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Flash Review 1, 5-1: Naharin's Retro-virus
Batsheva Director's Mind-Body Gap

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

NEW YORK -- "Naharin's Virus," the recent work by Ohad Naharin on his Batsheva Dance Company which received its U.S. premiere last night at the Gilman Opera House of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is more interesting in its parts than its sum. The primary text, Peter Handke's 1966 "Offending the Audience," is what the title infers, an old-hat concept which fails to cohere to Naharin's fluent choreography to invent a new reading. Naharin also flirts with having this Israeli company address the Situation, before ultimately deciding not to put out.

The text, which preaches to the audience and then abuses it with a litany of epithets, might have been revivified if it were connected to the dance, but any connection was too oblique for this reviewer. And the potency of Handke's words was diluted by less professionally scripted monologues delivered in voice-over by various dancers, of the type we've all heard before: A dancer rhapsodizes about how she loves to feel her body moving, another reminisces about how she used to dance around naked to provoke her mother into beating her, and still another just spouts gibberish.

Naharin is a master at deploying seamless arrangements of varying sizes, as my choreographer companion pointed out. The corps diffuses into units of one or two or three or four, than glides back together. Also mesmerizing was an idiosyncratic style he incorporated at the beginning, in which the performers slightly twitch and jerk as if controlled like puppets. A prologue in which the riveting Kristin Francke, her torso slightly askew, meticulously and languorously traces the letters "YOU" amidst the outlines of a body and an EKG notation on a chalkboard stretching the length of the upstage was also capitol.

For narrator Jesper Thirup Hansen, costume designer Rakefet Levy developed the ingenious device of having him step in and out of a very starched suit perched atop the blackboard, as he moved from narrating the piece to dancing it with the other performers. But Levy's costumes for them are not so ingenuous, in fact the reverse: Tight grey tops that extend to cover the hands over tight black tights. This ensemble works for the herky-jerky section, but, as my companion pointed out, hardly complimented Naharin's more lyrical, sweeping movement for the remainder of the piece. (As, say, flowing dresses might have.)

I guess what makes me sigh, particularly as Naharin is not the first to misfire like this, is that he doesn't make the same demands of the non-Handke text spoken by the other dancers as he does of the choreography. A playwright, or for that matter his/her actors, would not presume to be dancers or choreographers just because they can move their butts. I'm not going to say dancers shouldn't try acting, but when they do they should at least be given meaty text.

Much has been made of the original music by Habib Allah Jamal, because he is an Israeli Arab and because, according to the program anyway, the period in which he started working with Naharin coincided with an explosion of Israeli Arab unrest over treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In fact, the pre-show hype is misleading. Jamal is one of three composers of original music for this dance, augmented by work from Samuel Barber, Carlos D'Alessio, P. Stokes, and P. Parsons. In other words, it's a little sick the way Jamal's role has been exaggerated as a marketing tool to sell "Naharin's Virus" as an example of co-existence countering the general fratricide between these two Semitic peoples going on right now. If anything, the choreography to Jamal's contributions is the weakest, either ignoring the music's suggestion of a more Arabic dancing style or rendering it stereotypically. A segment to more clubby music resurrected the faux runway postering that was passe when it was introduced and is just embarrassing coming from Naharin.

What wonder there is here comes from the Batsheva dancers, whose commitment makes the choreography look better than it is. They are, in addition to those mentioned above: Eldad Ben-Sasson, Jeremy Bernheim, Caroline Boussard, Stefan Ferry, Yoshifumi Inao, Yaniv Nagar, Gili Navot, Inbar Nemirovsky, Chisato Ohno, Itamar Sahar, Mami Shimazaki, Maya Weiser, Inbal Yaacobi, Arkadi Zaides, and Noa Zouk.

BAM president Karen Hopkins, speaking after the performance, also praised the company's courage just in traveling here. I'm a little ambivalent about this particular praise; the Palestinians whose homes are being destroyed, who (from news reports) are being left to bleed to death on the streets by the Israeli army face exponentially more existential challenges than wondering whether to journey to the toney BAM for a dance company debut. The program notes rather deceptively put forth "Naharin's Virus" as a Naharin response to the reactionary policies of the current Israeli government. Referring to the word largely scrawled on the blackboard, "PLASTILENA," Noharin rather disingenuously insists, "It can be 'PALESTINE,' if you play with it." It doesn't have to be -- an Israeli company shouldn't be required to make a piece about the situation -- but Naharin appears to want it both ways, introducing a political argument but not consummating it. "Israel is their country as much as ours," he says of the Palestinians, "and we are so much more alike than different." Naharin didn't need to argue this point in a dance, but it comes off as cynical to tantalize with his politics in his remarks, and then not follow-through in his creation.

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