Florence and I met through a mutual friend's photoshoot at Blue Stockings, a feminist activist bookstore. Her dance pieces incorporate Jewish principles and laws. The Mechitzah, The Women's Section dance she produced for Hunter College can be viewed below.
BA: I’m familiar with your work and I’m very impressed by what I've seen. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Florence Nasar: I grew up in Deal, New Jersey and went to Hillel Yeshiva High School. But I was born in New York City till I was three… so maybe that has some influence on me. I graduated in 2013 from Hunter College; I was an English major actually and dance was my second major.
BA: Were you always interested in dance?
Florence Nasar: I started dancing when I was 5, I took ballet classes and that was always part of my life till I don’t know, maybe 12? A lot of girls started making fun of me though saying ballet is for babies. In high school I continued though with ballet and modern. It was always outside of school though; my high school didn’t offer anything like that and I intended to focus on school first.
I was always involved in a lot of projects in high school though; I did things on my own. Running summer concerts, tournaments, spearheading big projects, the lead in school plays. But it wasn't until college when I started dancing seriously. Ha, I even remember my first day jumping up on stage and dancing in front of the whole freshman class during orientation. I was really excited to be out in the world.
BA: We both were brought up in the same community; tell me a little bit about how that affected your college life?
Florence Nasar: I know some girls stopped dancing in high school because they were told it was immodest to dance on stage…and their parents wouldn't let them take classes anymore. So that’s when I started dancing more because they needed more people for productions.
In high school, I always wanted to get out...I remember writing in a journal that I want to be where all the writers were, the artists. All the people I read about and the art I grew up seeing. They always talked about New York.
BA: Are your parents into art? We are after all having this conversation while you’re at your father’s gallery.
Florence Nasar: My father owns an art gallery— I definitely grew up around a lot of art. My dad would take me to ballets, classical concerts, and museums. Sunday we’d paint together play music together. My brother’s a music major and I’m like a poetry and dance major haha.
BA: I saw your dance on the mechitzah in a publication...how did that come about?
Florence Nasar: Yes, Tablet Magazine. Those projects started from the part of me that wanted to make a positive change in the word and it felt very separate from the artistic side of me. I felt like dance and theater and art were all selfish pursuits and everything else was more important so I wanted to find a way to combine the two. Somehow through my studies at Hunter I was able to find a community of people who do dance and performance as a way to enact social change and create commentary on things that were important to them. For so long I was trying to write essays on things that were important to me or spread awareness and somehow after seeing a few dance pieces that had some really powerful content , I learned about how art can have a strong impact. I turned to dance because of that.
Dance is less concrete, more ephemeral, and you’re creating an ambiguous image that viewers can watch and observe and come to their own conclusion from it. I can put something on stage and people will have different views on what they see. There’s room for interpretation, there’s no wrong or right.
BA: Do you have other pieces besides the Mechitzah piece that incorporates Judaism?
Florence Nasar: I made a duet with my friend Marty; it was about the Isha Sotah and the history of it and kind of like what it was like to be that woman in history and being put on trial for something you might not have even done and how that resonates with women’s experiences throughout history. There are a lot of expectations put on women no matter where we are in history. A lot of things were expected to be or not to be. I think a lot of my pieces have Judaism incorporated into it.
BA: And why is that? Do you feel like it's something embedded in you? What draws you to that? A connection?
Florence Nasar: It's a strong part of my history and my life and growing up where I did, and the information in my brain, in my movement, and speaking and it affects me in all those ways and I think you can only make artwork about what you know. In a way it reminds me about the times in high school where I argued the laws with my teachers. It's going back and analyzing things, like is this reason the law should exist or why is this like that. In these dances I usually start with a question about a certain tradition or concept.
My first piece about the mechitzah I asked myself what does it do? What does it do to somebody? What affect does it have on someone? And I wanted to see the audience’s reactions of people divided into smaller space on stage. So I had the women in the audience put in a smaller section. I had the performers on stage wearing black central skirts I wore in high school. I choreographed the women moving around as if doing their own rituals together. I gave the audience these papers. Women got a paper saying, “thank you for sitting here, please be silent please be quiet, please be aware of your body." And men got a paper that said “thank you for your presence in this holy place. For your convenience all distractions have been hidden.” Playing with the idea and asking, are women distractions? The minute the curtain moves and the men come on stage the women become more sensual and seductive, as they become viewed as objects.
BA: Were the viewers Jewish?
Florence Nasar: A lot of people were, a lot of people weren’t. It was confusing for them because they’ve never had an experience like that before. They felt confined, they were suddenly aware of themselves and their movement and their bodies in a way that feels embedded in me. myself I would look back at my high school experiences when we prayed and I would be thinking "is my skirt too tight?" "Is someone looking at me?" and I would be very aware of my movements.
BA: What kind of projects are you working on now?
Florence Nasar: I’m in a play called 1001 nights—it’s a love story on death row. I play the lead character; it’s based on an ancient Arabic text about a queen who has been sentenced to death by her evil king husband and in order to stay alive she tells him these mystical stories every night and he keeps wanting to hear the next part. So this play is a modern version, I’m an Arabic woman on death row in America she killed her abusive husband and tells these stories to her prison guard. There’s belly dancing, sword-fighting, Arabic music, a live rock-band. I'm gonna be performing May 6th at Dixon Place NYC!
BA: Can you tell me about Kol Isha, the women’s anthology you’re currently working on?
Florence Nasar: Well, I have a lot of great people involved with it. Haha. It’s still getting its feet off the ground. The idea actually came from being in the 1001 nights play. In this play I’m telling all these stories that have to do with powerful women who have been silenced. So I wanted to create a collection of poetry, artwork, essays by Syrian Jewish Women in order to amplify women’s stories that have not been heard and have a place where women can read it and know they’re not alone in certain things. Maybe these personal issues we have a part of a larger problem our culture is dealing with and they can be talked about and hopefully enact change. Because not everything is set in stone— we can change things. We have each other. Our voices are not obscene and our stories matter. Also, its purpose will not just have a critical view of our community; it can also have stories showcasing the beautiful things. I want it to be a collection that represents and honors each unique experience as part of a history. The point is to own our stories & to have our voices heard.