When Sarah Sommer started the Chai Folk Ensemble with eight other young girls in 1964, she had modest expectations. The young women practiced Israeli folk dancing in Sommer's basement in Winnipeg, Canada, stepping in time to recorded music. When they started performing for live audiences in 1967, the recorded music was replaced with a live musician -- the mainstay of all folk performances -- an accordion player.
Now, 40 years later, The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble (Sommer died in 1969) is no longer dancing in basements or clicking their heels to accordion music. The nonprofit troupe is run by a board of directors and has a full artistic staff, including costume designers, choreographers from Israel and Argentina, and a technical team that ensures that Sommer's Israeli folk-dancing vision stays alive. The troupe itself now numbers 47 -- including eight vocalists, nine musicians and 20 dancers. They perform in large venues all over the world.
"I don't think that Sommer ever imagined that it would be as large or survive as long as it had," said Reeva Nepon, the ensemble's administrative director. "It really is unique to North America because there are no other [folk] groups this large that have live accompaniment -- you won't find our dancers dancing to recorded music."
The group's repertoire has also expanded. They use the dances to tell the story of Jewish communities all over the world, incorporating, Chasidic, klezmer, Israeli and Yiddish influences to give a terpsichorean voice to far-flung communities such as Yemen or Morocco.
At their upcoming Los Angeles performance, for example, the show will close with the dance "Chasida" -- the Hebrew word for stork. The dance depicts "Operation Exodus" -- the mass migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the late 1980s. In the dance, the performers, wearing sackcloth coats, make their way to the Promised Land. There they shake off their coats and hold them high above their heads, revealing the pristine white dresses worn underneath, and a moment of heart-soaring joy.
"The whole stage lights up and it is so explosive, and so powerful," said Tracy Kasner-Greaves, Chai's artistic director. "The performers beam and glow from the stage."
The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble will start its first tour of Southern California on Feb. 10 at the Fred Kavli Theatre for Performing Arts, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., at 7:30 p.m. For tickets ($18-$54) call (805) 449-2787.