Possesed or Emancipated? OV ( after the Dybbuk)

Possessed or emancipated?

Problematizing the creative voice in the dance piece "Ov"(1)


Eda Dobrovetsky , Liora Bing- Heidecker

First introduced at Virginia Humanities Conference 2010




The dance piece Ov, (2008) is, in a way, about speech. First and foremost, it engages in a dialog with its source of inspiration and ancestor, The Dybbuk, a famous Yiddish play written between1912-1919. At that time Ansky (Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport 1863-1920), the Russian Jewish author, playwright and researcher of Jewish folklore was heading an ethnographic expedition through the villages of Volhynia and Podolia (1911 – 1914), and came across the practice of exorcism among the Hasidic population of that area. Exorcism was addressed against the so called 'dybbuk': a restless ill treated spirit who takes possession of a living person by speaking through her mouth. This practice and other folkloric material inspired Ansky's famous play: The Dybbuk. The play "Revolves around a pair of ill-fated lovers — Khonnon, a penniless but devout student of Jewish mysticism, and Leah, the young woman he adores and is destined to marry. When Leah's greedy father breaks the marriage contract to marry off Leah to a richer man, Khonnon dies instantly; his soul, however, lives on as a dybbuk, entering Leah's body so to gain possession of her love for all eternity. […] the rabbi, aided by other rabbinical judges, finally succeeds in exorcising the dybbuk, using incantations and rituals, followed by blasts of the shofar. Leah, meanwhile, must confront the choice between marriage to a man for whom she feels nothing or an unworldly union with her dead lover's spirit." (http://jhom.com/personalities/ansky/dybbuk.htm).


The play, originally called: Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn (Between two worlds) soon became the most popular Jewish play of all times.(2) Rather than offering a new variation of the play, the dance piece 'Ov' offers an innovative, universal abstraction of it. Moreover, it offers an intriguing perspective of the genesis of the creative processes.


Ov begins where Ansky's play ends: when the consummation of the wedlock coincides with the outset of the danced duet, or – in other words – when the creative and creationist acts are about to merge. What does it mean for a person – or a work of art to come to life? Is it a question of different forces becoming one, in order for the one to multiply again, in the reproductive process? Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and mysticism, mentions that the Hebrew word ibbur (עיבור), literally meaning impregnation, was an early term used for a dybbuk.(3) The word dybbuk, from the Hebrew verb 'ד'ב'ק to cling or adhere, refers to the bonding of husband and wife, symbolizing their unity with God. In terms of Jewish cabbalist theosophy, the power of mediation between the spiritual and physical worlds is contained within the realm of words; thus if a combination of powerful, sacred Hebrew letters comprises the secret of the creation, it is essential that another sequence, just as potent, be used in order to exorcise the evil spirit. The flickering of the word 'Ov' on the back-drop, at the beginning of the piece is suggestive of this mystical practice. While apparently a tribute to the 1938 movie of The Dybbuk, the evasive nature of the projection also alludes to the existential chiasm which the dance work elaborates and enacts: Whenever an occurrence presents itself in a particular way, it constantly collapses into its dichotomous opposite, as an unexpected internal 'voice' breaks through.


The mystery of being possessed by a dybbuk brings to mind David Goldblatt's notion of speaking in another voice, which he uses as an overall metaphor for the artistic act. (4)This ventriloquist metaphor seems particularly appropriate to our quest, not only for thematic reasons, but also because Ov seems to be constituted by internalizing and incorporating various materials, by way of quotations, variations and alterations, which infuse it with new life.


According to Goldblatt, "the vocal vacillation between ventriloquist and dummy is mimicked in the relationship of artist, art work and audience, including the ways in which art works are interpreted." (Goldblatt, p. 1). He argues these premises by reading various theoreticians in accordance with the ventriloquist metaphor. In his reading of Nietzsche, for instance, Goldblatt suggests that Zarathustra's conversational encounters with others, including inanimate objects, are really conversations with himself. Such conversations do not belong to ordinary life, but to the inner secret life of the soul (ibid., p. 65).


