Getting to Know the Batsheva Ensemble

Events, Israeli Companies, Video Views

(Video: Dancers from the Batsheva Ensemble and from Sweden in Ohad Naharin’s Kamuyot)

I had every intention of taking Gaga class on November 18, 2007.  My dance clothes were in my bag, my water bottle was filled, and I made it to Suzanne Dellal with time to spare.  But outside the studio, I ran into Eldad Mannheim, the manager of the Batsheva Ensemble.  As part of a collaboration with Sweden’s National Riksteatern, members of the Ensemble were about to perform Ohad Naharin’s Kamuyot along with Swedish dancers – and Eldad invited me to join the audience of school children in Studio Varda for the show.

That was the first time I had the pleasure of seeing the Batsheva Ensemble, the second company of the Batsheva Dance Company.  Since then, I have accompanied the Ensemble as they have toured to Be’er Sheva, Kiryat Shmona, and Kfar Saba, and I have attended their performances at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv.  Many of the dancers who were in the Ensemble last year are now in the Batsheva Dance Company, and I’m happy to note that they will be touring throughout the U.S. from late January to early March.  I hope you too will have the pleasure of seeing them perform!

I first wrote about the Batsheva Ensemble after joining them for a trip to Be’er Sheva, in the Negev desert, and I published a version of the article below on my own blog on January 10, 2008.  Expect more accounts of my experiences with the group in the coming months.

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I am not a morning person.

These days, it takes multiple alarms to get me out of bed, and more often than not, the snooze button takes a beating.  But at 5 a.m. on Thursday morning, I successfully arose after a single ring of my alarm. It takes something special for me to get up before the sun rises – something like the chance to accompany the Batsheva Ensemble on their trip to perform for students in Be’er Sheva.

I shouldn’t have worried about a lack of sleep. Like several of the company’s dancers and staff members, I dozed for the better part of the bus ride to Be’er Sheva, and besides, I wasn’t about to perform in two back-to-back, hour-long concerts!   I also suspected (correctly) that the excitement of joining the Batsheva Ensemble for this excursion would keep me on my toes, so to speak.

We awoke as the bus arrived in Be’er Sheva, and after drowsily piling into the theater, the dancers ate a light, healthy breakfast backstage to bolster their strength.  Then it was time to get down to work.  As the crew busied themselves with costumes and technical equipment, I followed the dancers onstage and took Gaga class led by Ines, an Ensemble dancer from France.  Thanks to the presence of other foreigners – 6 of the company’s 16 dancers hail from abroad – the class was directed in English.

While I have taken Gaga for nearly two months, this was my first opportunity to take a class populated entirely by dancers.  I enjoyed the experience immensely.  Now familiar Gaga instructions like floating, quaking, and becoming like a string of spaghetti in boiling water existed side-by-side with first position, pliés, and leg swings.  It was just what my body needed in the morning, and I imagine that it was a good preparation for the performers as well.

After class, rehearsal director Claire Bayliss Nagar gathered the company and announced casting for each performance of Ohad Naharin’s Zachacha.  As they walked through spacing arrangements, I was impressed by how quickly the dancers adjusted to working in different places.   The Ensemble’s dancers may be on the younger end of the spectrum, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-four, but they are working in a rigorous professional environment.  They are not simply learning multiple roles in a single dance and jumping from part to part at a moment’s notice – they are doing so for several full-length works.  Currently, the group’s repertory includes Naharin’s Zachacha, Kamuyot, Seder, and Deca Dance, and they also join with the main company to perform versions of Naharin’s Telophaza and Anaphaza as well as Sharon Eyal’s Bertolina. They typically present four to six shows per week selected from the above repertory. When they are not in the theater, they spend seven hours per day warming up with Gaga and rehearsing in their studio at the Suzanne Dellal Center. It is a demanding schedule that can take its toll on the dancers’ bodies, but I got the sense that the Ensemble members, who were selected from a competitive pool of approximately 300 dancers, were happy to meet the challenge.

With spacing and sound checks finished, the company retreated to do makeup and get dressed. Last minute questions were answered backstage, and then I returned to the audience with Claire.  One dancer was already downstage entertaining the entering audience with a gentle, bobbing groove.  After the other dancers filtered into the space, company manager Eldad Mannheim made a brief introduction and the show took off.

Performing in front of chatty school groups can be a test of focus, and the Batsheva Ensemble successfully survived both rowdy crowds. They may not have had the benefit of a captive audience, but they gradually won over a fair portion of the first show’s viewers, and I myself was entranced by Zachacha during both concerts.  Naharin mixes excerpts from his rich repertory in his Deca Dance, and in previous performances of that work I had seen parts of Zachacha including “Diva,” with a fiercely glammed-up woman strutting on stilts and lip-syncing downstage; “Names,” with dancers’ solos accompanied by recorded text of them introducing themselves; and the ever-popular “Dancing with the Audience,” in which dancers pull unsuspecting audience members onstage and boogie with their partners.

Most of Zachacha, however, was new to me.  In two early segments, I enjoyed the visual trickery of having dancers suspended by Velcro on a wall upstage.  Later I was charmed by the theatricality of “Carolina,” in which two dancers told a story (in Hebrew) of a sad girl with a rare disease and recurring dream; meanwhile, five men tugged, twisted, shook, and lifted a woman center stage to match the narration with puppet-like movement.  And throughout, I feasted my eyes on the performers’ sumptuous dancing.  I started musing about what makes Naharin’s work so satisfying for me while watching the second show.  Purely from a movement standpoint, I am consistently struck by the range he elicits from his dancers.  They juxtapose tight, tiny motions with explosive, full-bodied movement; they are equally adept at sliding low across the floor and soaring high through the air; they can slink, slice, jerk, shake, snake, squirm, undulate, pop, and float.  Thanks in large part to Gaga, they have a full menu of movement options, which is something I discussed later that day with Ariel Freedman, a Juilliard-trained Ensemble dancer from Maryland who is now performing with the main company.

I talked with a few other dancers on the ride back to Tel Aviv, though after their two shows and multiple rounds of notes, many took well-deserved naps (and yes, I was tempted to shut my eyes for a bit as well).  I am tremendously grateful for Eldad’s invitation to join the Batsheva Ensemble for this trip – it’s an experience I won’t forget any time soon! – and I look forward to watching the company perform and talking more with the dancers throughout my time here. Many thanks to all of the company’s dancers and staff for making me feel welcome, humoring my never-ending questions, and keeping me engaged and entertained on very little sleep!

* * *

The Batsheva Dance Company is performing Ohad Naharin’s Project 5 and Mamootot this week at the Suzanne Dellal Center.  After more performances this month including Ohad Naharin’s Deca Dance 2009 and Sharon Eyal’s Makarova Kabisa, the company will tour North America from January 28 through March 7.  For more details, visit Batsheva Dance Company’s website and see Dance In Israel’s Events page.

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*This post was made possible thanks to a Fulbright student grant funded by the U.S.-Israel Educational Foundation and hosted by the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.


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