No Dance Schools in Anatevka: Fidler Afn Dakh’s Staś Kmieć interviewed by Hallie Chametzky
I have seen the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof more than almost any other film. In recent years I have begun to hear increasing anti-Fiddler sentiment from fellow Jews who have concerns about things like accuracy and stereotype and representation. I hear their ambivalence, but I really, really love the show.
Fiddler is an unlikely dance show. Among musicals of its era, it stands out among the boppity tapping of a Music Man, the diegetic dancing of a Cabaret, or the pleasing folk-infused balleticism of an Oklahoma. Fiddler’s movement is a bit more chagrined, lopsided, and, debates on accuracy aside, much more Jewish. Dance is central to the show’s world-building; who can forget Tevye’s quaking shoulders in “If I Were a Rich Man” or the thrilling precarity of the bottle dance in the first act closer (read on for more on this dance)?
In 1965, just one year after the Broadway show opened, actor/writer Shraga Friedman translated the show into Yiddish as “Fidler Afn Dakh,” a production that wouldn’t be seen in the United States until 2018 when the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene produced it for a limited six-week run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Six weeks turned into about five months due to demand, and the show ultimately transferred to off-Broadway Stage 42 where it ran for over a year. In late 2022 it was revived at New World Stages, where I was lucky enough to catch it.
Along with nabbing Broadway icon Joel Grey to direct, this Yiddish Fiddler brought on choreographer Staś Kmieć, a direct artistic descendent of Jerome Robbins, the acclaimed choreographer of the original show. Kmieć performed Fiddler in two two-year tours and was mentored by Robbins’ mentee Sammy Dallas Bayes. Kmieć is also a scholar and ethnographer, specializing in Polish folk dance and culture. He’s researched and published on Jewish-Polish dance, especially dances of the Shtetl, and has directed and/or choreographed over a dozen previous iterations of Fiddler. I wanted to know how he approached his role as choreographer and staging director of this production, performed in a language not widely spoken but deeply associated with Jewish diaspora, heritage, and survival.
Hallie Chametzky: Does the fact that this is a Yiddish Fiddler change the approach to the movement?
Staś Kmieć: It was about the authenticity that the Yiddish language presented, it made me think. I had performed in many Fiddlers and I had directed and choreographed 13 that were [choreography by] Robbins with me infused, but very Robbins. This one allowed me more of a chance to explore. I kept on calling my mentor [Bayes] — his mentor was Jerome Robbins, so it gets passed down. He said, “I trust you totally that you will maintain the integrity of it.” So, my thought was always to maintain the integrity of Robbins. I was fortunate to have met him and worked for a short amount of time with him. To take that and what got passed down to me and use that integrity of why things are there. Not going off on a tangent like some of the recent Broadway revivals that all of a sudden are using Israeli dance or modern dance in there, and it’s not true to the Shtetl.
HC: What is the process of teaching the cast this very particular movement vocabulary and aesthetic? What are the hallmarks of the Jewish dance in Fiddler? How do you express them to the artists on stage?
SK: I always start with “Tradition,” because that bonds people, it tells people who they are, and it introduces the circle. The circle is a theme throughout: the broken circle, reaching for the circle, the unity of the circle and of the community. You know, we go through the steps and people would ask me, “what foot do I start on?” I go, “it doesn’t matter. You’re a village.” That’s one kind of departure from Robbins, which was very specific. It wasn’t the Rockettes, it was a village. My big thing was: there are no dance schools in Anatevka. Everyone had to be real. Sometimes I actually said “you know, that looks too even. You look here, you look there, you start on this foot.” I called it “dirty Fiddler.” I wanted to dirty it up a bit.
The Jewish essence of it—which we get right off in the beginning in “Tradition”—is that it’s from the soul, from the heart, from the connection to God, how you lift up, how you breathe. It would be like your soul, your heartbeat, your breath. Part of that is that when you’re holding your hands up here [holding arms aloft like a goal post], you shouldn’t be pumping the hands up when you’re holding the circle, you should be lifting and that brings the arms up. It’s just this lift and reach, it is your connection with God.
