Benoit Swan Pouffer, who is known for his ballet choreography, called Metro from his hometown of Paris to talk about his choreography for “Soul Doctor,” the new show about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his life-changing encounter with singer Nina Simone.
You’ve been the artistic director of a ballet company, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, since 2005. How did you get involved with a musical?
Things happen in strange ways. I decided to move on from Cedar Lake, and a month later the “Soul Doctor” artistic team made contact; they’d seen some of my installation work. Originally they really wanted to immerse the audience, so they wanted someone not from musical theater. It was a very different kind of experience. I’d done “Dangerous Beauty” at Pasadena Playhouse and “Amazing Grace” at Goodspeed; I was interested to dive in.
How did you research the dances?
There’s this wonderful thing called YouTube. It’s like a library: You type in “Jewish wedding dances” and lose yourself in all those clips.
What has been the most interesting part of the process?
To understand that the artists are not just dancers; they’re singing and acting. I had to convey a story that spans 40 years. It always comes down to the storytelling.
I was born and raised in a neighborhood in Paris that was Jewish and Chinese. All my friends were Jewish — 90% of the high school was Jewish. I had to find a quality of movement, between the Hasidic dances and what happens in the bar with Nina Simone. [I had to] research the dances of the ‘60s, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, people in the streets celebrating the Torah. [And I had to] really be inspired by the true story of what Carlebach did in his life. He made 30 albums, and had followers, and was really a fascinating man.