Who knew that when modern dance legend Martha Graham teamed up with Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild in 1964 to be artistic advisor of an Israeli dance troupe (Graham held the role until 1975), that the company would not only be going strong 50 years later, but would be at the forefront of contemporary dance. That fact, of course, has to do with the iconoclastic choreographer Ohad Naharin, who has helmed the 34-member troupe since 1990, his full-bodied dancemaking never failing to astonish, mesmerize and awe.
Kicking off a six-city tour in the City of Angels with the U.S. premiere of “Sadeh21,” a work created in 2010-11, Batsheva showed its mettle through 21 “sadehs,” Hebrew for fields—of study, action, grace, muscularity. You name it, these phenomenal performers had it. As varied as the moves were, so too was the soundtrack design by Maxim Waratt (a popular alias Naharin likes to use).
Indeed, the 75-minute intermissionless work featured an array of ambient and sonic music from composers ranging from Brian Eno and Harold Budd, Autechre and The Hafler to Angelo Badalamenti (a favorite of filmmaker David Lynch), not to mention the wedding-circuit stalwart, Johann Pachelbel, whose agonizingly familiar Canon in D major, was heard in various bits and pieces.
But back to the dance: The moves are derived from Naharin’s ingenious Gaga technique, a kind of corporeal multi-tasking that trains the body to reach elevated levels of sensitivity while helping the performer gain self-awareness—all done without the benefit of mirrors and in response to verbal cues. Featuring Avi Yona Bueno’s moody lighting, both stark and warm, and a set of equally stark beige panels (video subtitle design by Raz Friedman), the work begins with each of the 17 dancers coming onstage to perform an individual sequence: “Sadeh1” wows out of the box, and is comprised of unique, mini-eruptions introducing us to these astonishing creatures, where a warrior pose might morph into one-legged balancing and an arched back transitions into a swiveled-hip gyration.
The second field is a series of duets that evolve into larger ensembles, where tiny twitches, fluid lunges and some serious pliés rule. Clad in Ariel Cohen’s workman-like tank tops and shorts in both neutral and vibrant colors, the dancers create a pattern of continuously shifting tableaux—hints of Hieronymus Bosch and Eadweard Muybridge, perhaps—in which these taut, ripped and exquisite bodies seem to hold the key to some deeply-held secret.
As the sadehs continue they build like so many Beethoven cadenzas: The third features duck-walking and more pliant torsos, along with static posturing, while a female dancer calls out numbers and the dancers form groups accordingly; the fourth feels meditative in a slo-mo kind of way, a Project Runway mood also on view, as well as a segment in which dancers clasp hands and form circles, evoking a hora, if not shades of Naharin’s dance of the same name. The fifth and highly stylized field is a kaleidoscope of contortions, finger-snapping and chorus line unisons, with gender-bending on display, the men garbed in soigné strapless dresses. Frenzied but with purpose, the dancers reflect the score. Bouncing to the beat, a jazzy, rhythmic track with drums and trumpets, the group becomes a winding river of movement.
“Sadeh6” features a man spewing gibberish, albeit with intensity, as the music turns pastoral, even melodramatic. With 15 more sadehs to go, one wonders how long the troupe can maintain its energy. But nobody can accuse Naharin of being humorless, as Sadeh7-18 flashes onstage, with “Sadeh19” an über-masculine scenario. Replete with military stepping, head-slapping and a woman lying on her back, legs thrashing, the full-throttle vocabulary has yet to peak, and “Sadeh20,” not performed to music, instead assaults with the sounds of a shrieking female.
The backdrop of panels is then utilized as a wall the dancers ascend, these moves leading to and part of the stunning finale that is “Sadeh21.” A metaphor for resilience, fragility and our will to go on (think Beckett’s memorable lines, “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”), the dancers, once atop the wall, individually drop backwards, as if into the abyss.
Some do back flips, others hurls themselves with cannonball jumps, swan dives and twisting, filigreed descents. They climb. They drop. They come back for more. Staggering in its power, “Sadeh21” ends with the credits rolling over the set, itself a symbol of power, hope and despair (this month, after all, marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall).
Yes, this is abstract, non-narrative dance, but the story, one packing an emotionally devastating wallop, is clear: We are all on this planet for a brief moment in time, and, no matter the hardships, trials and tribulations, as we move through space in our daily lives, trying to make sense of what is often senseless, it is the natural human instinct to survive, to keep on keeping on.
Not taking a curtain call, the Batsheva dancers have been imprinted on our collective unconscious, and we are privileged to bear witness to such crushing beauty.