Sixteen dancers lined the front of the stage and stared at the audience. Each possessed a different torque, an asymmetry in the torso, that gave them a slightly damaged look. One person danced in place with a fast, wrenching fury, as though trying to rid herself of a clinging nightmare. She stopped, then another dancer entered into a similar fury, while all the rest were still. Then the whole row, in unison to driving music by Habib Alla Jamal, an Arab with Israeli citizenship, pounded their fists on invisible walls as they made high-powered African-style chest contractions, and the cycle began again. There was energy, there was unity, there was rhythm, and there was rage.
Naharin's Virus is not the most beautiful or imaginative dance that Ohad Naharin has choreographed. But its visceral force is unforgettable. We cannot turn away from these young people of the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company, most of whom probably have been soldiers.
Jesper Thirup Hansen, wearing a man's suit and perched atop a stagewide wall that doubled as a blackboard, recited text from Offending the Audience, a play by Peter Handke. The words put an absurdist wedge between the performance and audience (Handke's virus?): "No mirror is held up to you. Because we are speaking to you, your awareness increases. You become aware of the impulse to scratch yourself," reads the text in part. But what saved the evening from verbal overload is that Hansen quietly slipped out of his suit and emerged wearing the same strange unitard the other dancers wore. The suit remained standing exactly where it was, without the hands and face of the dancer. This moment, repeated later, perfectly separated the dance with text from the dance with music. It provided the irony necessary to put Handke's rebellious declarations--by turns sophomoric, contradictory, and merely clever--into perspective: The speaker is merely trying something on. So, toward the end of the play, when Handke hurled insults at "us," we were more delighted by the word play ("You bubbleheads, you atheists, you butchers, you deadbeats") than hurt or shocked.
The costumes made the dancers look uncomfortable, paralleling how the text made us feel. Naharin may be hinting at the discomfort of living in a country where hostilities are so out of control. The cream-colored unitards, designed by Rakefet Levy, extended to cover the hands, giving the dancers unnaturally long arms, and the thigh-high black leg warmers gave them short legs. In the first section, the dancers drifted toward each other in small groups as though to sniff each other. Their arms hung long and they curled their hands like simian creatures, ready to scratch themselves or to grab food. Some of the couplings were also animal-like, as though lizards were mating.
But the message on the blackboard was very human. The word "you" got scrawled on one side, and "atem," the Hebrew for "you" (plural), on the other--the two languages being very separate. Kristin Francke, who began the piece by drawing on the blackboard, dragged the chalk behind her, around her elbow, echoing her traces with her body parts, all with a body distorted with tension. Throughout the evening, dancers went upstage to draw on the blackboard, sometimes adding a soothing swoosh to the sound environment shaped by Karni Postel. Toward the end, two dancers madly etched a blood-red asterisk shape, which took on a glow (lighting by Bambi). Is this the source of the virus, an angry nucleus of hate, or a burst of the heart's emotion?
Occasionally a single person danced to a taped voice, presumably about that person's life. During Inbar Nemirovsky's solo, we heard a young woman's voice telling us that, as a child, she liked to take off her clothes, but would get punished for it: "I would get naked, and my mother would beat me. I found I liked it." (Her mother also beat her because she questioned the existence of God.) This and other moments of dark humor contributed to the compelling strangeness of this U.S. premiere.
Naharin started his career with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and like Graham, his motivation comes from a deep core in the center of the body. But his choreographic style owes more to Pina Bausch and American experimentalists like Gina Buntz. Therefore, Batsheva, which was formed by Martha Graham and the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild in 1964, went through an overhaul in both repertoire and dancers when Naharin took over as artistic director in 1990. His repertoire for the company is wide ranging and includes funny, joyous works as well as difficult ones.
Naharin's Virus is infectious, but not everyone will respond to it. The experience is comparable to reading Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, with its fevered self-questioning, or seeing the work of German painter Anselm Keifer, which leads one into a depth and complexity rare for an American artist. If you have gone to that well of darkness, the experience is familiar and even satisfying. If not, it can be frightening--or offending. But there is something vital and bracing about artists who delve into difficult areas, into the darkness of our souls. Artists like these possess an undeniable courage, and this is the virus of the title, for the Batsheva dancers have caught Naharin's courage.
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|Article Type:||Dance Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2002|
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