Rena Gluck, who helped bring modern dance to Israel, dies at 89

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Rena Gluck, who helped bring modern dance to Israel, dies at 89
Rena Gluck in Martha Graham’s “Cave of the Heart” in 1971. Gluck, a dancer, choreographer and educator who helped bring modern dance to Israel, and who was instrumental in creating the Batsheva Dance Company, the country’s pre-eminent dance troupe, died on Jan. 13, 2023, at her home in Tel Aviv. She was 89. (via Gluck family via The New York Times)

by Brian Schaefer

NEW YORK, NY.- Rena Gluck, a dancer, choreographer and educator who helped bring modern dance to Israel, and who was instrumental in creating the Batsheva Dance Company, the country’s preeminent dance troupe, died Jan. 13 at her home in Tel Aviv. She was 89.

Her daughters, Dalit and Daphna Murvitz, said the cause was complications of pneumonia. They added that Gluck’s twin brother, Milton Gluck, died on the same day, at a hospital in the New York City borough of Manhattan, of the same cause. The siblings had planned to celebrate their 90th birthday together in Israel the next day.

Israel is now considered a global hotbed of contemporary dance, with Batsheva still at its center. But when Gluck arrived in 1954 as a recent Juilliard School graduate and a newlywed, Israel, as a young country, was still seeking and constructing its identity.

“There was such a hunger for culture,” she recalled in a 2020 interview in Tel Aviv. “The appetite for dance and the love of dance was so powerful.”

Israel already had a strong relationship with dance. It widely embraced folk dance, particularly on the kibbutzim, and nurtured a performance dance scene in Tel Aviv, where European refugees such as Gertrud Kraus taught the improvisational, free-spirited German expressionist style.

Gluck introduced a more rigorous technique, honed through years of training with American modern-dance pioneers including Martha Graham, who had been her teacher at Juilliard.

After Graham’s company performed in Israel in 1956, thrilling audiences with its virtuosic theatricality and sophisticated aesthetics, Gluck became an in-demand teacher of the exacting Graham style.

“Whoever wanted to do Graham went through her studio,” Yair Vardi, a prominent arts administrator who danced with Gluck in Batsheva, said in an interview.

On a subsequent visit, in 1958, Graham visited a class that Gluck taught. “I like the changes you made in my technique,” she told Gluck, according to Gluck’s 2013 memoir, “Batsheva Dance Company 1964-1980: My Story.” “You make allowances for the energy of the Israelis and this environment — that is right.”

By this time, Gluck had befriended Baroness Bethsabée de Rothschild, an heiress to the Rothschild banking fortune and a longtime Graham benefactor. For years, Rothschild supported Israeli dance artists — she bought Gluck a coveted wooden floor for her Tel Aviv dance studio — and she eventually decided to establish Batsheva, with Graham as artistic adviser. Rothschild later cited Gluck as an inspiration for starting the company.

Batsheva made its debut in 1964 and changed the landscape of dance in Israel. It was also the first company outside Graham’s own to perform her work.

Ze’eva Cohen, an acclaimed dancer and choreographer who was Gluck’s student, wrote in an email that she believed Graham had agreed to this arrangement in part because “she knew and trusted Rena.” Cohen also pointed out that many of Batsheva’s founding dancers were able to “tackle the Graham repertory” only because of their training with Gluck.

Graham’s involvement catapulted Batsheva to international attention, and as one of its stars, Gluck performed leading roles in seminal Graham dances such as “Herodiade” and “Diversion of Angels,” as well as in work by guest choreographers such as Jerome Robbins, Donald McKayle and Glen Tetley. She choreographed several dances for the company as well.

Rena Joan Gluck and her brother, Milton, were born Jan. 14, 1933, in New York, to Leibish and Zelda (Karabok) Gluck. Her parents had immigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1920s and met in New York. Her father, a jeweler, was unemployed when the twins arrived during the Depression. He volunteered in a grocery store, later worked there, and eventually owned a grocery store himself.

Rena had lingering medical issues from birth, and her parents were advised that dancing could help her build strength. She started classes at age 3, and within a few years, dance became her passion and then her calling.

“I surprised no one when, at the age of 9, I announced to my parents and teacher that I intended to become a professional dancer,” she wrote in her memoir.

While her family, including an older brother, Gene, worked in the grocery store, Gluck was encouraged to pursue dance. At 13, she began studying with renowned artists such as Sophie Maslow and Jane Dudley, Graham acolytes and members of the influential New Dance Group.

In 1947, she was accepted into the new dance division at the High School of Performing Arts. After a year at Hunter College, she joined the inaugural class of the dance division at Juilliard.

There she met two people who would shape her life: Martha Graham and Moshe Murvitz, an Israeli violinist and fellow student. Gluck and Murvitz married within a year and, against her parents’ wishes, moved to Israel shortly after graduation. Aware of the lack of theatrical equipment available there at the time, the couple brought their own stage lights.

“My first challenge was finding dancers and a place to train and rehearse,” Gluck wrote. When finding performance opportunities proved to be a struggle, she created them, traveling around the country and dancing on tables lashed together in kibbutzim dining halls.

Joining Batsheva brought a small degree of stability, but she continued juggling performance, teaching and family. Her daughter Dalit was born in 1960, her daughter Daphna in 1961.

She recalled hosting a reception after a performance of Graham’s “Cave of the Heart” when a guest said to her: “You just danced Medea. Now you’re taking care of your children and preparing dinner. How do you manage it?”

“I couldn’t do one without the other,” Gluck replied. “It’s just two sides of the coin. That’s who I am.”

Gluck danced with Batsheva for 16 years during an often tumultuous time of artistic and administrative turnover. She served briefly as assistant director and rehearsal director and was a founder of Batsheva’s junior ensemble in 1976.

She was steadfast in her commitment to the company. She was also integral to securing government funding that allowed it to endure.

“She was very strong,” Vardi said. “A figure to reckon with.”

In 1980, Gluck left the company and started a second career in dance education.

From 1982-97, she served in various roles at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, including as dean of the dance faculty, head of the dance school, chair of the dance department and professor. In 2007, she received a lifetime achievement award from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport for her contributions to dance. Two years later, she began an oral history project for the Dance Library of Israel for which she interviewed 120 artists.

Batsheva evolved under the direction of Ohad Naharin. It remains an internationally revered company, but it no longer resembles the one shaped by Graham.

“The dancers are extraordinary,” Gluck said in 2020. “But they have nothing to do with what we were. Except they have the passion that we had. The dancers in Batsheva have always had this passion.”

Gluck’s marriage to Murvitz ended in divorce in 1982. In addition to her daughters — Dalit is a doctor and Daphna a lawyer — she is survived by five grandchildren.

Hours before their deaths, Gluck spoke by phone with her brother, a retired junior high school math teacher. Despite living across the world from each other for more than 60 years, the twins had remained close.

“They thanked each other,” said Daphna Murvitz, who was present for the conversation. “They had 90 years of a very special relationship.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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