For Zarathustra the plurality of the world's faces is reflected in an inner oneness. Similarly, with Ov, the actual groom seems to be the incarnated inner voice of the bride, 'ex-pressed', so to speak, through his/her physique. If art-works are vocalizations of ourselves, in voices other than our ordinary ones, choreographic motivation could be accomplished by movements other than our own, ordinary, moves. Indeed, the dialogical nature of the evolving dance duet, which feeds on the constant interchange of personae, and its appropriate musical accompaniment, are further emphasized by the exchange of costumes and wigs, and by repeated breaches of traditional male and female functions throughout the dance. Eventually, even the slightest distinctions of gender seem vague and deceptive. 


Goldblatt considers the ventriloquist phenomenon in light of Foucault's discourse of madness as well as his discussion about sexuality in the seventeenth century. "A man's spirit in a girl's body, a sinful soul in an innocent body, a male voice in a female body – widespread motifs in dybbuk narrations – all constitute an unbearable breach of boundaries" (Goldblatt, p. 81). This seems perfectly in line with Rachel Elior's claim that possession, i.e. impregnation with the dybbuk, represented a total failure of acceptable mental and social categories, which characterize the 'docile body'. However, for Foucault too, this breach of boundaries seems to be an essential part of the creative process. In his essay What is an author he claims that "Everyone knows that in a novel, narrated in the first person, neither the first person pronoun nor the present indicative refer exactly either to the writer or to the moment in which he writes, but rather to an alter-ego whose distance from the author varies, often changing in the course of the work. It would be just as wrong to equate him with the fictitious speaker; the author's function is carried out and operates in the scission itself, in this division and this distance."(5)


The ventriloquist notion in Ov emerges from this scission between ego and alter ego, where it vibrates through the temporal phenomenology of voice, and the spatial phenomenology of the body. Voice actually seems to take place in the body, when the dancers hollow themselves out to take each other "in", letting themselves become vessels to harbor each other. Yet, according to Foucault's understanding, this authorial duality results in effacement of the individual by his own writing. This seems to be well illustrated by the unstable interrelationship between choreographers, performers and musicians, whose clear functions are no longer distinguishable, while overtaken by the work.


The composer of Ov, Raly Margalit, was guided by the initial idea of the choreographers to use some existing music, particularly by Dmitri Shostakovich and Maurice Ravel. Furthermore, the musical score named "Ov for Cello, Double bass and playback" introduces a multi-layered conversation between soundtracks of the "Oy Division" ensemble, performing Yiddish songs, and the live musical performance of two musicians: the cellist (the composer herself) and the double bass player, who perform the original music by Margalit.


The conversation between two almost identical instruments echoes and intensifies the choreography, with its interchanges of identities between male and female characters; it does so by means of the "ventriloquist exchange", making it sometimes quite difficult to identify which voice sounds at each moment.


The music epitomizes this multi-vocal level of conversation. Through the exchange between borrowed musical ideas and her original composition – Margalit refers to existing musical material as speech in another's voice. At the same time quotations and allusions combined with original musical ideas allow her to express her own true identity. "Borrowing, in its many forms including quotation, is a creative act that stirs different, often polarized, types of self perception" – writes David Metzer and continues "… declaration of individuality is often achieved by manipulating the individuality of others." This position is analogous to Goldblatt's "ventriloquist exchange", "viewed as conversation on one level and as talking to oneself on another." This issue deserves deeper consideration. The borrowed material in Margalit's composition includes three kinds of adoptions. Each of these types of adoption introduces a special manner of conversation.


The first one is the most common, when the main characteristic features of the folk tune "Como la rosa” ("Like a rose") are preserved and only slightly changed.


The second type of borrowing is more complicated. Adoption of a musical cryptogram of the Soviet-Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich,(6) is, according to Margalit, not only a tribute to Shostakovich. In this famous motif, preceded by a short the vocal fragment ""כל הנשמות כולן אחד בסוד אחד  (all souls bound in one secret) sung by a male voice, Margalit emphasizes the mystical/cabbalistic character of Ov.


