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Batsheva Dance Company - ‘Deca Dance’

The Ministry of Silly Dances

March 12, 2004 – San Francisco Performances, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

By Mary Ellen Hunt

For the past few years, the Bay Area has gotten little tantalizing tidbits of Ohad Naharin’s choreography via visits from Alvin Ailey and Nederlands Dans Theatre II. So, a very palpable anticipation attended the San Francisco debut of Naharin’s company, Batsheva, when they rolled into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last week courtesy of San Francisco Performances.

We all have our biases, and I hope that no one will think less of me for liking—and I’m going to invoke the “A” word here -- accessible work. That might be a funny way to describe the smorgasbord of eccentric excerpts that Naharin cooked up and served under the moniker “Deca Dance” to celebrate his decade of dance.

But strangely enough, whether it was a strutting lounge singer in pointe shoe stilts, or abstraction to the shimmerings of Arvo Part, there was always something accessible about Naharin’s work. There’s seriousness, and sometimes exquisite silliness, but you can’t help thinking that these are smart dances from a smart man. True, I would have liked to see more of Naharin’s whole evening-length works before getting the bits and pieces. I think it would have made more sense. But we take what we can get.

Naharin has been known to often return to and rearrange his choreographies. For “Deca Dance,” he coyly declined to state which excerpts were from what, but a little research helped to connect some of the dances in Column A to titles in Column B.

The evening opened as a balloon figure blowing upwards from its tether onstage as the audience filtered in. But the real meat got going with an excerpt from “Naharin’s Virus.”

Eleven dancers, torsos encased to mid-thigh in white bodysuits, stood looking a little dazed at the edge of the stage. Every so often, one of the dancers, like a mime gone mad, would break into one of Naharin’s trademark look – seemingly wild and feral, yet controlled movements. The others joined in a jittery phrase and then stilled. At the conclusion they backed away slowly, disappearing into the darkness and strangely shrinking as they did.

A series of solos and duets was punctuated by a lengthy excerpt from the beefcake, manly ritual, “Black Milk” -- amusingly interrupted by the outlandishly costumed woman in pointe shoe stilts from “Sabotage Baby.”

And in a segment from “Zachacha,” the company, in shapeless black suits and fedoras, swept into the house searching for unsuspecting partners from the audience to dance onstage (at Saturday’s show unless my eyes deceived me, they managed to nab at least one dancer from a prominent local company that actually performs regularly at the YBC). It takes a fairly self-assured charismatic company to pull this one off, which they did. The audience of course loved it right to the end, when the spotlight followed the last civilian as she searched for her seat again.

“Up here Veronica!” someone shouted helpfully and the audience broke into good-natured laughter.

It’s a pity we don’t know the company better, or else I’d be able to tell you the name of the exquisite dancer who performed the first of three dances to the music of Part right afterward. A mover of intensity and lightness, she had the audience utterly silent and in rapt attention.

Naharin seems to like kitsch, and there was a distinctly Monty Python feel to the man who came out to intone “Intermission” and then proceeded to stand implacably in front of the curtain. He stayed there for the whole intermission, by the way, breaking into a quirky little private improv while we were out getting a cup of coffee, so that we returned feeling like we’ve somehow missed one of the best parts of the show.

Another favorite segment of the evening was the “Echad Mi Yodea” section, which appears in “Anaphaza” as well as in “Minus 16,” and in this case, opened the second half of the program. A half circle of 15 dancers stood in front of chairs while a portentous woman's voice spoke of the “panic behind the laughter.” And then precipitously, we are pitched into a high-voltage, military-style version of the Jewish children’s song “Who Knows One?” (a kind of “Twelve Days of Christmas” for Passover) recorded by the Israeli group, Tractor’s Revenge.

The group swings wildly from quiet contemplation to explosive phrases of movement as a lone dancer moves toward an empty chair. The barely contained fury of the wave that ripples around the circle literally flings the last dancer to the ground. As they proceed through the thirteen verses of the song -- flinging off hats, jackets, shoes, throwing them to the center of the stage and finally stripping down to underwear -- the frantic physicality of the dancers is coupled with a strangely phlegmatic quality.

Indeed, it is this wild side of Naharin's choreography that makes his own company so appealing. To say that they have a rawness to their movement is not to imply lack of training, but rather a kind of primal attack in even the most lyrical of places. It also makes the overriding intellectualism appealing, and -- coming back to the "A" word again -- accessible. These are not dancers or works from which the audience is shut out. We are invited to be a part of everything, and more than happy to accept.

Edited by Jeff.

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