Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, California, February 16, 2017
At the end of Batsheva Dance Company’s “Last Work,” a man sits with his back to us and his legs spread, apparently masturbating. Then he rotates to face us and we see he is cleaning a machine gun. Meanwhile, club music pounds, a frenzied crowd runs in circles, lights flash, streamers fly. Ian Robinson drags out a microphone and starts lashing it to the floor with masking tape. Then he screams.
And all the while, in the corner, as she has for the entire 70 minutes, a long-haired woman in a blue dress runs on a treadmill. But now she hoists a white flag.
Ohad Naharin has served as artistic director and choreographer of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company for 27 years. He is, to my mind, one of the world’s two most important living choreographers, alongside William Forsythe. The moments of his work that can best be written about effect you like installation art, drawing you into disturbing ambiguity. You know exactly what you’re seeing, but look at the image one way and it’s hopeful; look at it another way and it’s terrorizing.
Take the final moments of “Last Work,” after Robinson has exhausted himself screaming. The dancers, in white shorts and tank stops, stand scattered, frozen mid-movement, across the stage. Robinson takes the masking tape and wraps it around one dancer’s waist, then stretches it like a vector to the next dancer’s waist, then stretches it to the next dancer, the tape screeching as it’s pulled from the roll, until all 16 dancers stand wrapped in the tape. Is this a vision of the interconnectedness of humanity restored—is each dancer relaxing with relief to have the tape wrapped around her waist? Or is it a spectacle of entrapment, and each dancer is collapsing with resignation? I saw it the first way, my husband saw it the latter. Because the image is both. That’s how poetry works.
What writing about such moments can’t convey is how Naharin builds to them, how his dances don’t just hit you with those images, but draw you into their atmosphere via something it would be cheap to call “pacing,” via a rhythm of tension and release, via subliminally perceived patterns, which is to say through poetic form. The language of his movement poetry is Gaga, the movement vocabulary he’s developed over decades, and in “Last Work” it speaks, as usual, with entrancing texture. Extreme backbends, predatory squats, knees torqued out, pelvis tucked under. Legs and arms extending with equal naturalism and eloquence, feet reaching and grappling like hands.
And of course, inseparable from the movement, the impulse behind it, the awareness of energy in every cell, the rippling of energy through manipulation of time. Near the beginning of “Last Work,” Robinson stands on one leg, a current of control moving from the tip of his head through his shoulder, torso, every leg muscle and toe, a slow-motion whip lash that ever so gradually, mesmerizingly, accelerates until the whip is cracking maniacally. In one of the later sections of “Last Work,” as the dancers cluster, each breaks into a freakishly repeating short phrase that reminded me of watching Internet gifs. Zina Zinchenko has the most awe-inspiring phrase, a drop into a near floor-touching backbend that she lets possess her like an electrical current, and she claims one of the most arresting moments earlier in the dance, too, sitting spread-leg on the floor and then slithering across from right toe to left, in such a way that you look for the snake’s hidden musculature.
The central episode of “Last Work” comes when the dancers assemble in a line at the back of the stage, strip and reclothe in the white shorts and tank tops, while several men don black priestly robes. The duets and trios that follow unfold with novelistic suspense, as the electronic soundtrack by Maxim Warratt, Naharin’s usual collaborator, creeps upon us. None of it reaches the operatic catharsis of Naharin’s “Sadeh21,” which Batsheva brought to San Francisco in 2015; “Last Work” is a slightly cooler odyssey, more reminiscent of Naharin’s “Three,” seen on the West Coast in 2006. I dearly wish I could compare “Last Work” to more of Naharin’s oeuvre (I have seen “Deca Dance” and a few others), but we don’t get to see Batsheva Dance Company as regularly as we should on the West Coast. I am unspeakably grateful to San Francisco Performances for bringing Batsheva when they can.
Batsheva associates in the lobby before “Last Work” were handing out postcards for Mr. Gaga, a documentary on Naharin, screening in New York through early March, and in 28 other U.S. cities this spring. I wouldn’t miss seeing it in San Francisco March 10-16th.