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Batsheva Dance Company: From Graham to Gaga

Posted on 21 September 2009 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Ohad Naharin's "Hora"
Rachael Osborne and Iyar Elezra in Ohad Naharin’s Hora. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

I first wrote the article below for the Forward last winter, when the Batsheva Dance Company toured North America in three large-scale productions.  Now, right before New York audiences catch Ohad Naharin’s duet B/olero in City Center’s popular Fall for Dance festival, I decided it was time to revisit this piece.

Fall for Dance features an array of internationally-renowned companies, and while Batsheva has boasted a world-class reputation since its inception, its style and structure have changed dramatically over the last few decades.  This article, originally titled “Going Gaga for Batsheva in America,” traces Batsheva’s transition from a strongly American-influenced company to the more distinctive troupe which has captivated contemporary audiences.

Going Gaga for Batsheva in America

Since its first tour of the United States in 1970, Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company has won over American crowds and critics alike with its energetic approach to dance.  At the time, it was, perhaps, a novelty: an Israeli group performing primarily American repertory with unbridled verve and vigor.  But in the past 18 years, the company has become a phenomenon of a different sort.  The Batsheva Dance Company, which is currently crisscrossing North America, is widely recognized as one of the world’s top dance ensembles, featuring audacious choreography with inventive movement.

Founded in 1964 with the financial backing of Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, Batsheva began as a repertory company in the American mold.  Martha Graham, a founding mother of American modern dance and a beneficiary of de Rothschild’s patronage, served as artistic adviser.  The Israeli dancers trained intensively in Graham’s technique and channeled both their physical power and their emotional passion into some of the choreographer’s most acclaimed works. With many of Graham’s disciples contributing to Batsheva’s repertory, the Tel Aviv-based company was part of American modern dance’s family; New York Times critic Clive Barnes even called Batsheva’s members “the Israeli children of American dance” upon seeing the company’s American debut.

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Americans in Israel: Cedar Lake in Tel Aviv Dance 2008

Posted on 23 October 2008 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in Ohad Naharin’s Decadance. Photo by Paul B. Goode

It used to be that Israeli companies like Batsheva Dance Company and the now defunct Bat-Dor toured to the U.S. with American repertory (( Batsheva Dance Company was founded in 1964 by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, a patroness of Martha Graham.  Graham was the company’s artistic adviser, and the group performed not only several of her works but also dances by numerous Americans and Europeans – some of who became artistic directors during the group’s early decades. )).  But Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s appearance at the Tel Aviv Dance 2008 festival marks a turning point in dance history: this American company is bringing Israeli repertory to Israel.  Cedar Lake’s programs will include excerpts from Decadance by Ohad Naharin, Batsheva’s artistic director.

Last year I peeked into Cedar Lake’s rehearsal process with Naharin by watching Tomer Heymann’s documentary, Out of Focus.  Whereas the Batsheva dancers take class daily in Gaga, a movement practice developed by Naharin, Cedar Lake’s dancers had to move away from their ballet background and immerse themselves in a dramatically different method of training and working.  This shift required the dancers to trade a traditional emphasis on external appearances for an intense process of personal and physical exploration – a major challenge for dancers reared and rooted in the ballet studio, with its ever-present mirror.

But Cedar Lake is explicitly billed as a contemporary ballet company.  Its repertory is not drawn from 19th century ballet classics but from a range of modern-day works, some of which blur the borders between genres of dance.  Thus the dancers that tackled this challenge did so with within the company’s framework of versatility and physical facility, which is beautifully captured in this video below:

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