writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

God is an Invention, Like Pizza

Batsheva Dance
San Francisco Performances
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Wednesday, March 10, 2003

by Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy
published March 15, 2004


Havanegila set to a pumped up Telestar beat
Old Testament boys hammering out mysteries of the Negev
Baroque barbarians in amorous struggle
the Passover song Echad Mee Yohdeyah rendered as a chair dance of yearning and entrapment
hilarious cha cha improvisation in Hassid-style coats and hats with audience members
parodic deconstructions of late 20th century
neoexpressionism dancers that lurched like fragments of chromosomes undergoing mutation
and a karaoke cabaret singer with terrifying four-foot pink
footwear narrowing to a fine point

This is just a small taste of what Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company served in its Bay Area debut this week in an evening called Deca Dance—a wild appetizer plate of 8 dance excerpts and one complete work, everything from the finale of Naharin’s 1999 Moshe to the stunning Black Milk, performed in full. If this was an evening structured like one of Cunningham’s Events, the effect was as expressionistic, sociopolitical and intimate as Cunningham’s is classical, astrophysical and impersonal. In the wake of this week’s terrorist attack on four Madrid commuter trains, I found it a needed balm to encounter dance that lived at the intersection of culture, politics, and religion with a vocabulary of daring sensual potency.

Last summer in her Scripps Award acceptance speech at the American Dance Festival, Maguy Marin asked:

How does one speak, dance, and make heard what is played out in social relationships, in the power relations taking place among people? How does one describe the horror? How does one confront it? Dance does not easily respond to these questions that besiege us. Dance is like an animal that cannot be and is not domesticated…."

Gauging from Wednesday’s Deca Dance, Naharin seems to say that no matter how untameable dance is, there is nothing else but to dance what it means to live in the cyclone of history, which shapes every level of our lives, whether we know it or not. Naharin has been at the helm of Batsheva since 1990 and not unlike Marin he answers these questions with grotesque beauty, sly wit and spiritual hunger. But it is not his themes that make him eloquent; in lesser hands the themes might even fall flat. It is his creation of paradox in the movement itself with its mix of rooted effort and lunging lyricism, its animal rawness and sculpted poetry, not to mention the strange heft of delicate gesture, musical silence, and resonant empty space, which are never silent or empty, but always mysteriously alive. These are the aspects of Naharin’s work that give him a voice from the front lines of dance and the front lines of history.

The night began with an excerpt from Naharin’s Virus set to a haunting traditional Arabic song. It set off events with a surrealistic, cartoonishly macabre bang. Ranged in a line downstage and garbed in short-legged white leos over black tights, the sleeves ending eerily in gloves, the dancers resembled mutant versions of Cunningham’s dancers in Beach Birds. They shifted their guts subtly like reptiles, faces slightly constipated, then from this state of interior dis-ease they abruptly curved into C shapes, pulsed their torsos in rhythmic contraction to the plaintive song, pumped their arms out in front of them, and hooted like soldiers or athletes. Next they straightened up and resumed the gut-shifting stance. Suddenly, as though another order of chaos hit, a dancer would break free of the stance to perform a contorted solo, in place, of furious disorder, despair and futility. Everyone, it seemed, had the virus. How the sickness took shape, however, was unique to each mover.

Without speaking to terrorism and warfare directly, or the deadly conflict of desires between Israel and Palestine, Batsheva offers voice to the experience of life lived at the edge of the abyss, horror on the horizon. In Virus Naharin did it with an almost comically grotesque intensity. Elsewhere he spoke through wild humor, as when the ensemble of 16 decked out in black coats and hats did a distinctly Hassidic shuffle, eyes locked on the ground, to a Telestar-style rendition of Havanegilla. History moves forward, history stays locked in the past. And as Naharin says in his biographical line in the program, nothing is permanent.

Throughout the 110 minute event, frustrating for one’s inability to identify the dancers and the program's incorrect ordering of excerpts, the tone often changed from fragment to fragment with a visual and emotional abruptness that was sometimes comically shocking, as when a shard of Sabatoge Baby, with a dancer in garish Weimar garb on 4 foot parodies of pointe shoes, loped across stage on the diagonal, momentarily intruding upon the Old Testament world of Black Milk. But, one might ask, what is the fight over the Middle East if not precisely that kind of dislocating juxtaposition and overlay of the new and the old? There were also welcomed bits of absurd humor as when in voiceover, a dancer, talking about her impending bat mitzvah years ago, says she had a revelation and realized "God is an invention, like pizza."

Naharin’s savagely beautiful Mabul fragment (1992) initially resembled a parody on 90’s deconstruction—a whiff of Forsythe, der Keersmaeker or Preljocaj—but ultimately it was nothing so glib. With dancers in space age versions of Baroque clothes, he pit a stately song by Vivaldi against movement expressing the savage poetry of desire and the strangeness of intimacy. A man began by crabbing forward in a crouch with his arms extended, clutched hands bobbing slightly, resembling a bllnd man dousing for water. The impact was strangely sensuous as a woman was driven back away from him, linked as though by an invisible current. Before long, the two were muscularly entwined in a duet of difficulty, with all the tired tropes of warfare between the sexes subsumed in something more ambiguous, something larger. Rather than decoratively layering the old and the nihilistically new, Naharin showed that blood and bile lay behind the rational. There is also rational beauty in our animal mystery.

The choreographer, who stepped down as Artistic Director last September and now serves as house choreographer, also is not above sweet good fun, as when as when the lights went up and the dancers came along the aisles looking for partners, finding brightly clothed audience members to haul on stage. Despite its improvisatory flair, though, even Zachacha allowed for only some improvisation. As the bewildered or daring concertgoers looked on or danced along, the company was busy falling at their feet and running in a well-choreographed circle. Chance exists, Naharin was saying, but there are still rules governing outcomes.

For those of us who hadn’t seen Batsheva before, it’s impossible to know the full impact of the dances in their entirety. What is knowable for me is that the dancers of Batsheva are among the most emotionally pliant and physically courageous I’ve seen in years, and combine an absurd amount of technical prowess with sensuous humanity and physical daring. Those backbends to headstands that some of the women performed in Queens of Golub were as mindboggling as they were beautiful. And the men’s effortless falls in Black Milk, their leaps from utter stillness, and their wild runs in their lovely linen skirts had the strange eloquence of a Genesis tale.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 11
March 15, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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