Of course, there’s folk steps. There’s a connection to what you find in many folk dances and dances of the Shtetl. It’s like you’re digging the earth. That’s where the other productions go wrong. If you just follow what these steps are you have no idea what they’re supposed to mean. If you think of digging the earth as you bring your arms down and up, or you think of shielding the sun, those have more resonance. The audience won’t exactly say “they’re shielding from the sun,” but they’ll feel something. They’ll see something.
In this production I said to the cast: there is no audience. There is a community and you’re connected to the community and you’re not playing to the audience. There happens to be an audience and they’re looking through a keyhole and seeing this unique culture and its traditions and its dances and community, speaking in a language they don’t know. That is a subliminal thing that the audience isn’t aware of, but they’re noticing the community and the connection.
Topol from the film came to see it and he sat next to me. He said, “this is a real Shtetl.” I said “what do you mean? We have nothing. We have tables and chairs and no set.” He goes, “no, no, no. It’s the feeling, it’s the community.” So that was like, oh, someone gets it.
HC: I’m thinking about authenticity versus theatricality; how you decide which is appropriate and how you decide when it’s time to drill down on being authentic to a cultural experience versus when the theatricality calls for something else. I imagine maybe these days, when we’re much more sensitive to cultural truth, you must be thinking about that?
SK: It was all organic. I didn’t necessarily think it. Because I had a skill set in ethnography and folk culture and dance that was able to seamlessly seep its way in. Part of Robbins is the specificity in detail. That’s something I carry through even if it’s not Robbins I’m dealing with. There were times where Joel [Grey] would say to me, in the most basic terms, “I don’t like that.” The first thing was the bottle dance. He said he didn’t like the bottle dance, he was going to cut it out, it was too presentational. I was thinking, I think you’re thinking of the last Broadway revival where they didn’t really balance their bottles. I said, “this is a gift to Motel and Tzeitel. This is their gift and it’s also symbolic of how fragile life is that it could fall apart at any time, just the way a bottle does.” So, I staged the entire wedding so he could see it in context. He needed to see where it comes from and how it fits in.
Now, the bottle dance is not a real dance. Today, you see it at weddings, you see it in Israel, you see it all over the place. It’s an invention of Jerome Robbins. He went to [Hassidic] weddings in Williamsburg throughout his research process and brought dancers, who I’ve been fortunate enough to talk with and they tell me stories. There appeared to have been a man that had a hat on and put a bottle on his head and did a little happy dance. And Robbins’ mind started turning and turning and turning, and he came up with this brilliant dance. Now, it’s about how to take that and make it work within the context, make it authentic, make it organic. Part of that for me was to delve into the nuance of the steps and make everyone daring. And really balance the bottle. The last two revivals where they use different gimmickry to balance the bottles; that wasn’t going to happen for me. Because I always balanced the bottle, and I only dropped it once. 1,672 performances and I only dropped it once. To make it daring — it has another quality when you’re actually balancing the bottle. It gives it a very stoic, concentrated quality.
There’s a section right after the bottle dance where the men do this whirling ecstatic dance, and the women never did anything. They’re just by the stantion. And I’m like “mm-mm [shaking head], these women are gonna dance.” I’m going to throw in some culture, authentic steps, I didn’t think anything of it. At Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I happened to be there one day on a matinee, and I was in the lobby and these women came up to me because I had been pointed out as having choreographed it. I could tell they were Hassidic women. They said, “We have something we want to say to you.” and I’m like, “uh oh, what’s this…” And they said, “We want to thank you for showing women dancing on the stage. We have never seen a production of Fiddler where the women are dancing. And of course we would be dancing at the wedding! We’d be dancing on the other side, we’d be doing our steps.” I was like, yes! They got it. Maybe everyone else was looking at the men, but someone saw it.
Certain traditions [needed to be included] like kissing the mezuzah. We don’t have a doorway. I begged, just give me a frame that we can bring on! At Safra Hall there was no room. So, I got on the floor, I taped a line, and I told everyone: “when you cross that line, either in the house or the tailor shop, you need to kiss the mezuzah.” Everyone in the creative team was like, “No, you can’t do that.” I was like, “It’s theater! It doesn’t really matter. They would kiss the mezuzah, so I’m not taking that bit away, it’s really cultural and it needs to be there.” They thought I was crazy, until the Forward and everyone who wrote about it, they saw it, they mentioned it. It validates that it needs to be there.
HC: What was the argument against it?
