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Flash Review 2, 3-17: Naharin's Anti-virus
Batsheva Gives the Best of and for Former Director

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Ts’ao

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SAN FRANCISCO -- My initial reaction to the Batsheva Dance Company's performance at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater this past Friday is very similar to the one I had to Tere O'Connor's company, seen in San Francisco last fall. After seeing "Deca Dance," a program of selected excerpts from works by former artistic director Ohad Naharin, I desperately wish I had been able to see this company before, particularly to experience the evening-length works in their entirety. But alas, Batsheva, which is based in Tel Aviv, has only toured in this country three times in the past 10 years, and to mainly East Coast and Midwest venues.

At least the sampler of Naharin's pieces showed off the dancers to excellent advantage. Though the names of the works appeared in the printed program, the order of their performance did not; Naharin claimed it was better to be surprised. I attempted to figure it out myself afterward by comparing descriptions by other critics that were in the press packet. I did identify a few of the pieces, but couldn't solve enough of the puzzle to feel confident about naming most of the different parts. From "Black Milk" (1985) to "Naharin's Virus" (2001), the choreographer covers a lot of territory on many levels. The music is a mix of everything from classical to contemporary, traditional ethnic to popular culture, with the costumes by Rakefet Levy evoking the feel of everything from primitive tribal garb (in "Black Milk") to exaggerated fantastical dominatrix on stilts (1997's "Sabotage Baby").

Batsheva Dance Company, currently under artistic director Yoshifumi Inao, was founded by Martha Graham and Batsheva de Rothschild in 1964. Naharin trained with the company and danced with the Graham troupe in New York, returning as a dancer before becoming artistic director from 1990 to September 2003, when he stepped to down to become choreographer-in-residence. Despite his lengthy involvement in the Graham style, he has certainly found his own voice. The only obvious link to his lineage is that his movement comes from the same visceral place. It is not afraid to show raw feeling. While it would be easy to say that the Naharin is eclectic, his brand of eclecticism has its unique twists. His political/artistic stance in the sharply divided Israel is one of peace and inclusion and there is a subtle undercurrent in his work that reflects the physical and psychological realities of conflict.

One excerpt from "Anaphaza" (1993) in particular evoked the horror of violence, possibly the Holocaust or life in Israel. The dancers sit in a semi-circle of chairs; one is empty. As a man walks in slow motion behind the chairs to reach his seat, the others perform a choreographic accumulation, where a phrase is repeated over and over adding a few new steps with each repetition. Part of the phrase is a wave along the circle as the dancers sequentially arch their backs as if they have just been shot, with the last one falling forward, face into the floor. They pull off their shoes and throw them into a pile in the middle, then their jackets and pants, stripping down to their underwear.

As a counter to this, another excerpt has the dancers descend from the stage into the aisles. They choose members of the audience to join them on stage, where somehow everyone miraculously instantly belongs together. The dancers even lift and partner the new recruits while the audience cheers them on. There are no boundaries; everyone is on the same footing.

The two most striking things about this company are the dancers and the choreography. These dancers are both technically fierce and emotionally fearless. I never have the sense that anyone is a star; they are all working together toward a common artistic goal. How rare to see such cohesiveness among the dancers sustained for the entire performance! Most other choreographers could learn a lot about filling space, in general, and the stage, specifically, from Naharin. As an excellent example, in "Black Milk," utilizing only five dancers he carves patterns and shapes in the air that linger until wafted away by succeeding ones and etches designs on the ground that ripple outward like the waves from a pebble dropping into the water.

I can only hope that San Francisco Performances will present this company again in the near future. Or that another presenter will have the inspiration to do it. It is companies like Batsheva that can spur local artists, both performers and choreographers alike, as well as audiences, to strive more in finding their own voices.

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