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Wild and Free

Finding my seat at Ohad Naharin and Batsheva Dance Company’s “Decadance,” the performance has already begun. In his own private world, on the stage of the State Theatre, Shamel Pitts, in a loose black suit and untucked white shirt, is dancing and I am so glad I have arrived with enough time to catch his playful, loose-kneed, liquid groove. To the side-to-side sway of early samba and late ’50s bossa nova, his moves call to mind how we might all dance if no one were watching. It is the contented, inward, and liberated dance of getting ready for a party, ironing one’s pants to the sounds of Jackie Davis at the console playing the danceable “Glow Worm Cha-Cha-Cha,” and later changing one’s earrings as Peruvian soprano Yma Súmac’s pours her allure into the “Gopher Mambo.” Unhurried, undeterred, pleasurable. The mood is smooth, ripe, and expectant. And as Pitts mimics a wriggly glow worm on the floor, the still-settling audience applauds. With house lights still on, the tone is set.


Batsheva Dance Company: “Decadance”


Arts Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, October 15, 2015


Gracia Haby

Batsheva Dance Company in “Decadance.” Photograph by David Harris

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I am in the hip-swinging, toe-tapping world of Naharin, where movement is transmitted from one to another, from dancer to dancer, from dancer to audience, summoned from within the body to outside of the body. This is what movement looks like when the body does the listening and responds accordingly to its own secret writing at its core. This is freedom. This is unlocked expression. And it is euphoric. It, too, like our crooners earlier, ought be bottled and dispensed on grey-mood days. Watching Pitts, I want to shake like that. Moreover, watching Pitts, I want to be him, the embodiment of the John Buzon Trio’s “It Must Be True;” and so it shall be, if this beginning is as true as it feels.

Originally created to celebrate Naharin’s ten years with Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, “Decadance” brings together several, variable components. For the one-night-only Melbourne performance, as part of Melbourne Festival, the line-up included sections from “Anaphase” (1993), “Mabul” (1992), “Naharin's Virus” (2001), “Zachacha” (1998), “Sadeh21” (2011), “Telophaza” (2006), “Three” (2005), and “MAX” (2007). Naharin has described it “like a game, a playground where we can subtract, add and erase the different sections of the works we have already done and look at what we do from another angle. I take unfinished stories and put them together. The coherence comes from the sense of the whole.”[note]Ohad Naharin in interview, “A Toolbox for Dancers,” TanzRaumBerlin, accessed October 15, 2015[/note]

Breaking through the smoothness, the king of the surf guitar, Dick Dale’s ‘let us rejoice’ “Hava Nagila” cuts the scene to black. In the dark theatre, on tenterhooks, though still, inwardly I am ready and waiting to spring. I am fully engaged from the outset. I have a sense of what is to come (thanks to film and the pixelated recordings found on YouTube), but this is the first time I have seen the company perform with my eyes, unfiltered. With my senses on high alert, a curve of black suited dancers stands wide-legged, each before a foldable chair. Against the black backdrop of the stage, this illuminated half-circle reminds me of a serpent or an animals’ spine. But equally, with their black hats, they could be Hasidim (“pious ones”). Performed by Naharin and the Tractor’s Revenge, the traditional cumulative folksong “Echad mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One”) follows the musical beat and, by getting under my skin, charges it further. The intensity of both this familiar Passover song coupled with the dancers own heartfelt vocalisation of the words cannot help but make you wish to be up there on the stage rather than seated in the stalls.

