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Dancer scores Fulbright to study in Israel
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Dancer scores Fulbright to study in Israel

Former New Jerseyan will learn Tel Aviv troupe’s techniques

Dancer Casey Thorne uses written cards from her dancers and audience members.
Dancer Casey Thorne uses written cards from her dancers and audience members.

It took her three years, but at last Casey Thorne is back in Israel and overjoyed to be there. After pursuing every path she could to get a grant, and undergoing conversion to make her Jewish identity official, she has finally returned on a Fulbright dance scholarship — a route that required none of those efforts.

Thorne, whose mother converted to Judaism when she was seven, grew up attending a Reform synagogue, Temple Har Shalom in Warren. She went to religious school, and had a bat mitzva ceremony. She went to Israel once with her family for her brother’s bar mitzva, and again, for two weeks in 2011, to study Gaga, an innovative approach to dance and movement.

At the end of the Gaga course, she gathered up her courage and asked its creator, Ohad Naharin, head of the Batsheva Dance Company, if she could come back to do the teacher training. 

“He said, ‘Do you promise you will come back?’” she recalled, in an interview just before her departure. She said she would, and he granted her request. She was ecstatic — both about going back to Israel and having a chance to pursue this form of dance she adores.

But then the Israeli authorities refused to grant her a work visa. No reasons were given.

Thorne, who already regarded herself as Jewish, nevertheless underwent a Reform conversion, which included two years of study. She said she hadn’t realized it would be necessary to make her eligible for Israel’s Law of Return, which gives Jews — or children born to a Jewish mother — the automatic right to settle there, but in the end she found the process very fulfilling. That’s her family’s approach to life’s frustrations: “We come up against obstacles, and then say, ‘What can we do to change this?’”

In a way, that’s how Gaga works, starting with a deep acknowledgement of what is, and working outward from there. There is a form taught to regular people, to help them explore and enhance their physical well-being, and there is a form for performers. Either way, it’s done without mirrors, unlike traditional dance practice, and sometimes without music, to help practitioners avoid self-consciousness and better channel the flow of inner energy. They focus on movement, Thorne said, “that isn’t just about making the muscles do things; it works from your bones out to your flesh.”

Thorne finally came up with this new way of getting back to Israel through the Fulbright program, assisted by Deborah Friedes Galili, a dancer who also comes from New Jersey and who initially came to Israel on a Fulbright herself.

Thorne’s home base these days is Marin County, Calif., but she came home to Warren for a few days with her family, before leaving on Aug. 26. She will spend 10 months studying Gaga in Tel Aviv and working in Jerusalem on her own project, “If I Were You,” researching “the role of dance as a vehicle for community building and self-discovery.” 

Asked whether such community building could mean bridging the Arab-Jewish divide, she said, “I would love that, but it’s not my priority. I’m just open to what will happen, letting the journey unfold, exploring all the chaotic beauty in this crazy mosaic of human life.”

She will also teach dance at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. “That is going to be amazing,” she said. “All dancers go through a tough training, but the Israeli dancers are a different breed. For one thing, they’ve all gone through the army, and that in itself makes them very different.”

Thorne studied dance at the American Repertory Ballet’s Princeton Ballet School in Princeton, and in 2010 graduated cum laude from Alonzo King LINES Ballet/Dominican University of California, as part of the inaugural class. 

Thorne has choreographed original works for the school, as well as for other dance and regular schools. 

In 2012, she founded her own company, Inside Out Contemporary Ballet, and also continued working as a freelance dance teacher at studios in the Bay Area, and at the Albert J. Boro Community Center, which provides dance education to underserved youth. 

Thorne is also a certified instructor of Gyrotonics and Gyrokinesis, an exercise system sometimes described as “yoga for dancers.”

Given all that, she admitted that having to wait three years to get back to Israel has provided her with a whole new wealth of experience to work from. “It’s why I got the Fulbright,” she said. As for what comes next, she said, she hopes it “simultaneously challenges and affirms my beliefs.”

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