interview conducted & edited by CHRISTINA CAMPODONICO
I first met Ze’eva Cohen when I was a freshman at Princeton in 2009. I took her seminar, “Body and Spirit: A Comparative Approach to Religious Dance.” It was my favorite course that year. While it was my first semester at Princeton, it was Cohen’s last. Cohen, who founded Princeton’s Dance Department in 1969 and led it for forty years, was about to retire the following spring. A tribute concert in April 2010, which I attended, showcased her illustrious career as an independent dance artist.
Originally from Israel, Cohen came to New York City in 1963 to study at Juilliard and dance with Anna Sokolow Dance Company. After graduation, Cohen eschewed a traditional dance career. Though invited to dance with Alvin Ailey’s and Paul Taylor’s companies, she chose to carve out her own path in the dance world. She became a founding member of Dance Theater Workshop, a cooperative association of choreographers. In 1971, she initiated a highly acclaimed solo repertory series. Over 12 years she worked with 23 choreographers on 28 different solos, which she toured throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel. In 2000, Cohen presented “Female Mythologies,” a series of performances dealing with women’s myths and lives, at Danspace Project in New York City. All the while, she continued to teach choreography, performance, dance theory and writing at Princeton.
Retirement, however, has not slowed the seventy-five-year-old Cohen down. She has been working on an autobiographical documentary, called “Ze’eva Cohen: Creating a Life in Dance,” with former ABC News 20/20 video editor Sharon Kaufman. The film makes its West Coast debut at Dance Camera West’s Media Film Festival Sunday at MOCA. I caught up with Cohen to talk about the making of this film and her collaboration with Kaufman.
Q & A with Ze’eva Cohen
AMPERSAND: Why did you decide to commemorate your life in dance through a film? Why not a book?
ZE’EVA COHEN: In the old days, people wrote books about their careers. And in our day, I think we need something more immediate—not that books are obsolete, but a film is a legacy. Who knows—maybe in my eighties I’ll start writing a book. But the film had to come first.
There’s something so immediate about performance. In film, in the first two minutes, you’re already in it. You cannot stop looking at it. A book usually grows on you as you read it. And you cannot read it in one take.
My [original] performances were videoed not for the sake of making a film, but for the sake of just preserving a piece. In the ‘70s it was an open reel 1/2 inch. In the ‘80s, it became a U-matic 3/4. Then in the ‘90s it became VHS. And then in the 2000s it became DVD. Each decade the former format became obsolete. So over the years, I have transferred from one media to the next one, to the next one, so that I wouldn’t lose [the dances].
Because dance is so ephemeral, I wanted to compose together a video that would be kind of a composite of my life in dance.
AMPERSAND: How did you come to collaborate with Sharon Kaufman on the film?
COHEN: When I met Sharon, it was a year before my retirement from Princeton. So I was thinking about what I would do for my retirement. Usually for professors they give a big dinner and I decided I didn’t want a dinner, I wanted a concert, a dance concert.
When I approached Sharon, I asked her if she knew somebody who knew how to put archival material together [for a video to be screened at the tribute concert]. She was just about to retire from ABC and she was looking to do something independent. She thought [the video was] going to be an eight or ten minute something that you put for bar mitzvah or wedding or for graduation, but it awakened her artistic juices.
She was able to weave life and art so beautifully. It was her idea to record me speaking about each period of my life in dance and how I evolved from one stage to the next.
When I saw what Sharon was making I said, “Wow, Sharon this could be the seed of a legacy film for me.” I think with Sharon she was so swept up, without knowing what she was getting into. She was so sure that she was done when the tribute concert was done. I really insisted on coming back, digging in and making the film fuller. It took a lot of convincing power from me for her to come around.
AMPERSAND: It’s unusual for the subject of a biographical documentary to narrate his/her own life story. Why was it important for you to lend your voice to this film?
COHEN: I always felt that it’s very important for artists to give voice to their own perspective, on their own work. Otherwise if there’s nothing from the artist, then only what remains – especially in dance – is what [the critic] wrote about the artist. Something essential is missing.
I feel that history needs to be a composite of all the voices including the artist’s voice.
Also dance is its own language. That’s why Sharon had me narrate so much, so that I could help people enter that world by speaking.
AMPERSAND: As you were collecting all these items – video footage and old photographs – for the film, how was it seeing your younger self after so many years?
