This year marks the 25th anniversary of Ohad Naharin’s appointment as director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, a tenure that has brought the company international acclaim and has confirmed Tel Aviv as one of the world’s most important dance centers. This past fall, two performances at New York’s Joyce Theater showcased his legacy and bolstered his influence—Decadance, performed by the Batsheva Ensemble, the company’s junior branch, last September, and WHALE, by Batsheva alumna Andrea Miller and her company Gallim Dance in December. With a new documentary and major performances upcoming at the Paris Opera House and at their home venue The Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, Naharin has never been bigger.
Tall and slim with a chiseled jaw, solemn gray-blue eyes, and a scruffy beard, Naharin is not a flashy person. Often pictured in dark, muted colors—gray jeans, brown long-sleeved T-shirts, and a simple leather jacket—he epitomizes no-frills Israeli chic. In various online footage of his dancers in rehearsal, Naharin has an intimidating demeanor. Serious but not humorless, he prowls around the studio deliberating and ready to pounce on the next creative idea. He smirks, gesticulates, and at times reveals himself a jokester. A large part of his repertory focuses on curiosity, humor, and the art of letting go.
He can be playfully enigmatic about his themes and inspiration. “As in all my choreographies the work is about itself,” he told me in an interview this past November. “You don’t need to know the song and its roots to be able to engage in the viewing of it. It is about structure, the power of repetition, laughing at ourselves, abandon, energy, dynamics, and groove.”
Naharin’s influence is perhaps best encapsulated in “Gaga,” the name he has given to his approach to dance training and choreography. The New York Times recently described Gaga as “a set of invented words and phrases designed to provoke movements—by turns ugly, exquisite, and silly—which together constitute an anti-technique, a way to escape the tried-and-tested styles of modern and contemporary dance and break into a new range.” Gaga is intended to go further than traditional styles of modern and ballet technique to discover new possibilities in movement.
Gaga came from Naharin’s need to communicate with dancers, he said, to help them interpret the work. He explained: “Gaga gives us a tool box which enables us to make a sublimation of our feelings, groove, imagination, thoughts and the scope of sensations into form and movement.” At the same time, he emphasizes the universality of his work with Batsheva, calling it “a sort of oasis in Israel, a place in which nationalistic, ethnic, and religious connotation play no role in what influences and guides us.” Given a global political climate in which Israeli artists can experience difficulty being judged purely on their artistic merits, Naharin’s statements are either highly naïve or ambitiously hopeful.
Gaga informs and permeates Naharin’s choreography: It is the language of his dance. His versatile performers are comfortable in their skins, able to move in elegant, awkward, or explosive ways. And each year hundreds of students flock to the Suzanne Dellal Center in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv, to study Gaga. The technique has taken off beyond the Batsheva studios as well, with certified Gaga teachers on four continents offering mind-opening and body-changing classes to dancers and non-dancers alike.
In Decadance the first dancer on stage marched in place, shaking and shimmying to suggest nerves. Clad in a black suit and white shirt, he was a businessman overdosed on caffeine. Accompanied by cha-cha music, he danced alone onstage while the audience was still milling about and taking their seats. As the curtain officially rose he was joined by the rest of the 18-member cast, nine women and nine men costumed in the same black suits, each entering one at a time as they marched beside him. Filling up the space in three symmetrical rows the dancers continued these mini-seizures, each finding their own spastic rhythm and expressing their individuality through unique pacing. The curtain dropped down, and a techno version of “Hava Nagila” blared in the blackout.
In the program notes, Decadance is referred to as a “greatest hits package” of Naharin’s repertory. The 75-minute piece consisted of excerpts from 10 different choreographic works, with music ranging from haunting classical hymns like Vivaldi’s “Cum Dererit” to bouncy Bollywood ballads like “Na tum jano nan um.” Despite the wide range of repertory presented in a single work, the performance had a coherent structure. There were moments of extreme geometric unity—intersecting lines and patterns, frenetic group huddles where the dancers clustered around an invisible beehive—juxtaposed with quieter moments featuring solemn and intimate duets and trios. Humor prevailed in several scenes—one in particular featured an improvised audience participation routine set to Dean Martin’s “Sway”—but, overall, the mood was aloof.
One of the most poignant sections of Decadance is “Echad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One?”) a seven-minute mini-ballet set to a rock arrangement of the song from the Passover Haggadah. The dancers are dressed in their original dark suits with the addition of brimmed black hats. Seated in chairs laid out in a semicircle on the stage, they move through each of the 13 verses in a hypnotic unison, concluding each round by screaming out “she ba-shamaim u va-aretz” (“who is in the heaven and the earth”).
Leaning forward, clenching their fists, shaking their heads, the cast pushes and labors with each repetition. The movements vary from gestural to gymnastic with dancers standing on the chairs and hurling themselves backward in extreme arches. The segment concludes with the performers feverishly tearing off their suits, stripping down to their underwear, and throwing their shirts, pants, hats, and shoes to the center of the stage. The exclamation point is the closing image—the cast standing, raw and unapologetic, in their undergarments screaming a final chant of the Hebrew verse.
Naharin refrained from theatrical, elaborate costuming in Decadance. The dancers perform in muted tank tops, cargo pants, and basic black suits. The costuming of “Echad Mi Yodea” forced this section to stand out. Combined with black hats, the black suits suggest Hasidic garb and paired with the Passover song, the piece expresses strong Jewish imagery. The repetitive sitting, standing, and shaking evokes davening in synagogue. The piles of thrown clothing suggest photographs from the Holocaust. The dancers toil through the choreography and their struggle could be read as a historical homage to the building of Israel.
Former Batsheva Ensemble dancer and choreographer Andrea Miller cited Gaga as a big influence on her work and a helpful creative tool. Inspired by her recent transition into motherhood, WHALE, Miller’s last premiere, is an investigation of happiness, domesticity, and sexual intimacy, against a Brooklyn urban-domestic backdrop. The eight dancers, switching costumes from party dresses, pajamas, and lingerie, thrash on their backs, drag one another in spins along the floor, and express the most carnal in sexuality, including some brief nudity. As the piece evolves characters couple up and explore moments of tenderness, vulnerability, and violence. The score for WHALE, a combination of ambient sound effects and house music, was composed and performed live in December by sound designer Jordan Chiolis. The overarching metaphor, Miller said, shows “how rare love is, and how, like these giant creatures, it can be so vulnerable and endangered.”
Miller is one of several notable alumni of the Batsheva company who have gone on to create exciting works of their own. Founded by and named after Batsheva de Rothschild in 1964, the troupe aimed to bring Jewish dance to the highest levels, and the company was one of the first groups to represent the country on international tours. Naharin himself began as a dancer with the Batsheva company in 1974. He continued his training in New York with Martha Graham and at the Juilliard School and danced and choreographed for several years in New York and Europe before moving back to Israel.
In the decade since she left Batsheva, Miller started her own company, Gallim (Hebrew for waves), named partly after an experience she had at the Tel Aviv sea shore. She has risen quickly to the forefront of American contemporary dance. Miller’s visceral movement style has some similarities to Naharin’s, but her compositions focus more directly on relationships and character studies. “My time with Batsheva was a catalyst,” Miller said.
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Stacey Menchel Kussell is a culture writer who frequently covers Israeli contemporary dance.