The dancers pass the movement from one to another like a bullet ricocheting or a current surging. The last in line: he receives the blow. He falls to the ground. They act in unison, save the one who collapses, and the one who rebels and leaps up to stand on his chair. White-shirted bellies up to the ceiling, arms and legs flung wide, this is automatic, felt movement, infectious as it builds, and fast. Where it not for the seated arc, I doubt I’d be able to pinpoint the source. Movements are repeated, and variations added as first a jacket is removed and tossed into the centre to make a crumpled loose heap. Then boots, shirts, and finally suit pants. In wide plié, some actions call to mind fast-forwarded footage of a cartoon character eating corn or a typewriter returning to a new line. Other universal actions highlight the animal in all humans, recognised or not. And at sensation’s close, as the dancers on their hands and knees scramble to gather up the discarded clothes scenes of the Holocaust, whether intended or not, come to mind. For though Naharin’s choreography has no narrative, when you work at conveying feeling, a story is inevitably told. In this piece, and those that followed, I felt free to ‘read’ the movements as I would an inkblot. This free message echoes the free movements of all the dancers from the company. And so, later, the line of dancers at the foot of the stage became a red-figured Athenian vase. Against the dark cloth, bodies lit, they glowed a continuous line.

The pieces in “Decadance” are as playful as they are empowering and affecting. Naharin’s choreography allows, or rather, encourages opportunities for discovery, and this is true for the dancers and for the audience, and it was certainly true of my own experience. This is what occurs when you work in the space just beyond the familiar. “We can turn the volume on listening…. and very delicate stuff can become wow.”[note]Ohad Naharin “It’s about making the body listen,” the Guardian YouTube, November 14, 2013:[/note]

‘Wow’ was found in Adi Zlatin’s broken walk in the fields of “Sadeh21.” With every step, each leg appeared to rotate in a socket five times its size, causing her thigh to roll backwards, upwards, and forwards, replicating a toddler’s waddle. ‘Wow’ was found in the fluid intimacy of the pas de deux to Vivaldi’s ‘Fac ut arbeat’, so beautiful in its searching and longing as to make you weep. Balance tested, backs bent, weight shifted, and the exquisite agony of hopping on one leg: knowing when to change the pace and adjust the volume is vital to “Decadence’s” ecstasy, making it a new work rather than a disconnected ‘greatest hits.’ Read as a whole, there is light to shade, slow to fast, and being ‘unengaged’ is not an option.

This sense of engagement is typified by actual, euphoric audience participation, the likes of which I have never seen, to a sped-up, electrified reconstruction of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (by Harold Arlen and adapted by Marusha). The dancers, once more suited and with black hats worn forward, sexy Fedora style, descend the stage in search of new dance partners. Connected, assured, and inviting, this is not cringe-worthy participation but sheer generosity in train. Drawn up on to the stage, colourful audience members in sundresses with ’50s swing, a suited man (who I allowed myself to cast as an academic letting his hair down), and a woman in fantastical gold boots; the hot Melbourne carefree night engineered wardrobe perfection, and the resulting thrill this work called forth from deep within is one I will always cherish. To all of those infected audience members who cut loose: I am eternally grateful. To the woman who “sway me smooth, sway me now” hip locked, Dean Martin style with the moustachioed Last Man Standing, in particular: you were marvellous. “Yielding is constant while we are ready to snap…. We explore multi-dimensional movement, we enjoy the burning sensation in our muscles, we are aware of our explosive power and sometimes we use it. We change our movement habits by finding new ones, we can be calm and alert at once. We become available.”[note]Ohad Naharin, Batsheva Dance Company website, accessed October 16, 2015[/note]

As I wait for tonight’s premiere of Naharin’s “Last Work” (2015), with new eyes, “calm and alert,” I work on my own moves to the guttural counting of ‘Uno Duo.’ One: the body in contrapposto. Two: “a little teapot, short and stout.” Three: an open hand above the head like a cockatoo’s crest. Four: ‘make like an Egyptian.’ Created by Naharin, under the pseudonym Maxim Waratt, my one, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three-four sequence has all the expressive, rapid sensations I can conjure, but sadly none of the grace, balance, and skill of the Batsheva dancers, “wild, and free.”[note]“All good things are wild, and free.” —Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)[/note]

Gracia Haby

Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.



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