COHEN: My first performance was at age 16 and my last performance was at age 60. When I was less experienced and younger, each time I looked at a video of myself I would be very disappointed and I would think, ‘Wow, what’s the big deal? Why am I getting all these good reviews? I don’t think it’s that good. I think it could be better.’ I was very judgmental and I did not know how to look at myself.
We learn as we mature to be more cool about how we see ourselves—to be more objective, for good or for bad. You get to so many years…what’s there to be shy about? When you get to a certain level, your worst performance is still good, or very good.
AMPERSAND: Now that you’ve produced a film, what’s next?
COHEN: It’s a coat I put on and now I took it off. People don’t believe me but I say, ‘My life took me so way beyond what I dreamed and I never had a plan’ and it continues to be true.
Q & A with Sharon Kaufman
AMPERSAND: How did your collaboration with Ze’eva come about?
SHARON KAUFMAN: We met quite by chance at a friend’s apartment for dinner one night in 2009. She was talking about the fact that she would be retiring [from Princeton] next spring. I had been working at the TV networks, mostly ABC. I was about to retire and I didn’t know what I was going to be doing next.
Ze’eva knew that there would be a retirement gala in the spring of 2010 and she had a lot of archival film and video of her performances and choreography and just mentioned that she was looking for an editor who could just put a few minutes of clips together. I said, “That’s something I might like to do,” having no idea that would develop into something that went on and on.
She invited me over to her apartment to see some of the clips that she had narrowed down to the best of the best. And I saw that magnificence of the dance, the creativity, the storytelling and the movement and how beautiful she was. It absolutely knocked me out.
So Ze’eva and I started meeting weekly for lunch at my apartment. So the months went by and we showed [the video] in April of 2010 [at the tribute concert]. It was an incredible experience for me to show something in front of a live audience because my work was always on television and I sat in my living room and watched it. Here [at the concert] I was with 350 people – friends of Ze’eva’s, people from Princeton, the dance world and the dance community.
AMPERSAND: Ze’eva mentioned that you need a little extra convincing to continue with the project.
KAUFMAN: Ze’eva came back to me and said, ‘We need to expand this.’ I said to her, ‘No, I’m done.’ But then again, you know, Ze’eva – ‘No, no you’re not done. We really need to do this.’ She was so focused on what she was trying to communicate to me about her personal history, her love of dance, her storytelling through dance. And her instinct was so right.
I came to realize how right it was because we needed to show the whole story, the whole arc of her career. I realized what a gift she was giving to the dance world.
AMPERSAND: Ze’eva told me that it was your idea to have her narrate the film? Why did you decide to have her voice the film’s narrative arc?
KAUFMAN: Having been an editor all my life, I knew how to structure a story – how to pull out the gem of the sound bites – but I had never actually conducted an interview. I told Ze’eva, ‘I need to do an interview with you and this has to be the backbone of this piece.’ It was thrilling because at that point I really knew her and I knew her dances. And she’s such a great storyteller.
AMPERSAND: What did you learn from making this film and working with Ze’eva?
KAUFMAN: What I do [as an editor] is a very solo, intimate, private process. This was my first independent film – my first time directing and having complete control, of course with [Ze’eva’s] input. Collaborating on this level was a growing experience for me. It’s very different from editing a 20/20 story where I have a great level of removal, but because it was her life, I had to be especially aware of how I was letting her tell her story. Ze’eva doesn’t create movement just for the sake of movement. Ze’eva tells a story. Ze’eva gets you to find your own voice.
I discovered that editing is choreography – timing, movement, color, music.
Even if I’m editing a story that has no music in it, there is still a rhythm. There’s still a subconscious music in my head that’s going on to carry me from one shot to another, one sequence to another. Working with her really highlighted that for me and that was very exciting to find the common choreography that we have.
AMPERSAND: What do you hope people will takeaway from the film and Ze’eva’s life story?
KAUFMAN: I think what they’ll see in it, what has been Ze’eva’s mantra – how an artist can have an independent life and have a career. You can follow your dream. You can make it happen. You can be a creative person and make a living. I just hope people learn from what Ze’eva can teach.
“Ze’eva Cohen: Creating a Life in Dance” screens on Sunday, May 3 at 1:00 pm at MOCA. For ticket information visit www.dancecamerawest.org
[featured image courtesy of Dance Camera West]