Julia Ritter remembers Miriam Gabriel as the wistful visual arts student who used to hang around the dance studio her freshman year. One day Ritter stopped to admire the young woman’s graceful, improvisational moves and energetic style.
“I really enjoy watching you dance,” said Ritter, chair of the Mason Gross School of the Arts dance department. “I hope you know that you can do it all – dance and other forms of art.” At the time, Gabriel had a vague notion of becoming an art teacher.
Those words of encouragement may have changed the trajectory of Gabriel’s life. The Princeton resident graduates this month with a degree in dance from Mason Gross and an apprenticeship with an up-and-coming Israeli dance company, en route to becoming a professional dancer.
Gabriel – known to most as Mimi – joined the dance department her sophomore year, just as Ritter had begun cultivating relationships with Israeli dance companies and artists – a personal mandate to expand her students’ knowledge of international dance and expose them to dancers and choreographers working in different cultures.
Gabriel’s interactions with the artists Ritter invited to perform and to work with Rutgers students, combined with hours of watching YouTube clips of the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Ensemble, ignited a passion.
“I loved everything about it [Israeli dance].The extreme physicality and energetic, raw movement. The way the dancers throw their bodies around,” Gabriel said. “Israeli dancers are versatile and passionate. They have an ability to express themselves in strong, full-bodied movements that are both harsher and freer than most other dance cultures.”
Gabriel began thinking about studying dance in Israel, an opportunity available through Rutgers. Upon Ritter's arrival as chair of the dance department in 2010, she launched a study abroad program – the first in the department’s 30-year history. Gabriel applied to DanceJerusalem, a joint dance exchange program with the Rothberg International School and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. She received a partial scholarship to spend her junior year in Israel’s capital, training in skills and technique and learning about Israeli history and culture.
Training in form known as 'Gaga'
It was a difficult but life-changing experience. The school wasn’t as organized as Mason Gross, and she found the cultural differences, at first, surprising. “The top dancers in Israel don’t study dance at university; they audition in high school and about 50 artists a year get to do a modified army service to pursue their careers. They are already professional dancers by the time they’re my age.”But within a few months, she connected with a group of creative and interesting people. She had the chance to perform and choreograph her own work in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the dance mecca of Israel.
Toward the end of her stay, she was even offered a contract by a dance troupe in the Southern district. She wasn’t tempted. “I would have had to make aliya (permanent residence), my Hebrew is terrible and the company was in the middle of the desert,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel returned home for an exciting senior year. While finishing up her Rutgers degree, she participated in a weeklong intensive in Manhattan focusing on an Israeli dance form known as Gaga (the name comes from babytalk, the idea that it’s natural and instinctive). She also auditioned for the Brooklyn-based dance company, LeeSaar, the creation of Israeli choreographers, Lee Sher and Saar Harari. The small international troupe, whose work is rooted in Gaga, is known for its fierce stage presence, technical facility, sensuality and ripe emotion.
This year at Mason Gross, she had a rare opportunity to study technique, improvisation and performance with Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor, Israeli choreographers who have been in residence at the university all spring.
LeeSaar contacted Gabriel during the winter break to see if she’d work with them, and she’s already begun her apprenticeship at the Brooklyn-based dance company part time. Post-graduation she begins a regimen of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. rehearsals four days a week. “All it takes is for someone to get pregnant and I’ll be able to perform,” Gabriel said.
Whatever happens, Ritter believes Gabriel’s future is bright. “Mimi is an exceptional young dancer whose technical, improvisational and compositional skills are informed both by her dance training and her training as a visual artist,” she says. “She has a curiosity for experimentation and risk that is refreshing. She jumps in and tries everything with the purest intentions – to gain as much as possible from the experience. “
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