Batsheva Dance Company: Ohad Naharin’s “Project 5″

Posted on 19 January 2010 by Deborah Friedes Galili


Video: Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s Project 5

Given the chance, I usually prefer to see a dance twice.  I can anticipate the choreography and more strategically direct my gaze, and I detetct nuances that I missed the first time around.

I first saw Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s Project 5 when it premiered in 2008, and by the time I had my second viewing last week, there had been a significant change: the gender of the dancers.  Originally created for five female dancers, Project 5 is now being performed not only by women but also by men.

I had wondered if I would sense differences between the male version and the female version of Project 5.  Without watching the versions back-to-back, it was challenging to make a fair comparison.  Instead, as I watched the men, I found myself thoroughly absorbed in noticing the subtle idiosyncrasies among individuals both within this particular quintet and across the two casts I had seen. Project 5‘s assortment of small groupings and repeated compositional motifs provide ample opportunity to observe each dancer in all his (or her) glory and discover each performer’s winning quirks.

Those of you in Israel can catch both female and male casts in Project 5 at the Suzanne Dellal Center from January 28-30.  For those of you who aren’t in the country, you can get your Batsheva fix online by browsing their fantastic new website (link below; English version to come shortly!).

My preview of Project 5 was originally published as “Changing Places” in the Jerusalem Post.

* * *

Changing Places

Two dancers rhythmically swing their forearms side to side as Isao Tomita’s synthesizer transforms the stirring melody of Ravel’s Bolero.  Positioned squarely behind microphones, three dancers intersperse their stern monotone chanting with more dynamically accented gestures.  Five dancers add movement after movement to a gradually accumulating phrase, striking their abdomens with a resounding slap each time a woman’s voice matter-of-factly intones one particular line from Charles Bukowski’s “Making It.”  And finally, costumed in flowing white fabric, five dancers shoot through the space in soaring jumps and ritualistically smear mud across their faces and chests.

Are these dancers men or women?  The answer depends on which performance of Ohad Naharin’s Project 5 you attend.

Ohad Naharin’s Project 5. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Naharin first presented Project 5 in 2008 to showcase five female dancers who had recently been promoted to the Batsheva Dance Company from the junior Batsheva Ensemble.  Besides displaying the formidable talents of these up-and-coming dancers, Project 5 unearthed several gems from the rich landscape of Naharin’s repertory.  The engrossing trio “Park” hails from Moshe (1999), the finely crafted quintet set to Bukowski’s instructive text and Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina” is from George and Zalman (2006), and Black Milk, the supremely athletic closing section for five dancers, was first performed in 1985.  “B/olero,” the duet with its hypnotizing loops of movement, was the only section created in 2008 for members of the original Project 5 cast.

Ohad Naharin’s Project 5. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

In its early performances, the chance to see five of Batsheva’s freshest female dancers featured in this intimate chamber setting was reason enough to go to the theater.  But now Naharin is upping the ante, offering a rare opportunity to see the exact same choreography in both a female version and a male version.  During the production’s latest run at the Suzanne Dellal Center, two all-male and two all-female casts are performing Project 5.

Ohad Naharin’s Project 5. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

While reversing the casting of men and women in a classical ballet would be unthinkable because of the genre’s gender norms, switching the genders in Naharin’s choreography is an intriguing novelty that fits comfortably into the realm of possibility.  Indeed, regarding the materials with which his dancers work during the creative process, Naharin explains, “it is possible to talk, among other things, about musicality, accuracy, groove, passion, the ability to sublimate personal madness as an aid for creation, connection to sexuality and more, and all these things are not connected to gender and are not the property of men or of women.”

“The difference,” Naharin notes, “lies in the different point of reference of the viewer – in social conventions, our habits, and the awareness that a man does a woman’s role.”

Ohad Naharin’s Project 5. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Naharin’s assertion is supported by veteran Batsheva dancer Guy Shomroni’s experience in working on Project 5.  Asked if it felt significantly different to step into roles originated by women, Shomroni replied, “Frankly, not really, because the starting point for us as dancers in this company is usually coming from a more physical way.”  Rather than taking on specifically gender-coded movement or characters, Shomroni and his fellow male dancers were charged with the same basic physical tasks that their female predecessors faced.

Ohad Naharin’s Project 5. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Yet there was a high level of excitement for the new male cast when it came to learning Project 5.  Shomroni reflects that besides Black Milk, which has frequently been performed by a male quintet, “None of the material was ever offered for men to do . . . to touch this product after it’s already been through a process and a maturing on stage, it’s a nice experience.”

Ohad Naharin’s Project 5. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

As for the audience’s perspective, Shomroni muses that the differences among dancers of the same gender may be as fascinating as the contrasts between the male and female casts. In a company full of strikingly individual dancers, each of whom is uniquely compelling, this may well be the case. Yet returning to the issue of gender, Shomroni adds thoughtfully, “there is a difference in the body shape and the body curves in the way the body is built, so maybe there is going to be some type of change. Tell me if you find some.”

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