Batsheva Ensemble in Ohad Naharin’s “Kamuyot”

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Video: Batsheva Ensemble in Ohad Naharin’s Kamuyot

My first glimpse of the Batsheva Ensemble when I arrived in Israel was in Kamuyot, and I was able to revisit the work for a preview of the company’s most recent staging at Studio Varda in Suzanne Dellal last weekend.

A version of my article on Kamuyot was first published in the Jerusalem Post as “Stepping In.”

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Stepping In

Ohad Naharin’s Kamuyot.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Ohad Naharin’s Kamuyot isn’t your average family-friendly dance.  It’s not built on fanciful fairy tales or familiar children’s stories, like the ballet classic The Nutcracker or modern dance renderings of Peter and the Wolf.  In fact, it’s not based on any narrative at all.  But the Batsheva Ensemble’s production is a uniquely engaging work that lives up to its billing as “a piece for children aged 6 to 90.”

Based on material from Naharin’s Mamootot and Moshe, both of which were created for more typical adult audiences, Kamuyot premiered in 2003 and has since entertained crowds across the country and around the world.  Indeed, for the past few years, an international cast has toured Sweden in a popular joint production with the Riksteatern, while last season the Batsheva Ensemble brought Kamuyot to children in Rwanda.

This widespread success lies in large part in the special bond between performers and viewers that the work establishes from the outset.  For starters, Kamuyot trades the traditional theater setting for the more informal, intimate studio space.  Like the children and adults who have arrived to watch the show, the dancers gradually filter into the studio and find their seats on long benches that line all four sides of the room.  Some even interact with people sitting around them, smiling broadly and chatting amiably.  These performers are approachable rather than untouchable; in fact, in their prep-school inspired white shirts, plaid pants, and pleated skirts, Kamuyot’s young cast members could be the friendly teenagers next door.

Ohad Naharin’s Kamuyot.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

The dynamic connection between the performers and the audience is maintained once the dance itself begins.  Kamuyot’s eclectic score – ranging from quirky electronica to nostalgic Americana and from Japanese rock to mellow reggae – kicks off with a rousing rendition of Lou Reed’s “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” setting the tone for a performance that’s more interactive than most.  Besides moving back and forth between their spots on the sidelines and the open space in the center, the dancers invite viewers to join them in a series of inventive postures and later walk around the perimeter, gazing softly into audience members’ eyes and occasionally taking a viewer’s hand.

Even when there’s not direct physical interaction between Kamuyot’s performers and spectators, a spirit of lively interplay among everyone present prevails.  At one point, the dancers gamely address the challenge of being surrounded by the audience and pointedly cater to each row of viewers.  To a rocking version of Bobby Freeman’s song “Do You Wanna Dance,” the cast jumps through a fast-paced phrase, strikes a pose, and then sprints to the next side of the studio to start all over again.  In such a small area, every twinkle in their eyes and dimple in their cheeks is visible, revealing the dancers’ pleasure in captivating the crowd.

Ohad Naharin’s Kamuyot.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

The Batsheva Ensemble’s ebullient energy is infectious, and in this square space, the audience’s enthusiastic responses are equally contagious.  Seen up close, the performers’ soaring, unbridled leaps and a few daring acrobatic feats elicit gasps from viewers of all ages.  Other gestures – two men waving their tongues in the air, or one man smacking his face, thumping his thighs, and drumming on his chest – prompt giggles from children which soon spread to their parents.   Moments of contact with the dancers frequently spur happy grins and a stream of excited whispers.  And don’t be surprised if the end of the show induces ardent applause and even a dance party, with kids spilling from the bleachers to try out their own moves in the center of the room.

That’s the magic of Kamuyot.  Naharin’s work eschews the storybook characters and wondrous stagecraft of so many productions geared towards families, but the one-of-a-kind experience it fosters possesses its own attraction – and this spell works its charms on children and adults alike.

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