This fragment characterizes Khonnan. It is built like a variation and reminiscent of a double-leveled conversation. On one level – a conversation between two instrumentalists (cello and double-bass) and on the other, an exchange  between the the DSCH motif and the composer's (Raly Margalit's) individuality, expressed by her original musical cues, which intensify the Yiddish sound of the DSCH motif.(7) Furthermore, the well-known reference of Shostakovich's motif to the Yiddish music seems pertinent to the idea of Ov: integrating a contemporary choreographic interpretation of the Dybbuk with 20th century musical expressions of the Jewish stetl.


The third type of "ventriloquist metaphor" is expressed by producing a resemblance of the musical score to the music of Ravel's String Quartet. Here there are no quotations, but only allusions to its colorful, poetic and dreamy atmosphere, used to describe Lea's character. Unlike the tragic expression of Khonnan's fragment Lea's music is distinguished by a tune reminiscent of the ancient diatonic melodies with no contrasts or tension. It is the use of the "other voice". However, the atmosphere of dream and helplessness is broken when the Margalit begins to speak in her own voice, split into female and male personalities, in a fragment named the "Love duet".


Movement-wise, the creators of Ov emphasize the rotary element, reflected in the use of space, in the actual movement configurations and in the body language. Circular and spiral figures are predominant dance elements, yet they also play a symbolic role in mythical thought, in mystical contemplation and in cabbalist praxis, mostly underlining its Unitarian, inclusive nature, which alludes to the divine and universal oneness. The word chorea, (choreia, khoreia, χορεία) comes to mind, with its multiple derivations (chorus, khoros, choreography) meaning 'dance' and 'circular dance'(8). The Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst and theoretician Julia Kristeva's uses a similar ancient greek term 'chora' (χώρα) meaning a narrow room or a confined space, to delineate the chaotic, pre-lingual matrix of the human psychosexual development. In Kristeva's terminology the 'semiotic chora' describes the preliminary state, in which self and other are not yet separate, or clearly definable. However, it is precisely this which enables the development of the individuated subject, since it "is and becomes a precondition for creating the first measurable bodies".(9) Whether or not the terms 'chora' and 'choreia' can be traced back to a common origin, it seems interesting in this case to link them through the Hebrew word ','ח'ל'ל' in which all three meanings are contained: a room (space), a dance, and a circular movement. What are the possible interrelations between the three and how are they related to the ventriloquist metaphor? The intimate stage of Ov functions rather like a small circular arena, the locus of a sacred ritual as well as a 'semiotic chora' – a research laboratory for possible interactions between conflicting forces within the creative process.


At close inspection it seems that circular dance elements in Ov are not only symbols of unity and inclusion, but also of exclusion: something is always left out of the circle, expelled from the paradise of oneness. The ventriloquist paradox could thus be based upon a double edged rotary movement theme, which juxtaposes encircling, containing and harboring, with expelling and rejecting. Both extremes partake in the evolutionary process of the subject according to Kristeva's intuition: "The subject in process attacks every stasis of a "unitary" subject. It attacks every structure that says "No" (censorship) to the subject's drives and complexification, every structure that sets it up as a unity. The "unitary" subject is replaced by a subject in process (understood as movement) whose representation is a space of mobility: the semiotic chora." (Johanne Prud’homme and Lyne Légaré (2006), « The Subject in Process », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec), http://www.signosemio.com.).


