If you know about dance in Israel, then you are bound to know about Batsheva Dance Company.
England is currently hosting a successful tour of Batsheva Ensemble, Batsheva’s younger company which is performing Ohad Naharin’s Deca Dance (2000). Despite protests and interruptions from anti-Israeli groups, it appears that the English dance world is beginning to see and appreciate the power and uniqueness of Batsheva. My parents went to see Deca Dance at the Birmingham Hippodrome last week to get a taste of why I had to come to Israel to study dance. They were both overwhelmed by the intensity, the unexpected moments, the humorous moments and most of all the way the dancers moved. To quote my father, “They moved so differently! When a dancer would move an arm, for example, and reached a place but then something inside that arm was still moving and extending out...” "EXACTLY!" I screamed down the phone at him - this is the effect of Gaga which the dancers train intensely in (see last week’s post) but also so much more...
So why did the Batsheva Dance Company receive a title like “the athletes of God” from the San Francisco Chronicle? Batsheva’s ability to amaze audiences stems back from even before the introduction of Gaga technique of the '90s. Believe it or not, Batsheva Dance Company was actually originally a Graham-based company. Who would have thought from watching their work today that they used to be steeped in Graham technique? In 1964, Bathsabee de Rothschild was the original founder and funder for Batsheva; she had an interest in Martha Graham’s work and therefore was one of Graham’s company's supporters. Through her funding, the Martha Graham Dance Company was able to come to Israel to perform in 1956, setting off a tidal wave of modern dance in Israel, which was at the time influenced by the German Expressionist artform Ausdrukstantz (expressive dance).
In 1964, when Bathsabee de Rothschild founded the Batsheva Dance Company, she made Martha Graham the artistic advisor. Dancers of Batsheva trained in ballet and Graham technique, and Batsheva Dance Company was the first to perform Graham’s work outside Graham’s own company. Batsheva Dance Company toured worldwide and was a success, with one critic quoting Batsheva’s performance of Graham repertoire as bringing “intensity (more than Martha Graham Company) even though [they] lacked technical ability”. Batsheva dancers already had that “fire” in their bellies right from the start. Due to internal disagreements, however, Rothschild withdrew her funding and left with Jeanette Ordman to set up Bat-Dor Dance Company in 1968, leaving Batsheva stranded, having lost their right to perform Graham's repertoire (in 1975) and with constantly changing artistic directors. Nevertheless, Graham’s loss was Batsheva’s gain, as Batsheva could now focus on developing new Israeli choreographic works, especially by their own dancers such as Ohad Naharin. In fact, on the strength of Naharin’s choreographic work with Batsheva and international companies like Nederlands Dance Theater, he became artistic director of Batsheva in 1990.
Naharin began his tenure as artistic director with choreographing shorter pieces which were quite theatrical. For example, Kyr (1990) contains one of Naharin’s most known sections “Echad Mi Yodea”, which you can view in the video below at 2:22, or go and see it live at Sadler's Wells!
The accumulative build in the music is reflected in the accumulation in movement. The throwing of costumes in the floor, the use of the chairs as part of the actions, the recognisable costumes which immediately connect you to your own associations: very theatrical compared to his current choreography. Naharin started with works with theatrical elements adding to his work whereas in more recent works, dancers wear tightly fitted and simpler costumes, relying on the technical ability of the dancers as a more important tool to convey theme or form. It appears as if Naharin has realised the power of his movement is enough to stand alone without being “decorated”.
Naharin has also developed his use of staging in that he sometimes uses in the round such as in Sessions (2011), which I was very lucky to see at Batsheva's home Suzanne Dellal Centre. I was really excited for not only was I going to see my second Batsheva performance, but also seeing them on their home turf. I entered the studio performance space with an extra sense of anticipation as it was in the round with each side consisting of just two rows of audience seats. I was very excited to sit at the front: I was about to see Batsheva dancers up close.
