Batsheva Dance offers unique language
Batsheva Dance Company
Jacob’s Pillow
Ted Shawn Theatre
July 28, 2004

“Love,” excerpts from an evening by Sharon Eyal
“Deca Dance,” excerpts from works by Ohad Naharin

review by Seth Rogovoy

(BECKET, Mass., July 30, 2004) – The first thing you need to do when considering the work of the Israel-based Batsheva Dance Company is to throw out any preconceived notions of what modern Israeli dance might be, especially as it pertains to politics and conflict. Israelis are people, too, and they are allowed to make art that doesn’t necessarily have to address Israel’s battle for survival or its conflicts with Arabs.

This isn’t to say that the dances performed this weekend at Jacob’s Pillow by Batsheva don’t in some way address these issues. If you go looking for them, you will find them. But much better to just sit back, relax, and let the dances unfold before you as expressions of dance and nothing more – gestural representations of and responses to the array of source music selected, or even more primally, the expression of the human spirit through still and moving, mostly silent, human bodies.

I highly recommend this last method, because if you impose a political or ideological filter on what you’re seeing, you are likely to miss what’s best about Batsheva – its momentous accomplishment in creating a unified, company vocabulary, a language and grammar of dance as unique and unrelated in its field as the Hebrew language is in its own.

That is to say, of course, that there IS some relationship of Batsheva’s style to others. Over the course of the evening’s two pieces, there are glimpses of Balanchine, Graham, Taylor, Mark Morris and hip-hop. There are obvious references to circus acts, including but not limited to a stilt-walker, and there are volleys of nightclub, swing and tango dance.

There is even, in the evening’s climax, a burst of freestyle dancing that incorporates audience members in a gleeful celebration, a literal interpretation of the Pillow’s executive director Ella Baff’s nightly invocation, “Let’s dance!”

But more than any of this, there is the amazing work of the large corps of dancers who exhibit a fierce resilience and strength, a determinedly modern outlook, and a level of precision, flexibility and control that sets an incredibly high standard for modern dance.

Sharon Eyal’s “Love,” which kicked off the program in a U.S. premiere, began with a throbbing industrial pulse as a cluster of dancers clad in black huddled in a rear corner of the stage. One or two at a time began moving in repetitive, machine-like manners that were freakishly inhuman – a motif that would be repeated throughout the evening, and one of Batsheva’s most suggestive signatures.

More dancers joined in the fluid, industrial frenzy, but always under control, and each one entirely different, with feet firmly planted on the floor and bodies that emphasized weight and stability. There was very little running or leaping at all in the evening – most movements emanated from a heavy center of gravity in the pelvis. The music went back and forth from the heavy, industrial chatter to a lyrical, romantic French café ballad, on a stripped down stage that flaunted the wings and the rear wall of the barn.

Considering this was a dance with fourteen dancers, you had a remarkable opportunity to get to know most of them individually as they stated and then elaborated their quirky personalities, taking turns in what amounted to solos but never strayed far from the group. Some of the set-pieces were incredibly erotic, but they were also sad, as they were in many ways about isolation – isolation of the individual, isolation of movement, isolated of arms and hands. Bodies were stretched to near impossible lengths, and perfect right angles were formed in fully articulated hip squats and knee bends.

“Deca Dance” was a smorgasbord of excerpted works by company director Ohad Naharin, who now calls himself “House Choreographer.” For one who prefers his dance in fast, small doses, this greatest-hits approach was a delight. If a few of the numbers – there were seven in all – failed to ignite the imagination or delight the senses – and a few did – it didn’t much matter, as just a few minutes later a new dance would debut and invariably draw me back in.

Naharin’s works were danced to various Middle Eastern melodies as well as music composed by Vivaldi, John Zorn, Arvo Part, Harold Arlen, Beethoven, Steve Reich, and the Ventures among others. He’s a master of group choreography, favoring chorus lines in which one or two dancers stand out while the others hold their positions. His dances, as his protégé Eyal’s, look like no one else’s – at times you even wonder whether they qualify as “dance,” so unique and spectacular they are. But then you look again and see all the giveaways – clearly defined, expressive movements, albeit rigorously confined and suppressed from a baseline of groundedness. As a result, every step, every thrust, every twist, speaks so much louder and more dynamically than more typical modern dances full of full-speed running and jumping. We’ve seen so much of that in recent years; what a relief to stumble upon an approach so entirely opposite. If it’s avant-garde, it’s also totally accessible – maybe even moreso than the others. It’s also incredibly classical, and coming one week after the Indian ensemble Lakshmi Vishwanathan -- which also favored still, small gestures over flash – it implied a gateway to the east.

[Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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