An amazing performance by the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company belied expectations. Instead of an angst-ridden program of modern dance (which might be expected from an Israeli company co-founded by Martha Graham), Batsheva offered vibrant, hilarious, full-throttle dance that theatricalized the Israeli experience and celebrated life.
There was never a moment when it wasn’t clear this was an Israeli group: the folk dance lines formed across the stage, the tough, army stances the dancers would strike, the songs they shouted out, holocaust references, orthodox costumes (black hats and suits even for the women). The dances worked up to the edge of insanity, over and over again, a good metaphor for both the religious ecstasy some Orthodox Jews find in the pages of the Torah, to the state of the state and the average daily personal stress level. The choreography, rich in theatrical imagery, direct and communicative without ever looking fussy or "lyrical," also revealed a deeply earthy sense of humor—no doubt a key to survival in present-day Israel. Beyond any political statements, though, Batsheva offered moments of powerful humanity, youthful exhuberance and wonderful dancing.
Ohad Naharin, company director and chief choreographer for many years, recently stepped aside from management duties in order to focus on his new role as "house choreographer." On tour is "Deca-Dance," a work that combines excerpts from nine notable Oharin works for Batsheva from 1985 to 2001. As a hodgepodge, the concept worked well. Since the selected pieces sometimes lacked clear endings, the audience began to clap whenever they wished, and these naturally occurring moments gave the piece continuity and flow.
Shown in an order subject to change were "Black Milk" (1985), "Passomezzo" (1989), "Queens of Golub" (1989), "Mabul" (1992), "Anaphaza" (1993), "Sabotage Baby" (1997), "Zachacha" (1998), "Moshe" (1999), and "Naharin’s Virus" (2001). Some of the excerpts had a Cunningham-influenced style, the choreography technical and impersonal. But more often than not, there was a highly theatrical element at work in the pieces. The dancers were all soloists, everyone had a moment or two of the limelight, but they were a clearly unified group and seemed to function best communally, all 16 of them on stage at the same time.
Music for the pieces fit into an interesting soundtrack including cocktail lounge and elevator songs, like "Cha-Cha de Amor" sung by Dean Martin, Yma Sumac and Rolley Polley. Also, there was mainstream modern music, like that of Arvo Part, John Tavener, Steve Reich, a twisted version of "Greensleeves" from The Beggar’s Opera, and pop tunes from Dick Dale, Harold Arlen, and The Ventures. Naharin managed to sidestep a cartoony aesthetic here and avoided cheap trendiness and cliche because of the movement. The winking, cheerful music was often the only light in an essentially bleak environment. And it always came down to people. The dancers were presented as human beings, characters with personalities.
Judging from this choreographer’s work, the Israeli sensibility is smart, passionate, defiant and self-deprecating. More than many choreographers, who flit from music source to subject matter with sometimes reckless abandon, Naharin’s work has a continuity of voice. While the parts of Deca-Dance were quite dissimilar, from a male-bonding piece (with a lip-synching ballerina on red toe-shoe stilts) to Graham-style floorwork, to pure theater, there is definitely a wholeness, a unified philosophy visible in the work.
A central memory of the evening was the audience-participation number, when the black-suited dance company headed sternly out into the house and came back with partners who joined them to fill the stage with a few moments of reckless abandon, crazy party dancing. It was hilarious, but ended quickly. Just as suddenly, the stage was returned to order, there was a clearly structured section with the "real people" standing perfectly still, facing stage left, creating instant architecture for the Batsheva dancers to swirl around. Finally, one couple was left onstage slow dancing, the middle-aged audience recruit as comfortable-looking in her young male dancer’s arms as a long-married wife dancing with her husband at a wedding. Grounded in its moment, feelings that come up in response to images like these have everything to do with hope, not the opposite. Naharin is a valiant, superlative choreographer.