seen from above, a woman strikes a dancer-like pose outside her house
Dancer Marika Brussel as captured by photographer Kyle Adler for his "Dance Like Nobody's Watching" series.

Pandemic isolation fosters creativity for busy dancer and choreographer

Much of the arts world may be shut down, but choreographer Marika Brussel isn’t feeling isolated. And she definitely isn’t idle.

Brussel, a 2020 arts fellow at LABA East Bay, an incubator for Jewish culture and a program of the JCC East Bay in Berkeley, has spent the past few months rehearsing a piece with dancers over Zoom, choreographing for a Facebook project, and teaching up to 14 classes each week. She also danced in front of her house as part of photographer Kyle Adler’s “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” project.

“It has been really inspiring how quickly and generously the dance community around the world came together,” she said.

Brussel, a New York native, started her career training with the Joffrey Ballet and at New York’s High School of Performing Arts before becoming a professional dancer. But the life took its toll.

“I quit dancing completely when I was 20, for nine years,” she said. “I was burned out. I had never done anything else.”

After getting a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and a master’s in fine arts, she found her way back to dance. She settled in San Francisco, where she began to perform again and then to choreograph.

“It was like coming back to myself,” she said.

Her most recent piece, “House of Names,” was supposed to premiere in April at ODC Dance Commons, but like so many other performances, it was postponed due to the pandemic.

“It’s a series of short pieces about women in mythology, and bringing them into contemporary times,” she said.

With the premiere pushed back, she’s continued to work on the piece with her dancers. She’s had to adapt it — there’s no more partnering, and dancers have had to rehearse in small spaces on the wrong kind of floor, or even outside — but she expects some of the contemporary ballet will be shown outdoors at the end of September at an S.F. Parks Alliance event. A section will be filmed in October, and hopefully the full piece shown in May 2021 at ODC.

We’re able to create a different kind of magic. It’s not dance magic. It’s social magic.

Brussel also has choreographed a commissioned short piece called “Apparition” for the Isolation Project, a Facebook series of original ballets in response to Covid-19’s impact on performing arts.

At the same time, she’s teaching a full roster of classes — at ODC, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts and elsewhere. While most classes have moved to Zoom, she’s got one unusual gig teaching senior citizens.

“I do it on the phone! It’s really bizarre,” she said. Without being able to see them, “I have no idea what they’re doing.”

Brussel said her collaborations with Bay Area dancers show how the community has come together in spirit during a time when regulations are keeping people physically apart.

“We’re able to create a different kind of magic,” she said. “It’s not dance magic. It’s social magic.”

She’s also had particular support from her LABA cohort. LABA, which started in New York and branched out to the East Bay earlier this year, is a yearlong fellowship for artists in which they examine ancient Jewish texts in the context of their creative endeavors. The theme for LABA East Bay’s inaugural year was humor, to be explored through writings from the Torah, Talmud, Mishnah and Zohar, as well as some contemporary texts. Brussel, intrigued, decided to apply.

“I’d like to connect around humor, because my stuff is never funny,” she remembered thinking. “I’d like to lighten up a bit.”

It wasn’t only humor she found through LABA; after a lifetime of handling the regular rejection that comes with being a working artist, she said, it has been amazing to connect with a supportive cohort of other Jewish artists from dance, visual arts, theater, writing, poetry, education and other creative fields.

“They always have my back, and they always try to help me,” she said. “That’s really incredible.”

That support, along with the cohesion of the dance community, have fostered her creativity in isolation, rather than inhibited it, Brussel said. Even away from the studio, she’s found a way to make dance happen.

“I think, more than ever, how amazing dancers are,” she said. Certainly, “we’re not doing it for the exercise!”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.