The word "chai" means "alive" in Hebrew, so it's fitting that high spirits and passion went together like bagels and lox at the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble's 50th anniversary gala, a high-octane concert that proved the venerable troupe is very much alive and kicking.
Tuesday night's production also paid tribute to the city's -- and Western Canada's -- oldest and largest synagogue, Congregation Shaarey Zedek, now in its 125th year.
Established in 1964 by the late Sarah Sommer, the group has grown from eight young girls practising dance routines in their founder's North End Winnipeg basement to a world-renowned Israeli folk dance ensemble, critically acclaimed for its fusion of traditional and contemporary Jewish folk dance styles.
Now led by artistic director Tracy Kasner Greaves, with musical direction by crackerjack guitarist Ariel Posen, the popular troupe is the oldest and largest of its kind in North America -- as well as being the only one to perform exclusively to live music.
The 180-minute show (including intermission), in preparation since fall 2012, featured more than 40 dancers, musicians and singers, as well as Chai alumni and guest choreographers from Israel, Argentina, Mexico and the United States, who created new works for the auspicious occasion.
At times a bit too loud 'n' proud, and despite several awkward, strangely silent set changes, the show's mostly well-paced program of 16 numbers nevertheless offered retrospective classics as well as new creations from the Jewish diaspora.
The show opened with one of the company's signature works, Hora Nirkoda (We Will Dance the Hora), before leading into mysterious, ritualistic Kalaht Yemen (The Yemenite Bride), with the company dressed in costume designer Sara Salomon's effective black-hooded capes. Mizmor Laylah -- another Chai favourite -- and the flamenco-inspired Sh'Charchoret were other highlights.
Likaht Chaser (Different Rhythm) blends Israeli, Greek, Turkish, Asian and Balkan musical influences into a white-hot combustion of pounding rhythms with the ensemble executing the intricate choreography with crisp precision. Anachnu N'Hiyeh Harishonim (We Will Be the First) paid tribute to the Russian pioneers who went to Israel with athletic leaps and spins rivalling those of the city's Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Contemporary numbers included Mishaela, depicting a young girl's hope and excitement entering adulthood, and Voice of the Wheel (Covalin) that explores various stages of life.
Sentimental favourite Rabbi's Table -- originally conceived by Chai's former artistic director, the late Nenad Lhotka, in 1976 -- included dramatizations by Shaarey Zedek's longtime rabbi Alan Green and cantor Anibal Mass. Guest alumni and community leaders invited onstage as village "machers" belted out Yiddish songs, led by Casey Chisick and Jerry Maslowsky. Shtick? You bet, but also lots of good fun, with more over-the-top camp than a two-week, mid-summer getaway.
The Shaarey Zedek choir joined by alumni orchestra members sang with heart and soul during Shabbat, a medley of songs and dance for welcoming the weekly Sabbath, complete with candles and challah bread.
The most poignant moment of the night came as Sommer's granddaughter and namesake, vocalist/rehearsal director Sarah, broke ranks with the onstage eight-piece choir to perform solo Eemah (Mother). Accompanied by Chisick's sensitive piano, the younger Sarah's sweet voice rose as a single, female dancer dressed in a pale green dress fluidly spun and twirled, evoking her grandmother's memory. This became the beating heart of the entire evening that also spoke to the continuity of generations.
The lively show wrapped up -- as they always do - with the troupe breaking out into a joyous rendition of Shalom Aleichem. As expected, the crowd of 1,400 leapt to its feet at the end with a rousing standing ovation. This led to a "surprise" encore of Chai's newest work, inspired by the earth and sky, which will receive its official premiere in Israel next month at the Karmiel Dance Festival, where the ensemble will represent Canada.
To the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble on its golden anniversary, and for keeping its revered founder's dream flourishing as it embarks on the next half century -- mazel tov!