by David Mead
November 16, 2012 -- The Curve, Leicester, UK
Going to see Batsheva, or in this case Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company of Ohad Naharin’s Israeli troupe, it is impossible to avoid the politics. That was especially true in a week when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had once again been brought into all too sharp focus. First one has to pass the pickets outside the theatre, making their point vocally and, it has to be said, quite effectively. Then there is the beefed up security; bag searches and men in dark suits everywhere. Actually, the latter is far more off-putting than anything else, including the disruptions to the performance. There were four interruptions here, none of which stopped the show, and that became increasingly counter-productive, at least if the audience reaction was anything to go by.
Of course, all art is inextricable enmeshed with politics, and many of the accusations thrown at the company could be tossed at those elsewhere. The idea that because a company is largely state funded it is automatically a government mouthpiece could equally be applied to most major companies in the world, including in the UK. I absolutely defend anyone’s right to protest, and we all make choices about what we feel strongly about, but it does intrigue me that groups from other countries with well-documented, highly questionable human rights records, and that in some cases practice artistic censorship too, are accepted without question.
Turning to the stage, “Deca Dance” is very much a cabaret-style evening made of excerpts from eight of Naharin’s works. It does feel like that sort of show. Jasmin Vardimon did something similar in “Yesterday” but there the patchwork came together rather better than here.
Although Gaga, the approach to movement and dance devised by Naharin is very much about personal discovery of one’s own body, and relies much on improvisation, the dancers are exceptionally disciplined. There are more than a few moments in the show when individuality shines through, but when they move in unison there is a remarkable strength and togetherness. Incidentally, I hesitate to call it ‘technique’, a term that implies many things Gaga is not.
Naharin’s dance always has a striking physicality. It is at its best in the large ensemble pieces, where a snappy rhythmicity is very much to the fore. The men of the group are particularly impressive, no more so in the section from “Black Milk”. It is the one time in the show where there’s a distinct sense of narrative. The five dancers, in billowing off-white trousers, daub mud over their faces and torsos. It sets them free and gives them some other-worldly power as they then leap and fly through the space with incredible ease. It can easily be read as a note about the strong influence community and group think exerts on even the unwilling or questioning. Here, one man is clearly less at ease, but even he is swept along by the others for a while. Eventually, he washes his mud off, but by then, the power has done its work. The end appears to hint at death, perhaps not surprisingly as the title alludes to Paul Celan’s Holocaust poem, “Death Fugue.” Interestingly, when made in 1985, “Black Milk” was originally cast on the women on Batsheva.
A complete change of mood came in a section from “Zachacha”, during which the dancers go into the auditorium and invite members of the audience to join them on stage and dance. Given everything else going on, this was perhaps the bravest thing anyone did all evening. Through Don Swan and his Orchestra’s version of “Hooray for Hollywood” and Dean Martin’s rendition of “Sway,” they happily joined in with the infectious and slightly wacky playfulness of the piece, a lady in blue taking a particularly starring role.
There’s a particularly human touch in a one moment fluid, one moment robotic, yet always beautiful and emotionally intense duet to Vivaldi, the couple dressed in modern takes on lacy Renaissance-like costumes. The closing section, from “Kyr”, is worth waiting for too. On chairs arranged in a semi-circle, and to “Achad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One,” the ‘One’ being God), the dancers fling themselves around, diving and leaping, throwing off all their clothes and shoes piece by piece in the process. It’s performed to a Passover song that acquires extra lines rather like the “12 Days of Christmas”, the dance similarly building and repeating. When first danced in 1990, that combination of music and action was seen by some as an attack on ultra-Orthodox Judaism and set off religious protests; dance, politics and religion, again. Here it was quite exhilarating, all rather different to when danced to Bach as part of “Axioma 7,” there the section being followed by the dancers gathering up their clothes in a clear reference to the walk to the gas chambers.
All round, an impressive evening’s dance from a highly disciplined group of young dancers, all aged just 18-24. It was also an evening that made you think, and not only about what was happening on stage.
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