The first time I learned about Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company was in an article called "A Conversation with Ohad," published in the October 2006 issue of Dance Magazine. It was an in-depth interview between Naharin and Dance Magazine Editor-in-Chief Wendy Perron, which covered his background, his artistic influences, and his work with Batsheva. I remember being intrigued by his signature "Gaga" movement technique, and I was especially drawn to his rejection of using mirrors in dance studios. One thing in particular that he said on that topic really hit home with me:
At the time, I was going through a phase in my dance training where I had pretty much had it with mirrors and began ignoring them whenever possible. After I read that article, and especially that incredible anecdote on mirrors, I knew this man was an artist after my own heart! Since then, I have followed Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company very closely. Seeing as the company never comes anywhere near Arizona, my only way of experiencing Naharin’s work was through YouTube, magazine articles, and a blog called Dance In Israel written by dance scholar Deborah Friedes. When I found out that Batsheva was going to have an engagement at the Joyce Theater in New York City, I knew that I had to take advantage of this rare opportunity to experience them live!
Project 5, the evening-length work that was brought to the Joyce, originally premiered in 2008. It was initially set on five female dancers to commemorate their promotion from the Batsheva Ensemble to the Batsheva Dance Company, and includes choreography from past Naharin works as well as material created specifically for the five female dancers. This year, Naharin chose to set the piece on a cast of five male dancers as well, and each cast performed on alternate nights. While I would have loved to see both shows, I was only in New York City long enough to see the male cast. But I am indescribably grateful that I was able to go at all, because seeing Project 5 and experiencing the incomparable energy of Naharin’s choreography and his dancers was a truly incredible night of dance that I will never forget.
Five tall, lithe men wearing cropped, high-waisted black trousers with matching black bolero-style cropped blazers walk onto a stripped-down, bare stage and begin to move. Project 5 opens with George & Zalman (2006), set to an audio recording of Batsheva dancer Bobbi Smith reading the Charles Bukowski poem "Making It" laid on top of melancholy music by Arvo Part. The choreography reflects the repetitive, building style of the Bukowski poem. The dancers frequently return to base poses, and repeat the same movement sequences over and over, adding a little bit more on with each pass through. As Bobbi Smith softly tells us to ignore all possible concepts and possibilities – ignore Beethoven, the spider, the damnation of Faust – just make it, babe, make it, the dancers seamlessly move from one extreme movement dynamic to another; going from vibratory rocking, to audible slaps on their abdomens, to moments of unwavering stillness danced with such precise facility that it looked as if some outside being had pressed the PAUSE button. The hypnotizing repetitive structure was interlaced with dynamic solos for each dancer, marked with intricate details and disarming use of focus.
George & Zalman is followed by the captivating duet B/olero (2008). This section was the "only [one] created in 2008 for members of the original Project 5 cast" (Friedes) and is set to a quirky electronic arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero. One of the things that I found myself immediately blown away by was the impeccable timing. The choreography included numerous moments of subtle canon, and was executed with flawless specificity by the dancers. It was incredible to watch! The choreography is also marked by many different dichotomies. The duo would alternate between rhythmic movement that evoked the perfect steadiness of the music, and jarring arrhythmic movement that didn’t match the music at all, yet somehow just made sense anyway. They would repeatedly go from being completely separate and ignorant of each other to having sudden moments of either physical connection or eye contact. Their facial expressions alternated throughout the duet as well, randomly transforming from blank to expressive. These constant switches between various dichotomies, combined with the aforementioned impeccable timing made it impossible for the audience to tear our eyes away from the stage. I saw a vivid story unfold as well; I felt as though I was watching two people caught in an ad nauseam cycle of behaviors and habits, and were both eerily content and completely furious with their situation. I have seen a few different interpretations of this classic Ravel piece, and I was completely underwhelmed and bored by all of them. When I saw B/olero, I wanted to stand up and scream, "THAT!! THAT is how you choreograph to Bolero!"
