Reflections on a Batsheva Season

Israeli Choreographers, Israeli Companies, Israeli Dance Scene, Performances

Three by Ohad Naharin.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

After the flurry of premieres during Curtain Up in November and the dazzling array of performances during International Exposure in December, the contemporary dance scene in Israel quiets down for the winter.  To be sure, this is not exactly a period of hibernation; there are still concerts nearly every night, and here and there, a few new dances are unveiled.  But with a break in the festival schedule, it seems that many choreographers hunker down and work on their next projects in the studio, while companies and independent artists re-present their recent repertory on stage.

Easily the most extensive and tempting display of repertory on view this year has come from Batsheva Dance Company, which has repeatedly drawn local audiences to the Suzanne Dellal Centre with a series of performances spread throughout the last few months.  In this guest article, Brian Schaefer reflects on the company’s choreographic wealth.

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Reflections on a Batsheva Season

Winter, 2010/11
MAX – Hora – Three – Kamuyot

By Brian Schaefer

Revisiting MAX

MAX by Ohad Naharin.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.


You can own a movie and re-watch it whenever the mood strikes. You can own a book and can pull it off the shelf when inspiration hits. You can own a painting and can glance at it every time you pass. Those things never change. Which doesn’t mean that you don’t discover new things upon multiple viewings, but the work itself won’t alter. And whether you watch that movie once or ten times, in the course of a year or over five, well, that’s entirely up to you.

Live performance is another thing altogether, dance in particular. The ability to revisit a particular work in and of itself is a rarity. Unless you live in a major dance center with major companies that host home seasons and have a repertory large enough to rotate on a regular basis, the opportunity to see a work multiple times is available to few. And even if you are lucky enough to see a work multiple times, chances are that casts will change and even perhaps a bit of the choreography itself. And because it’s live, anything can happen. Which is why we love it. In essence, you never really watch the same thing twice. And thus, you can’t own a dance. You can revisit a dance, stop by to say hello, check in on an old friend and see how he’s doing and what’s new in his life, but you can’t move in.

The first time I met MAX (choreography by Ohad Naharin and performed by the Batsheva Dance Company) was in 2007 at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv. The second time was a year later, also in Tel Aviv. The third time was in San Diego, CA in February of 2009, and the most recent meeting was last month, in December of 2010, back at Suzanne Dellal.

He looks more or less the same, as good as I remember him, though of course a few things have changed though I can’t entirely put my finger on them. He’s still passionate and intense, but in a quiet way, a bottled-up energy that is always on the verge of explosion. As I remember, there seems to be a cloud always hanging over MAX’s head, threatening to release a storm. And yet, there is still that twinkle in his eye, a sense of mischief.

He continues to speak that gibberish language, undecipherable and yet somehow vaguely familiar – a tongue that perhaps you learned before you were born. It’s ancient and angry and somehow more descriptive than any vocabulary you already know.

Though I’ve visited MAX several times before, perhaps more than any other dance piece that I haven’t myself been a part of, I keep forgetting how precise he his. How razor sharp those movements are, how quickly they slice, how unexpectedly they appear. It’s startling.

I forgot how quickly my heart beats when I’m with MAX. I forgot how magnetic he is – those moments of accumulation and repetition that trick me into a trance while still keeping me guessing (one…, one-two…, one-two-three…, all the way up to ten and then he starts again). I forgot that even in darkness, he makes me feel illuminated.

It’s all too rare to have such a simultaneously kinesthetic, emotional, and psychological response to a dance. Only masterpieces deliver such a potent combination and I do believe this is one. As only powerful performance can do, it remains in your body, not on your shelf.

And grateful am I that while I can never take MAX home with me, or see him on-demand, or dust him off for another look any time I choose, I have been able to visit him every now and then, to see this living, breathing piece of art grow and evolve, and allow him to reach out, grab my shoulders and shake me again and again.

Deconstructing the Hora

Hora by Ohad Naharin.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Last year at International Exposure, the five-day festival of Israeli contemporary dance for arts presenters, writers, and creators from around the world, in a Q&A with choreographer Ohad Naharin following the performance of Hora by the Batsheva Dance Company, someone asked the inevitable question – “Why the name?” To which Mr. Naharin, in typical cheeky manner, replied that it doesn’t necessarily reference the traditional Israeli folk dance that first comes to mind. After all, he pointed out, “Hora means ‘hour’ in Spanish.” The name, like the work itself, is supposed to challenge your automatic associations.

Fine. But come on, when you’re the main Israeli dance company, performing in Israel, and you call something “Hora,” you know exactly what people will default to. And when you give them the complete opposite of expectations created by the mind, the experience can be a disorienting one. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Naharin does wink at the traditional folk dance implied in the title, a main ingredient of Jewish weddings and B’nei Mitzvot. Following a dramatic opening image of the eleven dancers sitting on a long bench, illuminated in bright green (both floor and three surrounding walls are painted in a rich foliage tone), they stand and walk slowly forward, reach the lip of the stage, and do a gentle pas de bouree, which also looks like a half “grapevine” step, which is a staple of Rikudei Am (Hebrew for “Dance of the People” or folk dance). So within the first minute or so, he checks the box, gives you want you came for, and then proceeds for the next hour to smash it and whip it and break it down until it – or you – cries for mercy.

One should be wary about assigning any one idea or meaning to any piece that Naharin creates. They are far too abstract and atmospheric to extract something like a theme or specific commentary. But in Hora, both in title and in the use of some of the world’s most recognizable music (Strauss’ overture best known from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”) he explicitly employs popular elements – can we call them clichés? – with the express purpose of forcing you to overcome your previous knowledge and associations by re-contextualizing them and stripping them of their grand, universal meanings.

To which he’s only partially successful. Second time around, I still can’t overcome the gnawing familiarity of the music. This may indeed be the point – that cultural reference points once firmly engrained and globally accepted are impossible to purge – but that understanding doesn’t really serve his work. It’s a realization that’s removed from the choreography rather than a revelation that comes from it.

Thankfully, that idea doesn’t dominate the entire work. In the last ten minutes or so, the lights on stage dip to about 30% intensity and the dancers revisit some of the initial phrases and imagery. Yet what once felt bold and rebellious in broad light now feels a bit sad and timid when draped in shadow.

Naharin has never seemed to hold tradition in high esteem – which is why his company is always so unexpected – but when Hora begins illuminated and ends under a cloud with a single dancer walking forward slowly but steadily while the rest look on, distant and indifferent, it does seem to mourn the loss of something intangible, something that at one point might have held people together, something that once was but is no longer and that without it, we are forced to make sense of this world alone.

Learning to Count to THREE

Three by Ohad Naharin.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

They’re staring at me again. Those Batsheva dancers. Always staring. Just standing there and glaring at me. Or begging me. Like they’re accusing me of something. Or inviting me to join them. Or just completely indifferent and waiting for me to decide.

Despite the colorful, casual costumes that gives Shalosh (Hebrew for “Three”) a kind of United Colors of Benetton aesthetic, it’s a work that feels deceptively bright, a rainbow on stage that is merely meant to distract you from the murkiness that lies within and rumbles just below the surface.

Like it’s choreographic cousins, MAX and Hora, Shalosh juxtaposes spastic, explosive segments of individual ecstasy (or meltdown?) with periods of eerie calm and mechanic unison. As always, the sudden shifts between these worlds creates the tension between the extremes that defines the recent works of Ohad Naharin.

This particularly manifests itself in Shalosh in the second, middle section (the work earns its title from the three chapters, Bellus, Humus, and Secus) in which the company’s women move as a single organism; slithering across the stage, reclining suggestively on the floor, puncturing the contemplative air with occasional sharp jolts all effortlessly in sync. It’s a quiet journey, almost pacifying, except those small moments when something volatile and aggressive bubbles to the surface.

In contrast, in the third section, Secus, the company divides into three lines, each facing the audience; the first person in each line presents a nonchalant pose or short movement phrase before stepping to the back of the line to make way for the next. It’s a conveyor belt of revealing, unexpected gestural offerings, one after the other, at the same time both industrial production and also the rebellion against it.

And unlike Humus which fused the women into a single breathing form that the mind can easily comprehend, Secus demands that the eyes scan and the head whips to try to hear these three competing conversations that are alternately jarring, provocative, quiet, and desperate. Yet as soon as you are captivated by one image or dancer, you’ve already missed something else. By trying to listen in on all of them, you soon understand that you actually hear nothing. Quite the challenge for a society that thinks it’s mastered the art of multi-tasking.

Shalosh is a work that lays its guts on the table and shows you its insides and then winks at you with a smirk. It makes you feel naked, stripped of whatever guard you’ve brought to the theater, whatever protective gear you shroud yourself in on a daily basis. Because regardless of how thick and impenetrable we think our skin is, it cannot withstand the honesty of those stares. Begging, accusing, inviting, or just waiting for you to decide.

Through a Child’s Eyes

Kamuyot by Ohad Naharin.  Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Of all the places one would least likely expect to see a four-year-old, I imagine a performance of the Batsheva Dance Company would be somewhat high on the list. After all, the company is known for its rather harsh and aggressive physicality, it’s overt and unromantic sexuality, and extreme abstraction of movement. Yet Varda Studio on Saturday morning was filled with young families and a gaggle of tykes sitting patiently on all four sides of the performance space, some bouncing on their parent’s lap, others leaning against older brothers and sisters along for the ride.

Kamuyot is one of Naharin’s creations for the Batsheva Ensemble (the second company consisting of mostly younger dancers, all technically excellent) that borrows some ideas and phrases from that other intimate Batsheva work performed in a studio surrounded by the audience, Mamootot. But whereas the latter dance features a cast in identical, flesh-colored costumes with a nude solo in the middle, Kamuyot features bright Catholic schoolboy/girl-meets-retro-punk outfits and, well, no nude solo. That would be entirely inappropriate.

But the refreshing thing is how little the two differ from each other conceptually. Both challenge the traditional proscenium presentation of dance by bringing the audience into the game. Spaces are reserved throughout the audience for the dancers to sit during the work, blending the line between spectator and performer. The proximity of the dancers to the audience is utilized and exploited in moments such as when the dancers walk slowly around the perimeter, catching the gaze of audience members, pausing to hold hands and share a moment.

Some adults who attended Mamootot when I saw it found those moments uncomfortable. The children in Kamuyot seemed to find them thrilling. The sense of involvement and participation allowed the children, most quite young, to remain remarkably engaged and attentive for the hour-long work and didn’t invade on any sense of personal space that we adults so carefully cultivate as we age. Perhaps most striking, the children seemed to simply accept everything that was happening before their eyes and just enjoy the pure physical pictures being played out in front of them.

On Wednesday, when attending a performance of Batsheva’s Three, several of my companions remarked following the show that they just “didn’t get it.” It’s a comment that didn’t even cross the mind of the little ones sitting wide-eyed in the studio on Saturday. “What an uninteresting observation!” the kids would likely respond. What is there to get? It’s about letting go and allowing yourself to be taken on a journey, to simply respond to whatever unexpected image or idea pops up.

In the United States, we don’t trust children’s ability to make sense of abstract art. We adults project our discomfort with work that doesn’t conform to a certain style or traditional notion of beauty and assume that children will share our apprehension. Consider that your children, or as a child yourself, likely attended special matinees of the Nutcracker, or heard Bach at the symphony or toured a Monet exhibition at a fine art museum but likely didn’t have much exposure to, say, Merce Cunningham or John Cage or Mark Rothko. We decide that children won’t be able to make sense of these avant-garde artists. But maybe it’s us that are holding them back.

As adults, we bring expectations into every situation – whether a job, a relationship, or a dance performance. We demand that events unfold in an orderly fashion, that everything connects to something else, that in the end we are given a clear message so we can put it in a box, assign a label, and then evaluate accordingly. But perhaps there is something to learn from a child who accepts what is offered with generous curiosity. Perhaps that acceptance allows for even greater insight and enjoyment. And perhaps that is something we can learn to bring into other aspects of our lives as well.

About the Guest Author

Brian Schaefer is a writer and arts administrator from California where he was the dance critic for the San Diego News Network and the Program Manager for ArtPower! at the University of California, San Diego.  He is a member of the Dance Critics Association, Dance/USA, and a recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Arts Journalism.  He is currently living in Tel Aviv as a 2010-2011 Dorot Fellow and reflects on all things dance at

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