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Jewish Journal

Batsheva Blurs Artistic Borders

by Gaby Wenig

March 18, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Batsheva Dance Company.

Batsheva Dance Company.

During "Naharin's Virus" a provocatative dance/performance piece that the Batsheva Dance company will excerpt this week at UCLA, a dancer holds chalk in her hand, dragging it through her body movements: Arching her back, outstretching her arm, she trails Hebrew words on a blackboard.

In the piece, the mood changes from torturously languid to controlled chaos in an instant, and while its message is ambiguous, its energy is, like the title, viral -- easy to catch and hard to shake.

"Naharin's Virus" (2001), a melding of performance art and dance, was inspired by the play "Offending the Audience" by Austrian playwright Peter Handke.

This weekend, 15 dancers from Israel's Batsheva Dance Company will perform an excerpt from "Naharin's Virus" and eight other works by chief choreographer Ohad Naharin at UCLA's Royce Hall. This ensemble of dances is titled "Deca Dance" and it reflects the stimulating avant-garde style that has been associated with Batsheva since Naharin assumed his role of artistic director in 1990, and then house choreographer in 2003.

Before that, the 40-year-old Israeli company that was founded by Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild was languishing without true stylistic direction. Naharin, a dancer by training whose works have been produced by dance companies all over the world, infused the company with his hurtling energy. Batsheva became synonymous with intrepidity, innovation and, in some cases, controversy.

"I think the strength of the work is my inability to describe it," said Naharin, who spoke with The Journal from his hotel in Montreal. "It is not about conveying an idea, it is about experiencing. It is like if you ask me to describe the smell of fresh air -- this is the same. It is something you have to experience."

Naharin said that his work is about virtuosity and efficiency.

"It is about trying to diffuse the difference of what is classical, what is sacred, what is conventional, what is mathematic, what is scientific, what is beautiful and what is awkward," he said. "It cannot be put into one category, [because] it is about the diffusion of the borders between things and creating something that is right for the work. My work shouldn't and will not be identified with religious, national or ethnic connotations."

Despite swearing off connotations, Naharin's work was not created in nor is it reflective of a political vacuum. He is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government's conservative policies. He favors land for peace and dividing Jerusalem, and he is aware of his work pushing boundaries. He has been castigated by some of the ultra-Orthodox for blending the sacred with the profane by using traditional music, such as the Passover melody "Echad Mi Yodeah?" ("Who Knows One?") as the music for some of his more provocative performances. In 2001, at the height of some of the worst politically inspired violence in Israel's history, Naharin collaborated with Israeli Arab composer Habib Alla Jamal to create "Naharin's Virus."

"I saw Jamal and his musicians in a performance and really loved their music and it worked, it clicked [with my dance]," he said. "For me, life and politics really mingle, and what is personal and what is political also mingle. For me [collaborating with Jamal] was about meeting a very talented group of musicians, but I cannot detach myself from the connotation of it. I was aware of what it could create, I am aware of the associations, but it was not the heart of my decision. The political stuff is a byproduct, not the aim of my work."

For the 17 dancers in the company, who come from all over the world, Naharin's work is allows them a freedom of movement.

"Naharin is a partner," said Yaniv Nagar, a former dancer with the company and current company manager and stage manager. "If you do these pieces you have to give from yourself, and have a lot of creativity in yourself to express it. I was in a neoclassical company before, and there everything was set. [Batsheva] was not just movement, but an opportunity to bring something personal to it. We don't carry any political flags, we just do art in Israel and individually everyone can connect to it in his own way."

The Batsheva Dance Company's "Deca Dance." 8 p.m. on March 19 and 20 at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. For tickets, $17-$45, call (310) 825-2101 or visit www.uclalive.org .

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