In "Park," an excerpt from the piece Moshe (1999), three dancers enter upstage, and begin to move downstage gradually and methodically. They move with an indescribable sense of both urgency and hesitation, which elicited an unsettling tone of foreboding. Once they arrived downstage (practically at the edge), microphones were brought on, and the trio used them to rhythmically yell various words and phrases--which I am assuming were in Hebrew. This added another surreal layer to the already surreal atmosphere. At one point, one of the dancers abandoned his microphone, broke out of the line, and began yelling into the audience, seemingly screaming for help before being sucked back into the trio. When they were at their microphones, the choreography consisted primarily of tiny, isolated movement executed with deliberate strength. When they broke away from the microphones and moved further upstage, the choreography was huge, sweeping, pendular, and harshly powerful. Their limbs flew everywhere. They would fall into breathtaking hinges where their shoulders nearly touched the floor and their rib cages practically split open. Watching this alluring trio was nothing short of thrilling!
After a five-minute pause(1), Project 5 came to an end with the haunting and athletic Black Milk (1985). The cast had changed out of their peculiar black suits and into baggy pants made of flowing, off-white linen. One by one, each dancer sits at a silver pail and smears a dark, muddy substance onto their face and chest while pulsing marimba music plays. They move swiftly back and forth across the stage, running and jumping in steady canon. Multiple times throughout Black Milk, the quintet would settle into a rhythmic triplet step in unison; I found myself comforted by this steady, cyclical movement (my boyfriend, on the other hand, said he found it very annoying). The movement, staging, and pace all felt very ritualistic, and it seemed as though the mud they had smeared on themselves gave them a sense of camaraderie and belonging. All of a sudden, one of the dancers rushes back to the silver pail, and frantically washes the mud off of his face and chest with water. And in a chilling turn of events, the remaining four dancers turn on the defector, aggressively attacking and dragging him around. It was slightly disturbing, yet so mesmerizing that I was unable to look away.
Overall, Project 5 seemed to explicitly explore the idea of conformity. Themes of feeling the pressure to conform, feeling both content and frustrated with conforming, and dealing with the consequences of non-conformity were all analyzed in depth throughout the evening. The consistent use of repetition appeared comforting or unsettling (or a surreal combination of the two) depending on the context of each section. It is somewhat ironic that Naharin chose to investigate conformity, since he is one of the most unique contemporary choreographers in the world. His work is anything but conformist! Which made Project 5 all the more fascinating to watch. And I still just can’t get over that genuine originality of Ohad Naharin’s choreography. I honestly don’t think I saw one unoriginal movement throughout the entire piece! Even common steps like leg extensions all had an idiosyncratic twist to them, which turned a seemingly mundane motion into something completely different. Seeing the dancers of Batsheva perform live is totally different from watching them on video! They are fiercely elegant, with an energy that is palpable and infectious. I was so honored to be able to observe artistry at this level, and I can’t wait to have the opportunity to see the company in person again.
As if witnessing the brilliance of Project 5 wasn’t amazing enough, the cherry on top of a perfect evening of dance was spotting Ohad Naharin from across the room in the lobby after the show! I felt like a little kid who had just seen Santa Claus! I would have loved to meet him, but unfortunately he was in the downstairs section of the lobby (which was roped off) and about to head back through the stage door. However, experiencing his ingenious work firsthand and seeing him in the lobby afterward was incredible enough for now--and I just know that I will have the opportunity to learn from him in person someday.
(1) Footnote: The pause consisted of a pre-recorded video of the dancers lying prostrate on a studio floor before squirming out of the frame was projected onto a screen onstage. A creative way of keeping the audience entertained!
Friedes, Deborah. "Batsheva Dance Company: Ohad Naharin’s Project 5." Web log post. Dance In Israel. 19 Jan. 2010. Web. 03 Nov. 2010.
Perron, Wendy. "A Conversation With Ohad." Dance Magazine Oct. 2006. Print.