SK: Just that there was no doorway. They weren’t thinking theatrically. This is where authenticity and theatricality go hand in hand. Don’t underestimate your audience. I had seen the Alfred Molina Fiddler and they wanted to strip away all those types of elements because they wanted to make it more universal. But actually, it’s more universal when you really stick to it. Fiddler was so popular in Japan. People would say “how do they get this in the United States? This is so Japanese.” Because it’s about tradition, it’s about family, it’s about culture, all those things. Another thing is that in the “Sabbath Prayer,” in Robbins’ over the candles everyone does it in unison the same way, all the different households. Someone had told me, “Well that’s not the way I was taught. I was taught this way.” And someone else said “I was taught this way.” I said, okay we’re going to go all those different ways. Tradition in the family — there’s no edict. Everyone does things a little differently as it got passed down in their family.
I’m going to bring another thing up: memory and remembrance. In this version we have this scroll or long paper that says “Toyre”*. You know the part where it gets ripped and gets patched up? That was a whole big discussion, many people voicing in. I said, “well, it’s not really a Torah, it’s just a word and it’s symbolic. Wouldn’t you try to patch up your life after that catastrophe happened to you?” At the ending, they said, “well, how’s it going to be removed when Tevye leaves? Are we going to take it down and roll it up and Tevye is going to put it in his cart and go?” And I said, “I don’t think so… we’d have to add a lot of music, it’s going to take a long time, it would really be awkward for the audience to watch that.” And they said, “but it’s the Torah!” I said, “no, it’s not. It’s a piece of paper with the word on it and it’s just symbolic.” It remains. As the Jews left the Shtetl and left these cities all over the world, the remembrance and their memory remains. They’re like, “okay, you can do it for the first preview, but we’re not sold on it.” Sheldon Harnick, the only remaining member of the original creative team, was there. They asked him, “what did you think of the ending?” He goes, “I loved it. Don’t change anything.” It was symbolic, but for me it meant a lot. The explanation of it is yes, they leave, but as we see now with Jews who are returning to areas to find their roots or find what remnants remain, it’s very symbolic and heavy.
*Toyre: Yiddish for “Torah” which can indicate the five books of the Hebrew Bible or all of Jewish law and learning.
HC: To me it does feel very Jewish to have the symbolic Torah that’s bigger than the literal Torah.
HC: It’s like the concept of “Israel” as a symbolic place or concept, there are all these things in Judaism that are bigger than just one meaning.
SK: When they first asked me to do it, they had asked my mentor Sammy and he said, “No, I can’t, but I have the perfect person for you.” So, they called me, and they said, “would you like to do Fiddler? It’ll be in Yiddish.” I said, “I would love to, as long as you have a team that will deal with the Yiddish aspect of it, because that’s not my forte at all.” They said great. And I said, “but you know I’ve directed and choreographed this show 13 times.” They said, “we’ll get back to you.” It was crickets. Finally, they got Joel who they wanted because of his name. I mean he’s Joel Grey! We figured our relationship out, which was that he was the cerebral and I was the physical. Everything that you saw physically happening was me. He was: what are the actors thinking and how are they thinking about their relationships? It’s a different way of working. They met with me, and Joel dropped his bombshell about not wanting the bottle dance and all that, and I needed to sell to them why it needed to be me. And I said: I know this show. Because I know this show, I know how to change this show. When you know the rules, you know how to break the rules. To know the intent. Why is that number there, why are they doing this? This production was so fulfilling for me. It took me beyond the parameters of what Fiddler was. Realizing that Fiddler in conjunction with the Robbins choreography is a living, breathing piece of theater. Therefore, it shouldn’t be treated like a museum piece, as some of the other revivals earlier would recreate Robbins to a tee. They would say “do this, do this, do this” but not the why. Why are you doing this? Every cast brings something in of their own. Even if they were doing the Robbins, they bring in an aspect that makes it fresh and new, but this one was able to make it even fresher.
HC: I was really struck by how intergenerational the movement was. The circles — there were all of these scenes where the full age range of the show was moving together, which of course gave it a real community sense as you discussed, a real sense of the village. I’m wondering about that process. What was it like to work with this wide range of ages on movement, especially considering they were all singing in a language that, for most of them, wasn’t their own language?
