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Dance: BATSHEVA AT 50

By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES Winter 2014

Sade21
Sadeh21 (photo: Gadi Dagon)

The Batsheva Dance Company of Israel, under the Artistic Direction of Ohad Naharin, just completed a series of performances in the Opera House of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as part of a 50th Anniversary tour of the U.S. and Europe. They offered the American premiere of Sadeh21.

Batsheva was founded in1964 by Baroness Bethsabee de Rothschild. She convinced her long time friend Martha Graham to be the first Artistic Advisor of this repertory company. Graham and members of her own company taught classes and staged seven of her works over a period of several years. The auditions for the original ensemble resulted in fourteen Israeli dancers, one of whom, Rena Gluck, who danced several of Graham’s own roles, calls the “founding” dancers.

In the beginning Batsheva was a mix of Israeli culture, with the strong, explosive movement it produced, and American modern dance, originally Graham, with its percussive, angular, inward focused style. But in a repertory that grew via works by Robert Cohan, Anna Sokolow, Jerome Robbins, Agnes De Mille, Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, Jose Limon, Glen Tetley, Paul Sanasardo and others, they acquired a wider and more varied American approach to dance.

Ohad Naharin became the Artistic Director in 1990. Born on Kibbutz Mizra to a mother who taught dance and movement, he also studied music extensively. He began his formal dance training as an apprentice with Batsheva in 1974. Graham invited him to join her company in New York where he ended up studying for a year at Juilliard under an Israeli scholarship. He also took classes in classical ballet. Years later he said in an interview that Graham’s movement did not satisfy him, although her spirit and love of dance did. He went on to dance with the Bat Dor Company in Israel and then Maurice Bejart’s Ballet du XXe Siecle in Brussels.

Back in New York in 1980, Naharin made his choreographic debut, forming a company with his wife, Mari Kajiwara (d. 2001). They also performed abroad and he created works for several international companies, among them the Nederlands Dance Theater. Today this list has continued to grow and includes the Alvin Ailey Company.

In the last few years he has also become know for Gaga, his approach to working with his own dancers that has begun to spread like the clichéd “wild fire,” attracting both dancers and non-dancers.

Sade21
Sadeh21 (photo: Gadi Dagon)

An exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (through January 5) is titled “Batsheva Dance Company at 50, American Concepts and the Israeli Spirit.” It contains photographs of the beginning years and archival excerpts from ten early dances. There is also a documentary, The First Night, which shares the current memories of some of the first participants.

The second part of the title of this exhibit really tells us why and how the company became its 50 -year -old self. The American “concepts,” starting with the Graham technique, the prevalence of American guest choreographers and the constantly changing Artistic Directors, most of whom were American, were confronted by the strong, expressive, passionate Israeli bodies and spirits. Israelis were often “assistants” or “acting” but never really in the top position of control. Although there were occasional works by Israeli choreographers, and, under the directorship of Paul Sanasardo, some new Israeli choreographers made contributions, this was still a repertory company of mostly American choreographers.

Thus, when Naharin arrived he was not only the first Israeli to be really in charge of the talents of this often-rambunctious group, he was an internationally recognized choreographer, a forceful dancer and a strong personality. Although the company, whose dancers are now international, has danced works by his like-minded European colleagues Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe, it has become an ensemble that dances only his works. In Israel the group performs in sold out houses of the young, who react viscerally to the movement and, often, the music, some of which he has helped write.

Gaga is a method of body awareness developed by Naharin for training his dancers. It is a movement language that resulted from his own moving and thinking about movement and his studio attempts to create a new language in order to collaborate with his company. Consisting of a stream of a constant flow of movement that comes from a suggestion by the teacher, it is an individual approach that begins by creating an intimate connection to one’s own body. It uses gravity without giving into it. Eventually it allows one to identify movement habits and, more importantly, to expand and acquire new capabilities that go beyond daily limits.

He refers to Gaga as a toolbox that can help us discover what exists within our own bodies, but is not used. Naharin feels it is easier to give up old ideas when you have new ones. His mantra is, “Listening to the body is a lot more meaningful than telling it what to do.”

When asked about his choreographic approach, he characterizes it as an attempt to blend content and form, but not narratively. He goes into the studio and teaches the rules of a new piece to the dancers; they then teach him to play with the material. Often they contribute so much, as in Sadeh21, that they are credited with part of the choreography. He feels his dancers have developed an intuitive approach to what he wants and they can improvise from the sensation or energy of a movement, while at the same time maintaining their own unique selves. He will only set a new work on his own company.

Sade21
Sadeh21 (photo: Gadi Dagon)

Sadeh21 is a 75 -minute work for 18 dancers, set to a soundtrack by Maxim Waratt of music by six composers, including Brian Eno, Auleche and Johann Pachabel, with sensitive lighting by Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi). Naharin is the choreographer “in collaboration with Batsheva dancers, 2010-2011 season.”

For most of the BAM audience this was a first viewing. But I saw the piece when it premiered in May 2011, in Jerusalem. With its sometimes aggressive, other times vulnerable, often sensual movement, and the varied music that is frequently more background than accompaniment, it was one of those remembered experiences. This time was no different, but it was possible to see and feel some things more clearly.

The first thing one observes is the dancers. They are strong, unbelievably flexible (there is no visible effort in their recovery from extreme backbends) and in full control of their bodies, which they allow to go as close to out of, control as is possible. In their honesty and integrity they are beautiful in choreography that sculpts the space and turns their bodies into sculpture. Some episodes suggest animals and their instincts, others children or babies at play.

Sadeh translates as leaf or section and the number of each section is shown on the high gray wall that is the set. There are not really 21 different movement studies since 7-18 are lumped together. The piece is a series of solos, duets (which can be merely two people dancing in proximity at the same time) plus group sections. Company material refers to the work as the “voyage of the body,” but it could also be considered a flowing picture of human beings sharing abstract moments of the lives we all live and the emotions experienced therein.

The dance begins with a solo by each dancer that serves to introduce them as individuals. The different phrases reveal sudden changes in shapes and dynamics, from melting delicacy to sudden bolts of movement. Some of the sections have moments of silly clownishness and others, like the one in which the dancers move with slow deliberation in an ever - expanding circle, project pure community energy at its best.

Section 20 was another series of solos with what seemed to be a screaming voice as accompaniment. Each dancer, using a different part of the stage, reacted to this grating sound in a different manner and one felt emotionally drained watching them. The woman in the red top (Bobbi Smith) was especially riveting.

In section 21 the dancers climbed to the top of the wall from the back and once there fell or jumped backward. This could be interpreted as giving up; rather it was about taking risks and at the end all 18 dancers were standing firmly on the wall.

Given the political turmoil in the world today and Israel’s spotlighted position in it, Naharin is often questioned about the role of the artist. His answer is, “To NOT be a politician.” Yet to him all art comes from passion and he realizes that, since it is always looking for new solutions and advocates freethinking, “the byproduct of choreographic effort can oppose conventional and conservative politics and thinking.” He wryly suggests that maybe all government officials should participate in Gaga! In any case, watching the dancers of Batsheva is a pleasure.

dawnlille@aol.com