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By Taisha Paggett
Margalit Oved thinks and moves in metaphors. Her descriptions of how a foot must reach toward the ground or how an arm must lengthen across one’s body are wrapped in visions of hot, sandy deserts and encounters with people on the street. In a summer master class at the Harvard Westlake School in Studio City, CA, she speak-sings her way through exercises in time with a drum that she plays, keeping students rhythmically engaged. Oved teaches how to perform from your whole body—not merely the one that lives in the studio but the one that moves through the world.
Oved grew up in southern Yemen in the 1930s and was airlifted to Israel at a young age during Yemeni unrest as part of Operation Magic Carpet. She toured the world for 15 years as the lead performer of Inbal Dance Theater. Eventually settling down in Los Angeles, she spent 22 years teaching at UCLA and founded her own dance theater company. In 1994 she revisited Israel to collaborate with Inbal and to support the emerging work of her son, international choreographer Barak Marshall. Dancer Taisha Paggett, who has worked with Marshall, spoke with Oved after her class.
How did you build such a diverse vocabulary for using different parts of the body? Our traditional dance in Yemen was very straight, like the gazelle, but there was influence from Africa, Arabia, India, and Spain. The expressions of the different cultures were so magnificent: the drumming, the ululations, the use of masks to transform into different animals, the way to use the hands and spine and face and feet.
Why do you begin class working the spine, which you compare to the action of riding a camel? We lived on a desert with the waves of the sand. When you ride on a camel, you have to move with the camel—otherwise it could break your back. You have this undulation. We work to imitate that. It is a preparation for the entire body. In ballet they stretch the spine. We stretch it too, but with a wave.
Why do you spend so much time on the hands? It’s about dimensions. You beg and eat with the hands. In the dance, how can you just leave them doing nothing? You stretch and work the hands, then you can see the beautiful lines of the arms.
What do you pass down from your time with Inbal Dance Theater? We collected everything and made a language from it. When you step on hot desert sand, you jump. That became part of our dancing. That’s how we did it, and that’s what I do now. And then three masters came into our lives: Jerome Robbins, Anna Sokolow, and Martha Graham. Sokolow came in and said, “You ought to take your resources and bring them up to date.” She was a powerful woman.
This year marks the centennial of Sokolow’s birth. What did you learn from her work that informs how you teach today? She taught us discipline. The discipline of movement. We were like little children at the time but she taught us how to be professionals. Plan it, get dressed right, face the audience, and so on. It was the beginning of her career but she was sharp. Martha Graham was around too. She said, “You ought to be strong, you ought to have your technique. Two-and-a-half hours every day and then rehearsal. You don’t just go right away to the stage.” They taught us American modern dance.
You formed your own company from the dancers you taught at UCLA. What qualities do you think make up an exceptional dance student? I pick up on dancers’ rhythm, their face, their sensitivity as a mover, their emotion. As a choreographer you never know what kind of dance you are going to do, so a dancer has to be prepared for everything. In order to talk with your body there has to be precision, but not in a way that is dogmatic. Every body brings it differently. The precision comes from the spine, the legs, and the feet. It’s about extending the whole body so nothing stays lazy. Have you seen how an eagle’s legs shift when he goes to fly? If the legs don’t extend back, it won’t fly.
What do you value most about teaching? I learn from the students. I see their eyes and their faces as they are thinking and trying to know the movement. In one hour they pick up a style that I’ve known for many years, one that is very difficult to learn. That’s what I learn from them: Once they’ve got it, I have to be all the more brilliant. [Laughs] Their attention gives me so much confidence. Education is part of the human experience. It makes me be a better person.
Barak says his movement language is based on yours. He puts it through his own filter, but you are the source. Having performed in his work, do you recognize your own creativity within it? Barak uses everything. I mean, his style is different from mine. He brings into his work scholars from all over the world—and Fiddler on the Roof and Brecht. He is a philosopher. He decided to put me in Rooster. I was afraid to death, as if I’d never performed before! For me it’s always like the first time.
What advice would you give to dancers before a performance? It’s about responsibility. A responsibility to fulfill. You cannot just fool around up there. Give everything. Work, don’t delay. Be honest and take care of it. This is your thing to do! I will do everything and if I fall, that’s what it is. But if I come to the stage, I give all of my power.
Oved teaching at UCLA in 2008. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum.