Locating 2019 in Time and Space: Reflections on Ohad Naharin’s Latest Work

Posted on 29 December 2019 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Put together Ohad Naharin’s two most recent works – Venezuela (2017) and 2019 (2019) – and the titles alone create clear associations with space and time, respectively. Yet while Venezuela is unmoored from the geographical turf of its namesake, rooting itself instead in grounds of form and spectatorship, 2019 presents a full-bodied embrace (and full-throated interrogation) of the current moment – and, further, it delineates a specific location. If Venezuela exists in and expounds upon the world of the stage, 2019 exists very much in our world, spilling off the platform and onto our laps in Tel Aviv. We, the viewers, are in Israel, and so too is this work.

My instinct is frequently to focus on the movement of a work, but as 2019 echoed in my mind after two viewings, the elements of space and time surfaced repeatedly. With these two dimensions as the linchpins, I began sorting through my own multilayered reading of Naharin’s dance. Spoilers ahead – this is best read after you, too, have taken in 2019 and turned it over in your mind. 

I. Space: Studio Varda, Batsheva Dance Company’s largest rehearsal hall, is rendered unrecognizable by Gadi Tzachor’s stage design. Although the space of the work is unconventional – resembling a fashion show runway – 2019’s location comes sharply into focus as the opening announcements forbidding photography and cell phones are cheekily delivered in three languages: Hebrew.  English. Arabic. The first two are standard for Batsheva shows drawing an international crowd, but the inclusion of the third points to the site not only of the performance but of its subject matter. And when a dancer slowly turns his back to the audience during the Arabic announcement, hands raised as if apprehended, his physical position signals, perhaps, the work’s critical position in relation to its locale.  

II. Space and time: From this opening, bridging the pre-performance and performance worlds, 2019 alludes to the world outside Studio Varda with a series of references to “here” and “now.” Here: A soundtrack dominated by Hebrew lyrics, with a not insignificant dose of Arabic. A brief ululation. Now: The inclusion of songs in English and Japanese, perhaps a reflection of porous cultural borders in a globalized world (and perhaps a reflection of the artist’s personal life). Also now: Bold, strikingly individual clothing and edgy jewelry that would not be out of place on the runway or in a club, and that in some cases upends gender norms. Here: A line of dancers hopping rhythmically, their boots stomping on the floor and their leader briefly flicking his wrist as if kicking off a debka. Now: A movement vocabulary that at times would not be out of place at a club or in a music video, with hints of twerking, pelvises jutted out, saucy snaps, deep squats and soaring legs, explosive acrobatics, and suspended freezes. Also now: An attuned performance presence and physical facility nurtured by Gaga, Naharin’s decidedly contemporary training practice. Though less obvious to viewers from outside the field, this too is reflective of the moment.  

III. Time: The first time I saw 2019 was December 2, 2019. The second time was December 9, 2019. The third time will likely be in February 2020 – at which point, 2019 will automatically reference the past even while it exists in the present. Sharing its name with the year of its creation, Naharin’s work foregrounds the passage of time – and it is fitting that 2019 will exist in the world of 2020, 2021, and beyond, for the nowness of this work speaks to the ethos of a period rather than that of a specific, self-contained calendar year. It stretches back to the optimistic 1970 “BaShana HaBa’a” (“Next Year”) and to the honeyed voice of the Lebanese singer Fairouz crooning “Ana La Habibi” (“I Am for My Lover”), a voice that – even if recorded in 1995 as Google indicates – evokes an undefined, earlier golden age. It connects the childhood chant of “LaKova Sheli” (“My Hat has Three Corners”) to the chilling adult experience of Hanoch Levin’s “At, Ve’Ani, Ve’Hamilchama” (“You, Me, and the Next War”), penned after the Six-Day War of 1967. 2019 reflects at least a few decades, and perhaps, even a full lifetime; there are glimmers of light, hope, and peace – glimmers from the past, and of a more innocent, idealistic youth – but these shine out from a mature, darker view of the world.  

IV. Here and now: And yet, there is something about 2019 itself, as it unfolded in Israel. At the time of 2019’s premiere, Israel’s government was in an unprecedented situation. The year saw not one but two elections which failed to yield a governing coalition, and as audiences filed into Studio Varda in early December, the announcement of a third round of voting seemed increasingly inevitable. We are in a holding pattern: unable to move forward decisively, though time marches onward and decisions must be made. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian “situation” continues as “normal,” with Tel Aviv’s bubble briefly punctured by sirens indicating incoming rockets from Gaza on the morning of November 12. On this front, too, we are in a holding pattern: cycles of violence and fragile cease fires, a morally questionable status quo that is alternately upheld or upended by proclamations of building, annexation, sovereignty . . . 

V. Now, whether here or not: And yet, Naharin titled his work 2019, not Israel. 2019 – the year, though perhaps also the choreographic work – is not exclusively Israeli. The name 2019 obviates the necessity to translate or transliterate the title. We may all pronounce 2019 differently, but we do not need a multitude of alphabets to make it widely legible. And around the globe, 2019 had no shortage of political turmoil and impasses, conflict and violence, and -isms that threaten to rend relationships, dash dreams, and endanger lives.  

Batsheva Dance Company 2019

VI. Space and time: Reading 2019’s deployment of space and time as “here” and “now” provided the foundation for my initial reaction to Naharin’s creation. But excavating further, I found myself intrigued by the compositional workings of space and time in 2019. Naharin often talks about the interplay among many elements in his choreography, about the tensions and balances he creates for each world. If 2019 at first appears to amplify content, theatricality, and a more concrete and even obvious message, it can do so only because the form is meticulously crafted. Each element’s volume is subject to a plethora of precise adjustments so that alone or in tandem with other elements, the impact is powerful. Space and size: A stepping pattern is performed exuberantly, with loose-limbed strides propelling dancers through the space with a confident ease; now it’s marked nearly in place, just a hint of what was. Space and time: The glacial pace of a processional across the space sets off speedy, complex solos; protracted periods with little action provide room to digest the action – and challenge us to stay as alert as the dancers, ready to catch the next flurry of movement. Time: Time is stretched, with songs looped or slowed down nearly beyond recognition and compositional structures audaciously extended, matching the length of the audio tracks. Space, time, stillness, weight: From the beginning, the stage design draws us close to the dancers, underscoring our shared world – and the separation between performers and spectators breaks down towards the end of 2019 as the dancers climb into the risers. The volume of the movement is dialed down to total stillness when Hanoch Levin’s haunting text resounds through the space, each word delivered in an unhurried drone. In the absence of motion, these words carry more weight. There is time and space for them to sink in, and the unmoving mass of each dancer’s body lying corpse-like across the viewers’ laps amplifies the message.  

VII. Here? During the general rehearsal on December 2, a colleague turned to me and asked if I was familiar with the song to which the dancers were swaying and singing. It was, for growing up in a strong Jewish community in the U.S., “Hinei Ma Tov” was part of my repertoire from a young age. Likewise, I sang “LaKova Sheli” at Purim celebrations, and “BaShana HaBa’a” was a favorite at camp singalongs. I do, however, recognize the different relationship many Israelis have with these songs. And so I wondered: how would it be to watch 2019 with different eyes informed by a different upbringing in a different place? How do we as individual spectators, each with our own background, locate ourselves in relationship to the sights, the sounds, the content of a choreographic work that itself is so rooted in a specific place? Questions about viewership that swirled after seeing Venezuela flooded back to me, but with twists molded by the form and content of Naharin’s newest creation.   

Batsheva Dance Company 2019

VIII. Where? Although some of the Hebrew songs in 2019 were familiar to me, at other times I found myself wondering what language I was hearing. Were the slowed-down lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic, or another tongue? Does it even matter? Naharin offers a specific series of references, but there is universality beyond the specificity. This is the tale of our time in Israel, but it is also the tale of our time outside Israel. A flock of dancers weaving through the space, arms raised up, brings to my mind both prisoners of war and refugees, more a category and less a nationality; four women hanging from the wall of the set could be hanging from one of many walls erected around our globe. Rich with form and content, there is room for a layered reading of 2019 that does not require the viewer to be steeped in Israeli culture and society. The images resonate across context, across space, and across time. As 2019 comes to a close, as the second decade of the 2000s reaches its end, we live in a world that is rife with conflicts and challenges. As Naharin’s 2019 is born, as it begins its lifespan as a work of art and welcomes viewers to spend 75 minutes of their time in its space, it provides opportunities for reflection, on aesthetic and political grounds alike. 

IX. 2019: You will yet see, you will yet see, 
How good it will be,
Next year.”  
To a better 2020. Happy New Year.

Batsheva Dance Company 2019

Photos by Ascaf.

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