The Possessed

May 14, 2002

Courtesy Pearl Lang

he Possessed

Choreography and adaptation by Pearl Lang
Music and sound by Meyer Kupferman and Joel Spiegelman

Reviewed by Naomi Abrahami

If there was one word to describe Pearl Lang’s film of her masterwork, The Possessed, it would be “luminous.” Surprisingly so, given that the play upon which it is based, S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, is the tragic tale of Leya and Chanon, separated by an arranged marriage, who both die as the result of a their unfulfilled love. Chanon from grief, Leya in an exorcism after she is possessed by the spirit of her dead lover during her wedding dance.

The Dybbuk, created from a collection of folk tales from the mystical, religious Hasidic world of early twentieth-century Jewish Europe, has been translated from its original Yiddish into numerous languages and performed throughout the world. In Lang’s danced version, choreographed in 1975, this dark narrative becomes a lyrical ode to the faithful lovers, who are finally united in the afterworld, as they should have been in life.

For this film, Lang has carefully woven together footage of her company’s performance of The Possessed, documented in 1975 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; she is in the title role, selectively using cinematic techniques such as slow motion, blurring, and combining images. When used effectively, these techniques enhance the understated drama inherent in Lang’s composition. For example, when Leya dances in the graveyard after her lover’s spirit has entered her, he appears on the top half of the screen in a sequence from an earlier section, seeming to press down upon her as she reaches upward, yearning toward and yielding to him. At other times, these effects seem random and distracting as in the “bubbles” containing Chanon’s image that sometimes float across the screen.

Often, the dancers seem to be floating in space, a result of the tight camera work and usually dark background of the stage (for one short section it is a rich sky blue instead). Whether seen close-up at an angle or farther away from the front, the dancers exist in a closed field of vision that echoes the narrow confines of the shtetl (small Jewish village) itself. The slight graininess of the film also contributes to an otherworldly/Old-World feel, taking us back in time to that unchanging place of tradition and superstition.

Into that world, Leya, in her white or sky-blue dresses, stands out as a vision against the surrounding darkness. William Carter, dressed in the simple garb of a poor scholar, is equally ethereal as Leya’s beloved Chanon. Dancing side by side but rarely touching, they transcend time and space, epitomizing the spiritual union devekut that the Hasidim believed could be achieved through dance.

Although the film stands on its own merits, it still whets one’s appetite to see the piece onstage. Perhaps a reconstruction is in order.