Jewish Journal


February 25, 2009

Bodies Akimbo, Batsheva Dancers Go ‘Gaga’


Ohad Naharin

Ohad Naharin

Everything in the bio of Ohad Naharin, the choreographer and artistic director of Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company, translates to forward motion. Naharin began life as a curious boy from an artistic family in Kibbutz Mizra, southeast of Haifa. Despite his late start in dance, at age 22, Martha Graham brought the handsome sabra to New York to join her troupe, jumpstarting his career. One year later, Naharin entered the Juilliard School and then did a stint with Maurice Béjart in Brussels.

Although a gifted, rubber-bodied dancer, Naharin suffered back pain so severe that it spurred a profound study of body physiology. Coining the whimsical term “gaga” to tag the proprietary dance-training method he developed, Naharin survived the setback. Gaga’s bone-marrow-deep, “inside-out” dance language, in which any body part initiates movement, infiltrated his choreography. Critics paid attention, and Naharin’s buzz and acclaim swelled. Now 56, an Israel Prize-winner and a French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Naharin enjoys the mixed blessing of being Israel’s highest-profile cultural export.

Delivered by his astonishing Batsheva ensemble, Naharin’s asymmetric and downright awkward moves meld with great group harmony. Naharin’s latest work, “Max,” will be performed by Batsheva at UCLA’s Royce Hall Feb. 28-March 1.

The company was founded in 1964 as a proper dance troupe for Israeli ladies-who-lunch by Graham and patron Baroness Bethsabée (Batsheva) de Rothschild. Under Naharin’s lead since 1990, the company has morphed into a movement think-tank for the barefoot-and-tattoo set. No dancer in Naharin’s posse behaves remotely like a nice Jewish girl or boy; on the contrary, their willingness to dig deep for their boss seems indefatigable.

Batsheva’s earthy endeavors have a primitive feel. Lying on the stage floor on their backs, Batsheva dancers writhe and wriggle — gorgeously. They march through space on tiptoe, clawing at the air with gnarly hands, while drawing their knees, weirdly, toward their chins. But while Naharin is ready to plunge his audience back to its own personal stone age, he’s reluctant to explain why.

“It’s conceptual art. If you can describe it, then don’t go see it,” he said of “Max.” A film clip of the work shows darkly percussive sequences with gibberish lyrics sung in Naharin’s deep low voice. (The “Maxim Waratt” music credit is a nom de plume for the musically trained Naharin; this is not his first contribution to his own dance scores.) Said Naharin: “‘Max’ is about composition and movement language. It creates an experience we cannot find elsewhere. It’s not imitating anything. It’s about itself.”

Über-cool music interlaced with enigmatic spoken word fills the sound-space; video monitors disseminate witty advice like, “Pay Attention”; yellow light dapples an otherwise murky stage, and dancer incursions into the audience are common. “I like to disturb by challenging the senses and imagination, but not by offending or attacking. At the end of ‘Shalosh,’ one of the dancers exposes his behind in an air jump. It’s meant to be funny, silly. But last week in Pittsburgh, two people stood and left the hall,” Naharin said.

Indeed Naharin’s dancers do his bidding with abandon. They gesticulate head, elbow, knee and tuchis. They splay limb, arch backbone, hyperextend joint. Sure, it’s body liberating, but ... doesn’t it kind of hurt?

“On the contrary, it’s the opposite of hurting people. The only pain I allow is a pain from burning muscles. The body coordination and virtuosity my dancers develop protects them,” he said. 

The choreographer’s influences often come from beyond the world of dance: “I’ve been watching Hitchcock films lately. I don’t look for work that reminds me of myself. I look for work that inspires me with its difference. A lot of what I do is very controlled, like a Hitchcock film. It’s about creating the right level of tension between elements. My work is conceptual but it also has a plot; not a story in a linear way, but a story about composition, volume and balance. My work is about coherence, and Hitchcock is a lot about coherence.”

Naharin’s mother was a dancer and choreographer, his father an actor and writer. “My father put us to bed making up stories; he never read us a book. So the idea of invention and the power of imagination was very strong,” he said. “I was taken to see dance and encouraged to write, paint and sing. That was all a part of growing up.”

When questioned about the Jewish qualities in his work, Naharin comes alive: “I may be generalizing, but I think Jewishness is about abolishing the national connotation. Because you can be a Jew without having a country, without belonging, and you can be a Jew in many cultures. So being a Jew has a bit of a homeless feeling, as opposed to a national feeling,” he said, adding: “I dislike nationalism.”

“Being Jewish allows you to connect to human values, to something spiritual, something about admitting our weaknesses and our responsibilities toward our people, but not by identifying through their nationality.”

“I don’t believe Jews have a monopoly on passion. I know many Jews who are not passionate. I know many non-Jews who are very passionate. But there is devotion in Judaism; you hear it in the music and prayers and in relationships when we have deep religious feelings. When I say this, it makes me smile, because I am not religious. Ultimately, I believe that God is an invention of man.”

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