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Batsheva Dance Company
James and Martha Duffy Performance Space at the Mark Morris Dance Center
Brooklyn, NY
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music's 2005 Next Wave Festival
November 16, 2005

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter

They frequently sit amongst the audience; they are not the beneficiaries of any special theatrical lighting effects; and for a while they stroll around looking intently into the audience's faces and reaching out for the occasional dignified handshake. But however intimate the setting, with no footlights for them to reach across, these nine distinctly non-glamorous dancers remain special, otherworldly beings. There is nothing about Ohad Naharin's hour-long "Mamootot" that suggests they are everyday pedestrian folks like the rest of us. Their fierce concentration and primal alertness endow them with a heightened sense of timing that has them constantly surprising us mere mortals with their sudden risings from their seats.

Naharin specifies that this 2003 work be performed with the audience on four sides of the performers, and BAM found him an ideal space—the large, pristine studio of the neighboring Mark Morris Dance Center. There are two rows of dark folding chairs on each side, with central doors (that remain open during the performance) on two opposite sides. The atmosphere—with the bright, white, businesslike lighting—has a certain antiseptic, clinical tone. There is something so merciless about our proximity and the lack of any shred of theatrical illusion.

The somewhat lumpen costumes—long-sleeved knee-length jumpsuits of soft material in mottled pastel tones with white cuffs—suggest an oversized version of what an infant might wear. They are highly asexual, and add to the creaturely look of the performers, who often crouch and sprawl with a refined ungainliness. Noa Zuk's extended opening solo, in silence,  has her loping along in a simian fashion, propelling herself off of her knee and hopping sideways while in a deep crouch. There are times when she resembles a deer, prancing with her hands held up, paw-like.

Suddenly the eight other dancers appear; like Zuk, they have their limbs painted a chalky white, while their faces remain clear. Loud music begins, as they rush through as take what are clearly assigned seats spread around the front row of chairs.  From then on, they alternate between resuming their seats while one or two of them sustain the action in the center, or joining together in robust, if somewhat robotic, unison group activity. The music, culled from records Naharin bought while in Japan, alternates between raucous pop, more muted collections of crackles and hisses, and one song that sounds like a Japanese version of Bob Dylan.

The most recognizable number is a somewhat mechanized-sounding version of "Do You Wanna Dance," to which the entire ensemble is inspired to cut loose by the delightful Caroline Boussard, whose hint of a smile suggests secret delights. With the same precision that marks each of their sudden risings from their seats, they gyrate and preen, as though imitating some juicier jiving they had seen second-hand, in a cluster that presents itself to each of the audience's four sides. As soon as this deadpan manic activity reaches its abrupt end as the song is cut off, a different woman becomes our guide into the next phase. Moving in dream-like slow motion, she isolates segments of her body with beautiful deliberateness, before shuddering and dropping onto the floor, her limbs splayed.  

Bodies with splayed limbs is a recurrent image of "Mamootot," whose title, Naharin told an interviewer, means "mammoth" but has not connotation beyond his liking its sound. There is a moment when the entire cast lies serenely with bodies askew, one leg tossed to the side. At these and other points during the piece, they seem highly vulnerable creatures, struggling against some dire unknown forces. They rarely acknowledge or interact with each other; the first "duet" of the piece consists of a man performing a series of robotic, grotesque moves while a woman stands nearby, barely moving and certainly not making any contact. Childlike and trusting—more willing to reach out their hands to the 100 or so strangers surrounding them than some of us might be to meet their gaze or offer our own hands - they often seem to be at the mercy of some predetermined process, obediently and somewhat wistfully following orders.

It comes as quite a shock when Stefan Ferry, whose more solid build and thin pigtail set him apart from the three other leaner, close-cropped men, peels off his jumpsuit and un-self-consciously capers around, without a hint of coyness. He scoops up a woman who has been helplessly writhing on the floor and carries her on his hip. He is all exposed flesh, and she is primly covered up, and the connection is powerfully sensual. Is he the one last renegade left, whose juices haven't all been sapped by the mysterious unknown something that so often has the dancers writhing pitifully or evoking a loss of hope? Maybe not; at the end, when six of them depart (escape?) through the doors, two women remain, and find a real, if ungainly connection: one takes the raised elbow of the other in her mouth. Then comes the evening's sole lighting change: a blackout.

Photos: Batsheva Dance Company in "Mamootot", by Julieta Cervantes.

Volume 3, No. 44
November 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 Susan Reiter



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last updated on November 28, 2005