When We Danced on Water

Evan Fallenberg, best known as the superb translator of A Pigeon and a Boy, is himself a creative and sensitive writer. His latest book, When We Danced on Water, is an exploration of what it means to be an artist. It explores the lives of two characters--Teo and Vivi--both numbed by very different wartime experiences.


Vivi is an Israeli and child of a Holocaust survivor. While serving in the army, she falls passionately in love with Martin, a German medical student. After he returns to Berlin and she finishes her military service, she impulsively leaves Israel to live with him. It is in Berlin, jobless and wandering aimlessly, where she is drawn day after day to the Berlin Wall. There she meets Peter, a midget who acquaints her with the plight of the Jews in Germany before and during World War II. He, too, is an outsider, having left his family in East Germany to go to West Germany just before the Wall was erected. He could not return. The Berlin Wall is a metaphor representing the isolation and alienation both Peter and Vivi feel.

Gradually, Vivi becomes estranged from Martin. She returns to Israel, disillusioned and heartbroken. We meet her when she is in her early 40s and a server in a Tel Aviv cafe. In her free time, she dapples in many art forms, although she is not able to earn a living as an artist. It is at the cafe that she meets the 85 year old Teo.

Teo is a former ballet dancer and founder of the fictional Tel Aviv Ballet. He is a Polish refugee, former dancer for the Royal Danish Ballet and currently a virtuoso choreographer. Like Vivi, he seems remote and closed off from emotion. He demands perfection from his dancers and believes that to perfect one's art, there can be no competing loyalties. He uses choreography to drown out his memories of WWII and enable him to create intellectually without having to use his body in a physical and sensory way. He is thus able to channel his emotions and express passion through the bodies of other dancers. Now, at the end of his life, he is choreographing his piece de resistance--a work called, Obsession.

Despite the difference in their ages, Teo and Vivi are drawn to one another. He senses her secretive, troubled past. She feels his artistic greatness and longs to get to know him better. They begin to meet daily. Teo becomes a mentor, insisting she use her pain in her art. Unbeknownst to Teo, Vivi starts amassing written and oral histories on Teo, creating a multimedia show on his life and work. Yet an integral part of his life is not known to her until much later.

When the Royal Danish Ballet was on tour in Germany in 1939, Teo was detained. He was taken to the house of a Nazi officer and imprisoned in his home for 6 years--the duration of the war. There, he was made a virtual slave and subjected to sexual abuse. Teo became this officer's obsession. As he explains to a war tribunal later:

I was only seventeen when he lied to the police or bribed somebody and had me released to his custody and prevented me from returning to Denmark. I was a child. I didn't know anything of the world beyond dancing, but whatever I would have become, he took it away from me. Maybe it seems insignificant when you think about the unspeakable things that happened to people during the war, but in those six years I lost...everything. My freedom. My career. My personality. Even my...sexual identity. (p.224)

When We Danced on Water is an exploration of loss of identity through horrific circumstances. The book is sexually explicit, but its violence is not gratuitous; its very nature has shaped Teo into the artist and man he has become. His salvation as a person comes only with his ability to grapple with the enormity of his fate, to examine his conflicted feelings about his tormentor, and to wonder if, ironically, the Nazi officer saved him from the concentration camps and probable death.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow in an insightful review concludes:

Pregnancy, death, violence, abuse, passion, obsession, the IDF and the Holocaust leave readers overwhelmed. But the process of enduring is an experience that the characters and readers share. The novel reads like an extremely unconventional love story, though it's not clear whether the battered protagonists love each other or whether they just take from each other what they need. But perhaps that is also a type of love. (Forward.com, published July 13, 2011, issue of July 22, 2011)


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