or on Friday nights on Saturdays, and many cultural obstacles stood between him and the other dancers.
Still, he had several early successes. He was chosen for the prized children’s roles of Fritz and the Prince in the New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” four years in a row. When he was 16, he was selected to choreograph a work for SAB’s student company. And two years later, he had his first professional commission, a piece for American Ballet Theater’s studio company.
But maintaining a religious life became increasingly difficult. It was not only a challenge to be observant in the ballet world; Scher found it just a difficult to remain observant among American Jews.
For his academic education, Scher went to the pluralistic Abraham Joshua Heschel School for middle school, and then to the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter high school on the Upper West Side. But even Solomon Schechter’s brand of Conservative Judaism felt too lax for him.
“I just didn’t feel comfortable for a while,” he said. Many of his high school Jewish friends would use money on the Sabbath to see movies, or had no problem turning the lights on and off. But to an Orthodox Jew like Scher, this was unacceptable. He remembers thinking then, “What’s the point of doing Kiddush if you’re not going to keep the Sabbath?”
Even the myriad ways American Jews defined their Jewish identities made little sense to him: “I had never heard the term ‘half-Jewish’ until I came to America,” he said. “I grew up in an Orthodox world where that term didn’t exist.”
The hardest break was with the Orthodox world, however. After graduating high school and the School of American Ballet, he began dancing for companies around the country, from the Miami City Ballet to the Los Angeles Ballet. Maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle on the road was even more difficult than it was in New York, and slowly, he began feeling estranged from Orthodox Jews entirely.
“I didn’t feel part of the community,” he said. “And if you don’t feel like you fit in the community, it’s less meaningful [to remain observant].” The estrangement was compounded by the fact that he is gay, he said. He did not experience outward discrimination so much as a private sense of shame. “I felt like people in the Orthodox world were really judgmental,” he said. “This is going to sound bad, but I felt oppressed.”
About five years ago, he began to ask himself, “Where do I fit in? I didn’t fit in the dance world, and I didn’t fit in the Orthodox world. Then I asked myself, what makes me happiest? I felt happiest dancing. So that’s what I did.”
Today, Scher is no longer observant. He did not reject religious law all at once, however, and has recently begun to rekindle some earlier practices. Though his parents are now divorced, he sometimes observes Friday nights with his mother, who lives in New York, and finds some of the rituals quite moving. “There are things about [the rituals] that warm the heart, and I’m now starting to see that.”
In the past two years, he has moved away from dancing and thrown himself into choreography almost full-time. He has not only made ballets for many of the former companies he danced for, but has also started his own company, Avi Scher & Dancers. Many of the dancers in the company, which includes Marcelo Gomes, Veronika Part, Tyler Angle, he knows from his time at the School of American Ballet and the names will be familiar to any regular New York City balletomane.
Typically, Scher picks his own music: Ravel and Bach are personal favorites. But for the Works & Process commission, Cronson, the series producer, decided to pick the music and have two choreographers stage dances to it. She chose a medley of atonal, avant-garde works by the 102-year-old American composer, Elliott Carter. And she picked two choreographers roughly one-forth his age (Emery LeCrone, the other choreographer, is 25) to set new dances to it.
“With atonal music, the challenge is that the music doesn’t flow the way normal music does,” said Victoria North, one of dancers in Scher’s piece, which he titled “It makes me nervous.” “But one of the things [Scher]’s really good at is that he hears things a lot of people don’t.”
At a rehearsal last week, North sliced through the room in angular patterns, befitting the music’s thorny registers. But at one point, all six dancers seemed unsure of when a segment of the music finished: “Is that the end?” one dancer asked, when the music suddenly stopped. Scher replied: “None of the pieces really end. They just kind of trail off.”
Later, however, Scher himself seemed flummoxed. Struggling to think of an interesting new pattern to fill the 25-minute piece, he cracked a wry smile at his dancers, then said: “There’s only so many tricks I have up my sleeve.”
Despite the music’s difficulty, Scher was happy to take the challenge the Guggenheim had set for him. “I think they wanted this to be a challenge for me and Emery,” he said, referring to LeCrone, the other choreographer commissioned for the program. “They probably thought this [music] is something I wouldn’t normally choose. But I wait for the parts that inspire me, and then the formations just appear.”
When asked if he saw anything Jewish reflected in this work, or any others he has created, he did not take long to answer. “In many of my works, the dancers are all very connected to one another. I feel like that comes from being raised in a strong community; it comes from growing up in a tight-knit Orthodox community,” he said. “But there’s always someone who pops out [in my dances], someone who’s a little bit different. That’s like me. I think about that now, but I didn’t realize it then.”