Finding one's own subjectivity by means of taking in somebody else's voice is also echoed in Jacque Derrida's discourse about memory and mourning, which is particularly relevant to The Dybbuk. While discussing the concepts of incorporation and internalization, which are commonly used to account for successful mourning, Derrida suggests that "Faithful mourning of the other must fail to succeed / by succeeding (it fails, precisely, if it succeeds! it fails because of success!). There is no successful introjection, there is no pure and simple incorporation".(10) Yet, as witnessed in Ov, the obligation to harbor within us something other and greater than ourselves actually moulds our subjectivity: "that relationship to self which we call "me", "us", "between us", subjectivity", "inter-subjectivity", "memory".(11)


As the dance progresses the confusion between "inter-subjectivity" and "subjectivity" is enhanced by the subtle use of costumes and props (such as the wig or the dress) which, being repeatedly exchanged, form a cycle of mutations and reincarnations. It is ever more difficult to attribute a voice or a movement to either of the performers as they struggle for individuation. Even a clear distinction between their front and back sides is rendered impossible, their identities being continually fused and diffused. In its constant entanglement, the work demonstrates endless ways of problematizing dichotomies such as matter and form, male and female, freedom and subordination, possession and emancipation, integration and separation, fusion and individuation, past and present, to name only a few.


Finally, it is time to devote a few words to the biblical word Ov, meaning necromancy or sorcery, but also a cauldron, a receptacle or bellows used for sorcery (Samuel I, 28, 8). We suggest that in the dance piece at hand a transition has been made from the passive state of being possessed by a dybbuk, as in Ansky's  play, to the active struggle for creative individuality, in Ov. The dance piece as such offers its creators an 'ov': a vessel which draws in a vast variety of old memories and past materials; digests, or embalms them, and yields new progenies. Hence, more than a source of rejuvenation for the old play about possession, Ov becomes a melting pot, in which the mysterious, ongoing process of coming into existence takes shape. It presents itself as a tool by which its creators: Renana Raz, Raly Margalit and Ofer Amram, explore artistic emancipation.


End notes:


(1)A Dance Theatre piece inspierd by the classical Jewish play "The Dybbuk" by S. Ansky. "Ov" is an instrument by which the living can communicate with the spirits of the dead. This creation, which takes place in the twilight of the souls, brings to life the mythical lovers Hanan and Leah, from the play "The Dybbuk".
The lovers, their souls connected together for all eternity, pursue and seek after each other between the worlds. The piece was commissioned by Habima National Theatre for the Israel Festival 2008.

Performers: Ofer Amram, Renana Raz, Rali Margalit (Cello), Ehud Gerlich (Contrabass)
Original Score and Musical Direction: Rali Margalit
Additional Participants: Rachel Viznitzer, Nina Bleibtreu
Animation: Or Moran
Additional Score: "Oy Division"
Lighting: Judy Kupferman
Costumes: Noa Vidman
Set Manufacture: Didi Alon
Mask Manufacture: Ofir Zweibel
DVD Filming and Editing: Yonathan Zur
Excerpt from "The Dybbuk" by S. Ansky, courtesy of Habima National Theatre.


(2)The following list enumerates Music and Dance Productions Inspired by The Dybbuk. ( http://hdl.handle.net/1964/929)


