Saturday, April 6, 2019

Writer Lea Marshall has some questions for Ohad Naharin

Batsheva Dance Company
(photo: Stephanie Berger)

Batsheva Dance Company
University of Richmond
March 23, 2019

Guest reviewer: Lea Marshall

I have questions for Ohad Naharin that I know he won’t answer, since he’s famously reluctant to comment on his work. But I want to ask them anyway. Batsheva Dance Company recently performed his 2018 work Venezuela in Richmond, Virginia, the week before their performance in New York at BAM. The longer I sit with the work, the more questions I have. 

What does it mean when an Israeli choreographer creates a dance titled Venezuela that has nothing, apparently, to do with that country? What does it mean that the piece includes two dancers (both appearing to be white) lipsyncing the song “Dead Wrong,” by American rapper Notorious B.I.G.? And that the rest of the sound score ranged from Gregorian chant to Arabic trap to Rage Against the Machine? And finally, what does it mean for Naharin to present 40 minutes of choreography, and then repeat the exact same choreography--with some casting, lighting and music changes--as the second half of the work?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but the way they stack up points to the privilege of an internationally revered male choreographer choosing from a global menu of artistic elements to support his creative vision. But the name of a country, an American rap song--these elements have specific cultural contexts that beg addressing, or at least noticing, when included in an artist’s work. To pluck them from their contexts solely for dramatic effect feels at best whimsical and, at worst, arrogant. Hasn’t contemporary artistic discourse moved beyond the idea that aesthetic choices can be separated from the sociocultural forces shaping them? Because they can’t be. And choosing to dismiss or ignore those forces reduces powerful ideas to a kind of aesthetic servitude.

Although these concerns have lingered in my mind for weeks now, I want to spend time appreciating the undeniable power of the Batsheva performers. In theater, the phrase “fourth wall” refers to the front edge of the stage as a boundary between performers and audience. Watching these dancers, I became conscious of a fifth wall--the sky above. 

Sometimes the choreography spoke directly upward, as when dancers flung white cloths into the air under stark white light. But more compellingly, the dancers themselves absorbed and reflected the space around and above them through muscles, bones, lungs--through the flash of a neck toward the light; the sailing arc of a foot; the rainbow sweep of a forehead from downward-facing, upward, and over into a backbend.

Batsheva dancers train in a technique called Gaga, which was developed by Naharin over years as he choreographed for and served as artistic director of the company (he has handed over the administrative reins to former dancer Gili Navot and now holds the title House Choreographer). Gaga, according to its website, is “predicated on a deep listening to the body and to physical sensations.” Dancers practice this technique without mirrors to encourage focus on sensation rather than shape or line.

Gaga technique yields performers suffused with a sensual awareness of their own power, who move with luscious, elastic fullness, devouring space at full throttle or shifting with a delicate gesture into complete stillness. Much of the pleasure I found in watching this work derived from the absorbing dynamism of the dancers’ performances.

I did not get to know these dancers as people, or characters. In Venezuela, performers appear to function as ciphers or symbols, their humanity foremost but their individual personhood veiled. I should say gendered humanity, since the costumes of black dresses and shirts/pants implied a cast of men and women who often split off into pairs, almost always of opposite genders. Power dynamics in these couples--often dancing what, though I am not versed in Latin dance forms, appeared to be salsa-inflected steps--and seemed to shift continuously as it did among the entire group. I frequently felt aware, however, of the choreographer’s power over his dancers--sometimes in the extremes of speed or flexion or torque the movement required, and sometimes in the imagery deployed, such as when five women rode men as on horseback, letting their legs drag the floor in a way that made it clear all their weight rested in their crotch as the men crawled slowly downstage and then up again. 

I had leisure to contemplate this section more fully--as with every other section--during the dance’s second half. A primary motif of Venezuela appeared to be repetition. As the same choreography unfolded again in the second half, I grew puzzled, and then, truthfully, annoyed even as I remained engaged. The chance to relish all that movement again--with different inflections of new music, lighting and performers--felt luxurious. It also felt like a bold choice, almost a slap in the face--a feeling amplified by the frontal choreography, the dancers’ direct gazes toward the audience and their interaction with the provocative music choices. And now I’m back where I started, with the same questions, and perhaps that’s just where Naharin wants me to be.


Lea Marshall
(photo courtesy of Lea Marshall)

Guest reviewer Lea Marshall’s writing on dance has appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she is Associate Chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Dance + Choreography.

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DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.

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3 comments:

gus said...

This piece is very intelligently written. But Marshall's observations about the choreography seem judgmental when posed as questions, as if to challenge Naharin's option to choose his material freely. Until she gets the answers to her questions from him, she's on shaky ground assuming that he's being culturally tone deaf.
G Solomons

flash said...

Using the words "devouring space at full throttle" and "undeniable power" when describing gaga - a technique born in an apartheid state - seems apt.

But how can you propose the following questions about appropriation and colonization ( ...a dance titled Venezuela that has nothing, apparently, to do with that country? What does it mean that the piece includes two dancers (both appearing to be white) lipsyncing the song “Dead Wrong,” by American rapper Notorious B.I.G.? And that the rest of the sound score ranged from Gregorian chant to Arabic trap ...) and then leave integrity aside to enjoy some cool moves?


David said...

I found the piece to come From a place of self indulgent arrogance. Just about every disjointed sequence was heavy handed and definitely repetitive. Judging from the audience's tepid applause, I feel I am not alone in this opinion.

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