SK: It was a unique actor who came to audition for this. They had to do many things, learn how to speak Yiddish, have a flair for language. You had a certain type of person. As I said I began with “Tradition” to create that community right off. Where they break off and have all of their separate sections — the Papas, the Mamas, the Sons, the Daughters, and all that — to realize that all of that mish-mash is the community. To really feel that and feel the power of holding hands. We would just stand in the center and for the longest time, all we did was the pulse and the lift. Then we did the steps that went with it afterward. It took a very long time to do “Tradition.” But then when it was together it was amazing. That is the foundation of the whole show. The connectedness and the circle. Sometimes it’s easy to see—like at the ending when they’re reaching out to try to get the circle back and they can’t. There’s another point where after Chava has her whole Chavaleh ballet — I say ballet because that’s what it’s always called in this — she has her confrontation with Tevye and he shoves her and leaves. All of a sudden, it’s almost very surreal. The company comes in and envelopes her and then she’s outcast. They’re doing these reaches and I say [while reaching]: “you have to feel like you’re on a lifeboat and you’re reaching so far to try to get that hand to pull you. You’re reaching and struggling for tradition. You’re seeing it erode and evade you.” That was a really important element.
Are you familiar with Anna Sokolow?
HC: I am.
SK: There was an aspect of Chava’s dance — of course, younger dancers have no idea who these people are. I said, “there’s a cutting motion.” It’s not a placement. It’s very Anna Sokolow, it’s that kind of impulse and that feel. You’re not just dancing steps and choreography. You are embodying the movement and are one with the movement. That is telling your story. Because Anna Sokolow had that element and she was of the time of Jerome Robbins, and he probably studied with her, there were certain elements that felt so rooted, so basic, so primal that I wanted to use.
HC: That connection with the early-to-mid 20th century modern dance that had so many Jewish women choreographers who were, many of them, working on Jewish-themed pieces. It goes back to that authenticity and theatricality question. Authentic to what? Even if it’s not movement that would have been done in a Shtetl, it’s movement that still is historically rooted. It still has this legacy element, which is really beautiful.
SK: I think it’s taking the wealth of knowledge you’ve accumulated throughout your life and career — when I mentioned earlier reaching for a lifeline [in the Chavaleh ballet], I asked the cast if anyone had seen Picasso’s Guernica, and that hand that’s reaching. They hadn’t. I said, “look it up. That’s what I’m looking for.” Taking all those different pieces of what you’ve accumulated over your life as knowledge and incorporating it. I don’t think of that in the rehearsal room and atmosphere. Things just pop in, that’s the whole atmosphere of the rehearsal room. It’s very satisfying for me.
HC: It’s satisfying to watch. I’m someone who has, I’m sure not as many times as you, but I’ve seen Fiddler many times. I grew up watching the film constantly, then I saw the stage production, now I’ve seen these two different Yiddish productions. I have to say, I cried a lot more at your production. That non-conscious way that you’re speaking about your background and history coming through you as you create and stage the show, there is something as an audience member about the Yiddish and the different quality of the movement, different staging, the cast being authentic to a village identity that is very moving. Just hearing the Yiddish words.
SK: It is in Yiddish. People are not understanding everything, and it transcends that. The actress Christine Ebersole came to see our show. She’s not Jewish, and she came to see it three times, she brought friends. The amount of people who have just passed it on is part of our success. When they’re talking about touring it, I said you can’t do the normal tour model. You can’t do a week here a week there. You need to do a sit down. You need to have a philanthropic Jewish organization or community keep it open for two weeks until the word gets out. Your review will come out on a Thursday or Friday, then you’re gone. You need to look at a different way because it’s a unique production — it’s in Yiddish. Now I’m looking at all other ways of presenting Yiddish. It really has spoken to me.
Hallie Chametzky is a dance artist, writer, and archivist. Her writings on dance can be found in The Brooklyn Rail, In Dance, Contact Quarterly, Dance Magazine, and First of the Month, among others. Her poems have appeared in Mouse Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, Indolent Books, Z Publishing House, and The Underground. Her creative work probes audiences’ ideas about womanhood, investigating assumptions about historical and contemporary women and the forces which shape their lives. Jewishness is also central to her work, and leftist activism central to her Jewishness. More: halliechametzky.com