Sessions is a structured improvised piece and there were random “reserved” seats in the audience for the dancers to sit in during the performance. The work was a mixture of different repertoire phrases which came together with all or some or danced alone by the dancers; the overall structure was very clever as you never felt bored, while the silence and softness was always inexpertly broken and the power and fast pace was always unknowingly dissipated. At moments, the dancers would directly dance towards audience members, seemingly intimidating, but I enjoyed this sense of menace from the dancers, as if the feeling of intimidation was the “other dancer” in the piece. Furthermore, sitting so close, you realised how POWERFUL every movement was, from moments of basic slow controlled walking or suspended balletic penché arabesques to moments of fast contact duets and moments of fast strong jerky moments. There were also humorous moments where the dancers were miming the lyrics to the sexual song with awkwardly-held positions.
I have two favourite sections: one was at the start; after few minutes of slow and controlled movements from a few of the dancers, there was a sudden burst from a male a dancer and all the dancers were in and out of each other’s body parts with unusual swift duets, lifts and pulls. The other was a climax in a soft romantic song where one by one, the dancers had joined in holding hands and were circling. All of a sudden, a dancer abruptly burst into the circle on his knees, and off the dancers went again to the fast-paced duets. Overall, you could not tell what was structured and what was improvised, which is what I love most of all. What I also loved was spotting one of my Gaga teachers performing. As a teacher and person, she is very sweet and softly spoken; as a performer she had the most strong and defined movements ever, but also her face was FIERCE!
The fact that Naharin’s work can be seen as high art and also accessible art for all is also what I love about Batsheva, while Naharin also uses moments of humour which can be enjoyed by all. For example in Hora (2009), the dancers bop their heads and create “macho” movements to Tomika’s synthesised classical music.
There is also sometimes a sense that his works should be enjoyed and not taken too seriously. This is emphasised in Gaga classes: when the students are concentrating too hard, the teacher will always repeat “Come on guys, stop taking it so seriously, enjoy, have fun!” Naharin has also adapted shows for younger audiences; it's not quite the same as in going to see Angelina Ballerina performances at the Royal Opera House, but he has taken his own dances and adapted them slightly. Decal’e is based on Deca Dance or a fun and interactive piece like Kamuyot (2003).
Most of all, what amazes you about Batsheva is of course their movement. When you watch the dancers you truly realise how they came to be called “The athletes of God”. Naharin’s choreography appears to create an inner fluidity, an inner pulse, as if the dancers have a flow of electricity or water coursing in their body.
In my first month here in Israel, I participated in an intensive workshop with Batsheva Dance Company ex-dancers to learn repertoire from Max (2007). This repertoire is connected to Naharin’s voice saying ten accumulated words. We worked on four different sets of ten words then finished with a layered set of feet sequences, jumps and gestures. On the outside, the movements may appear clear and simple, but we would be gasping for breath by the end. It was such a challenge to move from extreme and opposite positions and actions or from extreme dynamic to dynamic. Each position was particular; we were always informed how we needed to hold positions strongly but with a soft element?!? There was also a position where your hand was flexed strongly at 90 degrees, but your fingers were held softly and not so straight?!? When I danced each action, I had to imagine a different concept: I couldn’t dance Max just thinking I was angry or imagining concepts like how my ex-boyfriend makes me feel; I had to think of a different reason why each action was performed. For example, I would imagine shooting at someone, then ducking from a tennis ball, then the next as if I was a waiter. Later, when I performed this repertoire, I had to perform as if I was throwing away my insides to the audience to get the same Batsheva fierceness! I feel that Batsheva dancers dance as they have two dancing bodies in one: their flesh as a dancing being and their skeletal structure as another dancing being - sometimes they work together, and sometime they work differently. I feel Batsheva are on a whole different level - even planet! - to most dancers and definitely merit the title “athletes of God”.
Please go and check out Batsheva Ensemble to see Ohad Naharin’s Deca Dance on tour. Deca Dance is a collection of sections from many of Naharin’s works, so you will Naharin’s choreography at his best: powerful, explosive and soul-grabbing! You can catch them at Sadler’s Wells from 19th to 21st November: tickets are still available from www.sadlerswells.com/show/Batsheva-Ensemble-Deca-Dance