Artivism: Sophia Rabinovitz uses dance to express social issues
By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN
Coming to New Orleans from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts with stopovers in Philadelphia and London, Sophia Rabinovitz landed in the Crescent City about two years ago and quickly immersed herself in the local dance community.
As the founder and artistic director of the year-old Artivism Dance Theatre and resident choreographer for The Art Klub, Rabinovitz and her eight-member company (including herself) will be staging a dance performance at the Art Klub, 1941 Arts Street (at North Johnson) on Saturday, March 24 at 8 p.m. The performance, titled “Open Ended,” is the opening act in a three-hour fundraiser for the company that will also include food, live music, a silent auction and more.
Rabinovitz will be featured in two of the evening’s five dances, the first being a duet with company member Lynn Forney, and the other being an ensemble piece choreographed by another company member, Elle Ciccarone. Two of the pieces are new works being premiered; the others were performed at various times last year.
The company’s name, “Artivism,” is a combination of two words that have significant meaning for Sophia: “art” and the last two syllables of the word “activism.” As she explains, “It is art as a means of displaying activism,” something Sophia feels very strongly about.
“My history of activism and my studies in world cultures have inspired me to use my art form as a catalyst for dialogue about social justice issues,” she explained. “I believe that art, and dance specifically, has the potential to speak to significant world matters in a way that words often cannot capture.
“Since high school I’ve always been very interested in how social justice issues can be discussed through art,” Sophia continued. “I produced and directed ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and was very into theatre in terms of activism. I became more open to the idea of that being a possibility in dance as I got older.”
Artivism has gained notice in arts circles. The company was nominated for a Big Easy Classical Arts Award in the category of “Outstanding Dance Presentation (Short)” for its 2017 performance of “(Un)Caged” at the Art Klub.
Sophia’s interest in the performing arts and her activism can be largely attributed to the home environment of her youth. Raised in what she called an observant Reconstructionist Jewish household in the university town of Amherst, Massachusetts by college-educated parents who kept kosher, she was exposed to culture and social issues at a young age. In addition to attending regular services on Saturdays, Hebrew school on Sundays, Reconstructionist summer camp and observance of holy days, Sophia began taking dance lessons at the age of six.
“I started with ballet and really didn’t like it too much,” she admitted. “It was too rigid. I was a very active kid. I wanted to run around and move and it was just too confining for me. So I stopped dancing after doing ballet for a few years, then started again when I was around 10 or 11 with jazz and modern and different movements where I was able to be a little bit more free.”
Eventually Sophia found her way back to ballet because, as she explained, “It has its foundations in European dance.” She freely acknowledges the importance of being classically trained in dance as a precursor to developing more contemporary styles.
Location also played a key role in the development of Sophia’s cultural and social awareness. As the home of the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus and two other colleges, Amherst was a culturally and intellectually thriving mid-sized city. “There was definitely a great arts scene there,” she said.
In addition, Amherst was in close proximity to the internationally renowned Jacob’s Pillow Summer Dance Festival and only a few hours from Boston where Sophia and her family frequently attended theatrical performances. Occasionally they would go into New York to see Broadway shows.
“My parents were very aware of the arts and interested in dance and theatre and all of that,” Sophia said. “They opened my eyes to it at a very young age, which was really wonderful.”
Sophia’s youth was also filled with exciting trips to foreign countries. “My parents were always really big on traveling, so I went to a lot of places when I was younger,” she said. “That was always more the priority than other things. I didn’t grow up with lots of fancy clothes or furniture but financial leisure for us wasn’t about buying things. It was about traveling to new places and having experiences.”
Following her high school graduation, Sophia went on to attend Philadelphia’s Temple University where she received her BFA in Dance and a BA in Cultural Anthropology. From there it was on to London for three years where she earned her Master’s in Dance Anthropology/Dance Cultures from the nearby University of Surrey.
Her next and last stop after that was New Orleans.
“My sister (Chana Rose Rabinovitz) had been living in New Orleans for about four years and I had visited her there,” Sophia recounted. “I really loved it. It’s a great city. I said to myself, ‘Let’s give it a try’ and so here I am.”
Prior to her arrival Sophia Rabinovitz was already testing the waters, seeking job opportunities. “I started emailing people before I got here: yoga studios, fitness places and dance studios, trying to network with some of the dance people here.” Not long after her arrival, a fortuitous meeting with Reese Johanson at a party helped set her on her present course.
“When I met Reese she told me she was opening a venue called the Art Klub and she expressed interest in a dance company I had started in London,” Rabinovitz said. “She checked out my work and liked it and offered me the residency there. I didn’t have any dancers yet so I had to get some, but it all just fell into place and it was amazing.”
Putting out a call, Rabinovitz scheduled two auditions and a good number of hopeful dancers showed up. Three of the dancers in Artivism are still with her from her first audition and the rest of her cast was filled primarily through word of mouth.
“In terms of dance, my work is very theatrical; very athletic,” Sophia explained. “It’s a fusion between my contemporary training and my hip hop training. I’ve dabbled in a lot of different styles, so there are certain influences that come in here and there, but it’s mostly contemporary and hip hop. I’m really interested in pushing the body to do new feats of strength and new challenges.”
So now, after having time to settle into New Orleans and get a feel for its cultural awareness, how is Rabinovitz finding it to be? “I think it’s amazing,” she responds. “Really wonderful. There is a very wonderful emphasis on the arts here that’s really great. There is a very tight-knit dance community, which has both positives and negatives. Everybody knows everybody and it works both ways but it’s mostly good. I’m really enjoying it here.”
As for long- and short-term goals, she wants to reach out more to the community and bring dance instruction and education to local schools, incarceration facilities and juvenile detention centers.
“I am trying to establish a youth mentoring program,” she explained. “Ideally, teenage and high school age youths who are integrated into the company would have a mentor who they can work with specifically in terms of what is it like to be a professional dancer. How can you make this a sustainable career and what are the important techniques and tools for performance and for growing as an artist to build those relationships? Those are the questions I hope we can answer for them.”
And, consistent with her personal activism and concern for social justice, Sophia is attempting to work out participation arrangements with officials of several organizations devoted to helping prepare inmates and recently released inmates for civilian life. Some of these organizations sponsor music and writing workshops but do not, at present, offer dance programs.
“I’m looking to start doing creative process workshops to show how movement can be used to express and tell a story, particularly a story that is very challenging. Physicalizing somebody else’s experience in order to spread understanding,” she said.
So how does she stay in shape? “Yoga,” is Rabinovitz’s immediate answer. “I am also a personal trainer, so I literally work out for a living. I need to stay in shape to do what I do.” Her home base is Triumph Fitness on Jefferson Highway adjacent to the Elmwood Industrial Park.
Overall, Rabinovitz is positive about the potential impact of what she does and she is determinedly fixed on specific goals. “For me it’s about starting a conversation,” she said. “I very much want to create work that’s transparent and easily understood by anyone. Someone who doesn’t have an education in the arts or doesn’t often go to concert performances can come to an Artivism show, understand what is going on, and start a discussion about the issues addressed. That’s the goal for my work.”
To learn more about Artivism and to make reservations for the fundraiser/performance Saturday night go to www.artivismdancetheatre.com. You can contact Sophia Rabinovitz at email@example.com or visit Artivism on their Facebook page.