This past Saturday Richard and I were back at the Vancouver Playhouse, in the exact same row we sat for Relâche. This time, however, we were there to see Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company perform Deca Dance, a program of reconstructed excerpts from works created by Artistic Director Ohad Naharin between 1990 and 2008.
Batsheva, founded in 1964 by Martha Graham and the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild (from whom the company takes its name), is routinely cited as one of the most exciting and innovative contemporary dance companies in the world. And Naharin, who combines a sensuous musicality with a desire, above all, to communicate through his art the pleasure and joy in movement, has become one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers. He is also famous for inventing, and making a staple of Batsheva’s daily training method, GAGA, a movement release technique aimed at maximizing effort and the experience of the moment, and minimizing the stakes in what that effort and experience looks like or results in (hence the lack of mirrors in Batsheva’s rehearsal studios). GAGA classes are now taught regularly to non-dancers in Tel Aviv, and have been similarly exported around the world. Although the word is apparently meaningless, a nonsense expression invented by members of the company to describe Naharin’s improvisational and associative movement language, I have discovered that it also refers to an Israeli folk version of dodge ball that is frequently played at Jewish summer camps around the world.
Certainly Naharin draws inspiration from Israeli folk dancing traditions (he grew up on a kibbutz, where group dancing was a regular and cherished activity), and one of the most amazing things for me on Saturday was to see how he corralled his large ensemble of 24 dancers into precisely executed chain reaction movements through music. This was particularly true in the opening piece, which began with the dancers, dressed in the black suits and wide-brimmed hats of Hassidim, slumped in chairs arranged in a semi-circle across the stage. As the anthemic folk song playing on the sound system gained in force, the dancers flung themselves up off their chairs one by one from stage left to stage right, crashing briefly to the floor before bouncing back up to do some amazing sitting choreography on their chairs, and finally leaping to their feat to join in the song’s chorus. Except to this accumulative group movement Naharin also included some telling variations: one dancer on the end who would or could not pull himself up off the floor; another who at a certain moment broke the chain by leaping up onto his chair. It was a rousing way to begin, and had me completely captivated and enthralled from the get-go. The following link contains a sample of this piece, along with other excerpts from the mixed program, not all of which were performed in Vancouver.
Actually, most of the audience was mesmerized even before the official performance had begun. This was because our performance of Deca Dance included a bonus curtain-raiser solo by one of the male members of the ensemble, who improvised various steps and interacted charmingly with various members of the audience as the house was filling up and people were finding their seats. For him it might have just been an exhibitionary version of his normal backstage warm-up, but for us it was a delightful introduction to Batsheva’s movement vocabulary.
And to their penchant for audience interaction! For midway through one of the dances on the program (I am unable to refer to the excerpts by name, for while their titles are provided in the program, an asterisk also tells us that they do not appear in the order in which they are listed), members of the company suddenly jump down from the stage and each pick out a partner from the audience. What follows is a ten-minute feast of dance abandon, in which the lucky audience members are seamlessly incorporated into the work on stage, at once improvising singly to the tango movements of their respective Batsheva partners and then coming together as a group in a chorus line of random steps and shimmies. All those chosen willingly and gamely participated—especially one brave and talented woman who was rewarded with an extra slow dance with her male partner after the others had left the stage—and the joy they expressed in moving on stage was completely unself-conscious and totally infectious.
Mixed in with the overt theatricality of the larger ensemble pieces, there were also sparer works—most created for the women in the company—that emphasized more textured movement and repeated compositional forms and sequencing. This was especially true in a duet choreographed to an unusual arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero, as well as in a longer excerpt danced to some interesting post-feminist spoken word poetry.
All in all a most enjoyable evening—although one not without its share of mild controversy. As a leading cultural export from Israel, Batsheva’s current tour of North America has been targeted by protesters angry over Israel’s invasion and occupation of Gaza and calling for a boycott of anything related to the country until there is an end to a further expansion of settlements and a lasting two-state solution with Palestinians is reached. Similar protests had been called for in Vancouver, an idea that divided many in the dance community, and prompting many to anticipate some angry exchanges at the entrance to the Playhouse during Batsheva’s dates here. In the end, no protesters were in sight on the Saturday.
Which I was glad to see. Boycotting arts and cultural groups, often the most financially vulnerable and the most critically political organizations in any country or regime, does little to advance a cause. At least not in the way, say, as targeting Shell for its investments in Apartheid South Africa. Were we to stop reading Nadine Gordimer or listening to Miriam Makeba during the same era? My life would be greatly impoverished, politically and culturally, if I couldn’t watch the films of Eytan Fox, who has made some of the most affecting cinema on the Israeli/Palestinian situation, often complicating questions of religion and ethnicity with added issues of sexuality.
In fact, as with the work of Fox, I would argue that the active promotion and dissemination of art can actually do more to engage people politically than any mass boycott of cultural products or industries. Certainly in the wake of the most recent Israeli elections, in which the hawkish Netanyahu may have formed a temporary—and tenuous—coalition of convenience with the ultra-right Lieberman but in which he likewise needs the active support of Livni to survive (especially given the new government in the US), Batsheva’s visit gave me much to think about in terms of the history of the embattled Middle East and what might be done to secure its more peaceful future.
Kudos, then, to Dance House, Vancouver’s newest contemporary dance production series, for bringing this amazing company to the city for the first time (and to the Chutzpah Festival and the 2010 Cultural Olympiad for partnering with them). And to making such splendid use of the Playhouse as a dance venue. I look forward to visiting again in April to see Hubbard Street Dance.