Arts dance review

Dancing with the blood

Batsheva Dance Company takes audiences beyond familiar limits

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Batsheva Dance Company was presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre.
Robert Torres

Batsheva Dance Company
Choreography by Ohad Naharin
Celebrity Series of Boston
April 5–6

The Batsheva Dance Company takes you by surprise from the start. Many of the audience members were still mid-chatter when the performance began, house lights still on — an understated, unannounced birth, a simple challenge to theatrical conventions. Another shock to the familiar is the structure of Venezuela: two 40-minute sections with the same choreography but different music and casting. Juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar and the heightening of sensation and imagination were themes that ran through the show.

The choreographer, Ohad Naharin, developed the Gaga movement language that is practiced by the Batsheva dancers (among others). Performers are encouraged to explore their individuality and truly feel the movement rather than trying to achieve a certain aesthetic. They do not practice or rehearse in front of mirrors. Emphasis is on embodying imagery and the result is unlike any other dance form I’ve seen. The dancers’ bodies seem to take on textures, some soft and fluid, others rough and sticky. The viscerality of their movements is tempered and enhanced by impeccable control.

The set and the all-black costumes are minimalistic. The dancers crisscross the stage, their graceful jumps increasing in pitch and intensity. They float through space in perfect synchrony, seamlessly changing direction and formation. Their bodies begin to resemble particles in harmonic motion, ocean waves lapping on the shore, a herd of gazelle growing in size as it emerges from the savannah grass. The simple and familiar motion of skipping is deconstructed and must be considered anew.

In the next sequence, women sit astride men who crawl slowly on all fours, like pack animals resignedly carrying their load. The themes that surface are dependence/independence, domination/subordination, power/gender dynamics. Later, dancers group center-stage and solos evolve from their clump and melt right back into it — a regiment, an ant’s nest, a liquid minimizing surface energy.

Watching the same movements performed to different music was unexpectedly most intriguing. The Gregorian chants and slow instrumental pieces of the first pass created an ethereal effect of being lost in time and space. In the second pass, the bass-heavy, aggressive music was imbued with anger and violence. Songs include “Bullet in the Head” by Rage Against the Machine, “Dead Wrong” by Notorious B.I.G., and Arabic trap music (“Mirage” by Biz). Both sections featured two of the dancers rapping the graphic, expletive-laden lyrics of “Dead Wrong” into a microphone, with other members of the cast occasionally joining in. The choreography takes on a different meaning and timbre when woven into such a different fabric.

The climax of Venezuela was the flag sequence, in which dancers sidled onto the stage in a line holding a stack of flags, dropping one at a time as they went. The discarded flags were picked up by flagless dancers. The piece culminated in the dancers windmilling their arms as if beating one of the flag bearers who crawled amongst them. In the end, he lay still, covered in a white sheet comprised of many flags. In the first section, all the flags are white; in the second, they are multinational flags (though with alternate colors). At the end, the title of this composition begins to make sense.

No printed words can do justice to the hypnotic experience created by Batsheva. Rather than anonymizing the individual in the troupe, each dancer bursts like a ray of sun through a quartz prism. Naharin created Gaga as a language for dancers and non-dancers alike. There is a certain democratic sentiment in this, far removed from the hallowed halls of classical ballet, and also a feeling of a primordial beginning, as if this is what dancing was before people wrote the guidelines. Dancing for the joy of feeling your muscles clench and stretch; dancing to express what you see in the world around you; dancing because you exist.