1920, 25: English. Music by Joel Engel, Dance by TBD
1944: Ballet production planned (Jewish Ballet Creations): Music by Elya Jacobson, Dance by Simon Semenoff
1951: The Dybbuk (dance): Music by Siegfried Landau, Dance by Anna Sokolow
1951: Legend (exorcism scene from The Dybbuk): Music by Morton Feldman, Dance by Pearl Lang
1951: The Dybbuk (opera): Music by David Tamkin, Dance by Sophie Maslow
1954: The Dybbuk (play; 4th St. Theater): Music arr. by Thomas Mayer, Dance by Edward Caton
1958: The Dybbuk Suite (dance; on The Sound of Freedom/Look Up and Live) WCBS: Dance by Mary Anthony, Music by Joel Engel (Dybbuk Suite).
1960: The Dybbuk (drama; television/WNTA. Aired Oct 3 as a "Play of the Week"): Music by John Gruen, Choreography supervised by Anna Sokolow, Dir. Sidney Lumet
1960: The Dybbuk (ballet): Music by Robert Starer, Choreography by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross (performed at festivals in Berlin and Flanders)
1964: Neither Rest Nor Harbor (dance based on The Dybbuk): Music by Robert Starer, Dance by Sophie Maslow (for Madison Square Garden Hanukkah Festival; restaged in 1969 at 92nd St. Y).
1968: The Dybbuk Dance by Sophie Maslow (for Madison Square Garden Hanukkah Festival, as one section of a two-part work Scenes from the Yiddish Theater)
1968: Ha-Dibuk Israel/W. German film: Music by Noam Sheriff.
1974: Dybbuk Vatiations (dance): Music by Leonard Bernstein, Dance by Jerome Robbins
1974: Tzaddik (dance): Music by Aaron Copland (Vitebsk), Dance by Eliot Feld. An interesting piece, since both Feld and Judith Brin-Ingber have described it as based on The Dybbuk, but all reviews only note some overt references to Eastern European life.
1975: The Possessed (dance): Music by Meyer Kupferman/Joel Spiegelman, Dance by Pearl Lang
c. 1975: The Dybbuk (opera): Music by Joel Mandelbaum
1977: Milton Barnes composes The Dybbuk: A Masque for Dancing
1980: Between Two Worlds (play; New National Yiddish Theater): Music by Leon Odenz, Lyrics by I. Perlov, Choreography by Pearl Lang
1980: Dybbuk musical piece by David Jaffe; c. 9 mins. (clt in A, 2 vln, vla, pno, offstage mandolin)
1986: The Dybbuk: Music by Alan Bern, Dance by Annie Loui. Movement/theater work at Brandeis University.
1988: Le Dibouk:(dance) Music by Joel Engel (from Dybbuk Suite) and Arnold Schoenberg (Genesis Suite/Concerto for Violin, mvmts1 & finale/Music for Accompanying a Film Scene/A Survivor from Warsaw); Dance by Maurice Béjart
1988: Dybbuk (dance): Music by Ian Dearden, Dance by Kim Brandstrup
1995: A Dybbuk (play): Music by The Klezmatics, Choreography by Mark Dendy
1997: A Dybbuk (T. Kushner): Music by The Klezmatics, Choreography by Naomi Goldberg
1997: Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) (Opera): Music by Shulamit Ran. Premiered in June at the Lyric Opera, Chicago. European premiere: May 1999, Bielefeld Opera.
2001: Other operas by: Larry Lockwood (
2006: Restaging of the play for Theater J/Synetic Theater, Washington DC; Irina Tsikurishvili, Choreographer.

(3)Rachel Elior, Dybbuks and Jewish Women, Jerusalem: Urim, 2008. p. 66-67

(4)David Goldblatt, Art and Ventriloquism, Oxon: Routledge, 2006.

(5)Michel Foucault, What is an author, in P. Rabinow (ed.) Foucault reader, 1991, London: Penguin, p. 112.

(6)This motif stands for the German spelling of the name: D[mitri] Sch[ostakovitsch], DSCH. The meanings of the letters and their pronunciations in German music theory allow a translation of the cryptogram into a short musical melody of four pitches: D-Es(s)-C-H i.e. D-E-flat-C-b natural ( in English music theory).

(7)D. Shostakovich used to include musical material related to Yiddish/Jewish culture, like modes, rhythms or formulas of accompaniment, in many of his works. Yiddish/Jewish modes, mostly minor, are characterized by augmented or diminished intervals. The DSCH motif sounds just like a Jewish melody, written in one of the Jewish minor modes, with an augmented second between the third and fourth degrees, and has the interval of a diminished fourth between the second and the last (E flat and B natural) pitches. 

(8)The Russian folk dance khorovod and the Moldavian-Israeli hora are later off springs of the  

 same word.

(9)Kristeva, J., "Politique de la littérature", Polylogue, Paris: Seuil, 1977. P. 57

(10)Jacques Derrida, "Istrice 2: Ick bünn all hier." Points . . . Interviews, 1974-1995. Ed. Elisabeth Weber. Trans. Peggy Kamuf, et al., Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995. P. 321.

(11)Jacques Derrida, Mémoires: For Paul de Man. Trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava, and Peggy Kamuf. Ed. Avital Ronell and Eduardo Cadava. New York: Columbia UP, 1989. P. 33.






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