Eri Nakamura, Billy Barry, Danai Porat, Ohad Mazor in ”Hora” by Ohad Naharin. Photograph by Steven Pisano

Naharin’s Enigmatic Hora

Batsheva Dance Company perform “Hora” at the Joyce Theater

Performance
Batsheva Dance Company: “Hora” by Ohad Naharin
Place
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, February 28, 2023
Words
Karen Greenspan

The Batsheva Dance Company returned to New York City after a four year hiatus for a two-week engagement (February 28-March 12) at the Joyce Theater to perform “Hora,” created by Ohad Naharin. The renowned choreographer, having led this premier dance company of Israel from 1990 to 2018 as artistic director, has shaped an extraordinary company of dancers—creatives in their own right—through his nurturing leadership, visionary approach to dance practice, and his distinctive movement language and toolbox called Gaga. In his current role as house choreographer, he continues to endow Batsheva with a repertoire of bold, characteristic works that are recognized across the world and much sought-after by other companies.

“Hora” premiered in 2009 and displays an unabashed irreverence that one comes to expect with Naharin’s work. Eleven dancers inhabit a lime green set designed Avi Yona Bueno, and sit on a long bench stretching across the back wall. The score of re-engineered classics by electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita includes synthesized iterations of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Ride of the Valkyries,” Concierto de Aranjuez, and Star Wars theme music situating the piece in a strange, futuristic universe, where the familiar sounds a bit peculiar.

From the beginning, the tables are turned. Bathed in luminous lighting (also by Bueno), seeming to emanate from the white bench, the dancers sit and simply stare at the audience. They stand in unison and walk toward the audience in lockstep. Backlit, they are thus transformed into black, faceless figures, who have stepped out of a glowing green screen. They move slowly, with purpose, staring forward even as they turn in profile lifting their arms with the back of the hands bent downwards like paws. With the space-age soundscape, it truly feels like aliens have arrived.

Batsheva Dance Company in “Hora” by Ohad Naharin. Photograph by Ilya Melnikov

The lights come up and illuminate the dancers’ faces and bodies, sending them scurrying back to the bench. From there, single dancers, couples, and groups periodically leave the bench to perform a non-linear assemblage of scenes embodying a plethora of textures, energies, images, and relationships. The work is performed with a non-registering, non-connecting, open-eyed stare—again, giving the feeling of an alien species encountering a new environment, sensations, and relational set-ups for the first time without pre-conceptions. Or perhaps it is an outsider’s view of our own silly behaviors.

Moments of surprise occur when suddenly the dancers’ bodies seem to take on an incongruous, weighted density—as when everyone is sitting on the bench and simultaneously slaps the back wall remaining glued to that place, pausing time. This occurs another time when two women commence an effortful duet by falling into each other with a heavy thud.

Defying expectations, Naharin juxtaposes the epic-sounding theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss) with a scene in which all the women are revolving in slow motion on their bottoms holding a V-sit as the men are seated on the bench taking a time out. Just as the music hits its climax, the women succumb to the floor in a sprawl.

Chiaki Horita, Yael Ben Ezer, Londiwe Khoza in “Hora” by Ohad Naharin. Photo by Steven Pisano

Naharin flouts convention to the hilt as the dancers revive to the rousing strains of “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite whose music is informally banned in live performance in Israel. First the women and then the men join them in aiming their bottoms skyward holding a stylized sprinter’s stance as if preparing for Olympic victory.

In a more up-tempo tableau, the dancers throw themselves into high energy, classic, dance sequences, in which one or several people digress into repeated scratching, scrubbing, tossing, or twitching jags. Coupled with the theme music from Star Wars electronically interpreted with a high-pitched whistle, the heroic becomes comically mundane.

In fact, mundane gestures and activities frequently serve as jumping off points offering a vast reservoir for movement and scene development. For example, a lone dancer clasps his two hands and beats them against his chest like a heartbeat as Ryoji Ikeda’s “Data Matrix” sound composition of static noise interrupted by periodic beeps evokes a cardiac monitor. The group of dancers behind him repeat this same gesture and then take up a similar repetitive rhythm with other body parts—feet pounding on the floor, hips thrusting against the air. The original heart beating dancer frantically speeds up his movements building a sense of urgency until he turns to join the group behind him—but collapses onto the floor just before reaching his destination. Thus, an abstract gesture transforms into an emotional narrative.

The dancers are remarkable in their strength and versatility—their ability to pull off movements that don’t conform to any known vocabulary as well as those that do. The company’s daily Gaga class is a place of active movement research and skill tuning. Naharin and the dancers frequently talk about the fact that they work without mirrors, thus the movement is sensation-based and not about making shapes. The absence of mirrors also encourages the dancers to see and relate to each other as opposed to focusing on themselves—an important distinction in their dance ethic.

Billy Barry, Chen Agron and dancers of Batsheva Dance Company in “Hora” by Ohad Naharin. Photograph by Steven Pisano

Of course if you are looking for a riff on the joyful folk dance, you won’t find it here—not a trace. Naharin has a proclivity for choosing enigmatic titles for his works that invite or confound associations. During the curtain chat following the performance I attended, the dancers shared that Naharin liked the title “Hora” because the word means different things in different languages—for instance—”hour” in Spanish, “whore” in Norwegian, “hey there” in Japanese, and the popular folk dance.

With 44 years of experience making dances (Naharin’s choreographic debut was at the Kazuko Hirabayshi studio in New York in 1979), Naharin has had the time to think deeply about the process. In the post-performance “Chat,” Batsheva rehearsal director and former company dancer Guy Shomroni spoke of Naharin’s approach to revisiting and remounting older works like “Hora.” He quoted a Naharin dictum saying, “Dance is a living thing. It exists in the now and then it is gone.” In a follow-up conversation, Shomroni further elaborated that this idea informs Naharin’s orientation toward continuously striving to keep the dances fresh and relevant. He reviews and retunes them in a meticulous process of refining the material. “The accumulation of small changes over time can become quite substantial,” acknowledged Shomroni, “but the essence of the work will remain. It will just be better conveyed.”

Naharin credits lighting and set designer Bueno with the idea for the green-colored set and has described it as the color of a “green screen.” In photography and videography, a bright green backdrop is used as a placeholder—meant to be changed (during post-production) to allow for easily editing in a different background. Essentially, it’s an indication that whatever is there now is going to change. And so it goes with “Hora.”