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Batsheva - 'Telophaza'

by Juliet Neidish and Mark Franko

July 20, 2006 -- Lincoln Center Festival, New York State Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York

Batsheva, Israeli’s premier modern dance company, has a long, important history in the development of modern dance. Ohad Naharin, Artistic Director, choreographer and former dancer, has headed the company since 1990.  The Batsheva dancers are without a doubt powerful, earthy, and exuberant movers committed to the mastery of Gaga, a movement technique designed by Naharin.  The shared technique plus the fact that the dancers are for the most part in their mid- 20’s gives the company a look of homogeneity.

The company offered the U.S. premiere of “Telophaza” (2005) at the Lincoln Center Festival.  “Telophaza” had a large cast of dancers: 20 company members and 18 Batsheva apprentices.  Only half the dancers are Israeli-born.  Although it ran for only 65 minutes, the piece was packed with movement and high energy and so actually seemed  much longer.  The large number of uniformly strong, athletic dancers onstage almost all the time, the four visually striking costume changes, each charged with explosive colors, and the state-of-the-art video technology placed this piece in the realm of the spectacular.  And yet, as I watched it, I was fully aware that I was not succumbing to its seduction.  In retrospect, “Telophaza” was indeed a spectacle, and if it was about anything, it was about the power of spectacle to seduce.                                                                                                                                             

Naharin is a master at controlling the stage, and with “Telophaza,” he has chosen spectacle as his vehicle.  The piece had a clear structural framework with sections done in unison separated by overlapping episodic sequences.  During the more uniform sections, the large cast executed one repetitive movement en masse, such as a bent-over shaking motif, or a pendulating knee series which allowed the dancers sitting on the floor to methodically inch their way downstage while moving from a semi-circle formation into a straight line.  The perfectly-rehearsed dancers never missed their spacings or formations.  In these sections, Naharin chose to focus his audience on the mass, thereby giving his viewers a unified visual experience. When he broke from unison, he provided multiple choreographic combinations, from numerous differing solos going on all at once, to wave-like patterns, which splayed out from a single line of dancers.  In these sections, Naharin no longer focused his audience narrowly but allowed a wider girth: now one could choose what one wanted to focus on.  But, despite this interplay between variety and uniformity, which would seem to offer at least the nuance of polarity, the audience was still reined in.  The continuous swift pacing and the propulsion of energy of dancers making their way on, off, and across the stage to the brief, but pulsating contemporary musical selections, all reintroduced a sense of spectacular closure. Nothing could stand in the way of the mechanical drive toward spectacular power. For me, that driving, perpetual singular rhythm had a numbing effect, which was underscored by the uniformity of the style and its execution, along with the homogeneity of the dancers.  Though all were excellent, none stood out.

Would I have been seduced or at least more drawn into the piece had I been given a window into the souls of some of these excellent dancers?  In “Telophaza,” Naharin was equipped with the perfect means to do this.  Using video, individual dancers took turns looking into cameras that projected their faces onto four equidistant screens mounted upstage.  After staring out at us, they entered into the concurrent dancing, making room for the next face to emerge.  This sequence was patterned and methodical as dancer by dancer stopped to look into the camera, and then moved on. We became aware of the underlying sequence well before this section ended.  But these magnified faces were not there to reveal themselves in any intimate way.  They were telophazed in and out. Their effect was more like photographic hyper-reality portraiture than the fleeting vulnerability nascent only in live performance.  Whether we were looking at 38 bodies moving in unison, or a single face in a highly magnified close-up, the effect was the same:  the  persistent attention to surfaces that was distancing.

This sense of distance and control was accentuated in different terms by the amplified voice of “Rachel,” the same voice that had asked the audience to turn off their cell phones before the show started. “Rachel” returned as a disembodied protagonist, or perhaps an audible master of ceremonies.  She asked us to do simple tasks and we complied.  We were taught to exult in the simple rotation of the wrist, punctuated by the forming of a fist. Ultimately, watching the flowing sea of moving arms from the balcony was intriguing. I was watching people follow these instructions so they could feel what it was like to be a dancer learning choreography.  But instead of opening up a dialogue of trust that must be operative in a rehearsal or any true learning experience, “Rachel” reminded me more of the pre-recorded relaxation videos served up to airplane passengers during international flights when they begin to go stiff. The ultimate effect was passive participation. When “Rachel” returned with a second round of tasks for the audience, my suspicions were confirmed.  This time in between being asked to close our eyes or touch our stomachs, we were asked to think about our money in the bank and then told to think we were enjoying ourselves.  I found this condescending, and certainly manipulative, because it seemed to conjure up the old stereotype of the dancer’s purity versus the businessman’s materialism.  Rachel’s final command, “Let’s dance,” appeared to give the audience full license to become dancers, though they had nowhere to move. And then “real” dancers started up, wowing us once again.  Spectacle does the work for us.  Was Naharin tapping into the audience’s fascination with the body and the dancer’s athletic prowess? He certainly used the fetishistic interest in the notion of the dancer to keep people interested in the spectacle. However, he ended abruptly with a dark moment: a couple lying naked in a corner whose faces were captured on the screen projected an unexpectedly sinister image.

What is the hold spectacle has on us?  “Telophaza” entertains and seduces its audience.  But once we reflect on how it entertains, we become aware of a political factor.  What is he saying with this spectacle and with our reaction to it, both of which he so skillfully guides and maneuvers?  Is he saying something about the state of the public today as a metaphor for the republic?  There is an aspect to the enjoyment of this piece that is disturbingly empty; it both panders to and demeans its audience, perhaps intentionally.  What it wants us to see is an open question.

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