Kathryn Roszak rehearses dancers at the Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at the Djerassi Program in Woodside, 2018. (Photo/Courtesy of Djerassi Artists Residency)
Kathryn Roszak rehearses dancers at the Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at the Djerassi Program in Woodside, 2018. (Photo/Courtesy of Djerassi Artists Residency)

Bringing exercise and creativity together through dance at East Bay JCC

It is emblematic of her long life as a dancer and choreographer that when Kathryn Roszak teaches an adult fitness class at the East Bay JCC, it’s going to be not just an exercise class, but an exercise in creativity.

Following on the heels (or toes!) of her JCC summer dance classes for kids, “The Next Step: Movement and Music,” which will run for four straight Fridays starting Sept. 7, is billed as “a movement and dance experience for adults” with music from around the world.

“It’s a way for people at all levels of fitness to safely work their bodies the way a dancer does, from slow warm-ups to moving across the floor,” Roszak says. “They’ll have a visceral experience of what they may see on stage at an Alvin Ailey or a Martha Graham company performance.”

For Roszak, who has been dancing since age 4, it is fundamental to her idea of dance education that every individual can and should nurture their creative side. In many cases, she has had to advocate for and defend her right to choreograph.

This kind of thinking dates back to her days as a student in the schools of the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre in New York, when she was groomed to perfectly execute the predetermined steps and sequences — but not to invent movement.

“We were told to get in line and look like everyone else, that choreography was not for us,” she recalls. “We were addressed as ‘boys and girls,’ and I think the idea was that we would be forever young and not necessarily grow up. But I kept trying to ‘grow up’ — and it was difficult.”

She was, however, encouraged by her parents, poet Betty Roszak and the late Theodore Roszak, author of the seminal 1969 sociological study “The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on a Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition.” The book of essays, which chronicled and analyzed the social movements of the 1960s, gave rise to the now ubiquitous term “counterculture.”

Her mother was also a dance critic in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when “pretty much everyone who loved the arts was excited about dance and where it was going,” Kathryn says. “Baryshnikov was a household name. He was on the cover of Time magazine. People used to spend the night in line on the sidewalk to get tickets to the ballet.”

From those dance-charged early decades through today, Roszak has fostered the movement arts both to expand human potential and to explore “big ideas.” She taught dance to children at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, and for many years had her own classes at the Ashkenaz in Berkeley, where her students not only learned strong ballet technique, but emerged with the ability to create new dances “like it was second nature.”

One of her more famous former students is the Tony Award-winning actor Ari’el Stachel, who studied dance with her when he was a fifth-grader. The ballet movie “Billy Elliott” had come out in 2000, which had the effect of encouraging more boys to take up dance, she says. She also taught Stachel’s sister, Atalya, who today is pursuing a doctorate in dance.

Roszak recently reconnected with the Stachel siblings when Berkeley honored Ari’el for his Tony, proclaiming Aug. 6 “Ari’el Stachel Day.” The Berkeley-raised Stachel, 27, son of an Israeli Yemeni father and an Ashkenazi mother from New York, won the 2018 Tony award for his performance as a romantic Egyptian trumpeter in “The Band’s Visit.”

“Ari’el is in a very visible position now, and when he’s appearing in public he’s making statements that are political and inclusive, in talking about about his own background,” she notes.

Looking backward, Roszak says that even as she performed as a professional dancer over many years with the San Francisco Opera ballet, among other companies, and trained others to dance and create, she was always drawn to dance as theater, as a communicative art.

“I felt dance had great potential to embrace all sorts of social themes and big ideas,” Roszak says.

In 1995 she founded Anima Mundi (renamed Danse Lumiere in 2006), a dance theater linking the arts, environment and humanity. The company is known for adapting works of literature for the stage — Emily Dickinson, Maxine Hong Kingston and poet Gary Snyder among them — through a fusion of dance, music and theater.

Her most recent ballet, “Secrets on the Way,” inspired by the poetry of 2011 Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, has been performed at the Osher Studio in Berkeley and at the 92nd Street Y in New York. She also directed a short dance film, “Secrets,” marrying that choreography and performance with the visual dimension of film. And in 2016, her lifelong mission to empower women as choreographers found expression in the Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program in Woodside.

This fall, Roszak will reach out to a more general public, offering three presentations at the UC Berkeley series “Arts and Design Thursdays” at BAMPFA. The university class, which is free and open to the public, will focus this fall on the impact of immigrant artists in the U.S., and Roszak will be looking at dancers with an immigration story. Her first event, Sept. 13, will feature the Venezuelan ballerina Rosalyn Ramirez, who now dances for the Diablo Ballet in Walnut Creek.

“Through my work over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern in my work which is a social justice aspect that I connect with my Jewish roots,” Roszak reflects. “Whether it’s being a union rep at the opera to obtain pregnancy leave for dancers, or making sure boys get a chance to dance, or helping women choreographers to be more visible and better funded, I’m just always looking out for that. People have voices, women have voices, any number of people have important things to say that need to be brought forward. That is the arc of my dance work, and it keeps me going.”

Arts and Design Thursdays, 12 – 2p.m. Thursdays Aug. 30 – Nov. 15 at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. bampfa.org

“The Next Step: Movement and Music,” 10:30-11:30 a.m. Sept. 7, 14, 21 and 28 at JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $80 prepaid by Sept. 4. jcceastbay.org/fitness

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.