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A Gift for the Season

Considering the ongoing conversation regarding the true scope of dancers’ labor and the role they play in a choreographer’s dance making process, I mused about the Gibney Dance Company’s announcement of their recent New York Live Arts season (December 13-17) presenting “Yag 2022,” a reimagining of Ohad Naharin's acclaimed 1996 work for Batsheva Dance Company. “Yag” is a family memoir—come to life in the Gaga-trained bodies (and minds) of the Batsheva dancers. What would happen when such a collaborative and personal work was restaged on a completely different company of dancers?

Performance

Gibney Company: “Yag 2022” by Ohad Naharin

Place

New York Live Arts, New York, NY, December 13, 2022

Words

Karen Greenspan

Jesse Obremski, Jake Tribus, Miriam Gittens, Eleni Loving, Jie-Hung Connie Shiau, Kevin Pajarillaga in “Yag 2022.” Photograph by Jonathan Taylor

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I first saw this work in November of 2020, as many did, when it was released by Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company as YAG – The Movie. Still under lockdown due to Covid-19, I was immensely grateful to have this provocative work (adapted for the screen) by this distinctive choreographer beamed onto my computer. I was reminded of Naharin’s masterful hand and the Batsheva dancers’ unrestrained command and physicality.

During this same time, the Gibney Company, having received a $2 million dollar gift in 2020 from Andrew A. Davis, a Trustee of the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund, was on a speedway to self-transformation. The dance company, greatly enabled by the financial infusion, had doubled its size from six to twelve dancers and had been actively commissioning new works by notable younger generation choreographers such as Sonya Tayeh, Bobbi Jene Smith, Alan Lucien Øyen, and Yin Yue. They had a voracious appetite for physically challenging, high intensity choreography. In addition, they initiated two annual seasons in New York as well as toured nationally. The company’s website states a commitment to empowering its dancers as “full-time Artistic Associates who contribute not only as impeccable performing artists but also as activists and cultural entrepreneurs.” How would the Gibney artistic associates interpret “Yag”?

Jesse Obremski, Jie-Hung Connie Shiau, Jake Tribus, Miriam Gittens, Eleni Loving, Kevin Pajarillaga in “Yag 2022.” Photograph by Jonathan Taylor

This family’s story is portrayed by six dancers whose relationships are revealed over the course of 50 minutes through evocative movement, speech, and a spare but ingenious, symbol-infused set consisting of an orange-colored rectangular plank (resembling a door) and a quantity of fortune cookies. The piece is bookended by two tableaux that suggest posed, formal family portraits. Between the two portraits are the buried, troubling, patched over, idealized, sometimes happy, sometimes painfully traumatic, complicated family dynamics that flow seamlessly in a tightly woven vividly surreal narrative.

“Yag” was a departure from Gibney’s previous commission-based programming and an interesting choice, so I spoke with the company’s founder, artistic director, and CEO Gina Gibney about it in a Zoom interview shortly before the season. She shared, “With the expansion of the company I thought we would be almost exclusively commissioning new work. But I very quickly realized that there is this rich tradition of masterworks in contemporary dance that can certainly be remounted, but they can also be reimagined.

To that end, Gina set about enlarging her network of international choreographers. She told me, “I was particularly interested in meeting Ohad Naharin because not only is he a brilliant maker and a unique and important voice in contemporary choreography, but he has also built an entire language and training methodology and he has spawned generations of choreographers. That kind of legacy and depth of experience was fundamental to me to bring to this new company because we are not only shaping a repertory, but we are also shaping a group of artists.”

Unquestionably, a fluency in Gaga (the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin) is essential to performing this piece. Gina offered that in preparation for learning Ohad’s work, the company participated in several Gaga workshops. Additionally, they had daily Gaga class during the learning process, which took place last summer under the direction of Batsheva Staging Assistants Rachael Osborne and Ian Robinson. This was followed by in-person direction with Ohad. The company then maintained a regular frequency of Gaga training between rehearsals to sustain the piece and their Gaga skills. As Gina put it, “The gaga toolbox gave them access to themselves in this work and work in general.” Osborne and Robinson returned for the final weeks of preparation before the season.

In the theater, as the lights go dark, one hears the deep “lub dub” of a beating heart. As otherworldly tones are layered over the heartbeat, a dancer stands in place, amid a dark stage. Her torso repeats an undulating motion with one arm raised overhead as if she were suspended in deep space, or floating in amniotic fluid. Six characters assemble onstage and through the course of the piece, each one delivers a verbal introduction of themselves and identifies all the members of their family specifying who is alive and who is dead. This information seems to be important as it is reiterated throughout the piece because the dead remain very present with those who are living. The characters each conclude with the refrain, “Once, my family really loved to dance.” The words are spoken slowly, deliberately, without expression. The spoken words are only colored by the type of movement being done (sometimes non-stop jumps) by the dancer or if they are talking over a loud section of the sound collage. These monologues are peppered between sequences of physical movement, groupings, and poses that convey strong emotional states such as stress, anger, frenetic intensity, cruelty, kindness, interconnection, and occasionally joy.

Eleni Loving, Kevin Pajarillaga, Jie-Hung Connie Shiau, Jesse Obremski, Miriam Gittens, Jake Tribus in “Yag 2022.” Photograph by Jonathan Taylor

In a memorable crossing section, all six dancers form a row and together, cross the stage back and forth. Each time they make a crossing, a single dancer remains in the center to perform a danced exposition of their character. As the “family” recrosses the stage, it picks up the previous soloist and drops off another. This walking carpool continues until all six characters have performed a danced introduction of themselves.

In this section, one could see how these solos integrated personal interpretations of the characters’ traits. They offered a window into the particular strengths and movement sensibilities of the individual Gibney dancers. Jacob Tribus was breathtaking in his quirky solo as Grandpa dressed in plaid pajamas. Spinning circles of manic, impish eccentricity about the stage, he stopped time with a paused leg extension sideward. He continued down a diagonal driving his body into an airborne flip before descending into a deep lunge. Kevin Pajarillaga’s solo as the Son was suffused with notable daring and grace.

The tension between the Wife and Husband is quickly felt as the Wife holds the Husband’s head and torso for an instant before dropping him with a thud and walking away. Dancing the role of the Wife, Jie-Hung Connie Schiau laced her movements with discomfiting twitches and tics. Zultari Gomez inhabited the same role with an adversarial rigidity toward the Husband. In fact, several family interactions start with a trusting intimacy and suddenly slip into blatant cruelty. Miriam Gittens and Eleni Loving, as the two Daughters (on both nights), pulled off emotionally packed scenes and transitions. A gamut of emotion is embodied in this work.

Jie-Hung Connie Shiau and Miriam Gittens in “Yag 2022” for Gibney Company. Photograph by Jonathan Taylor

In an unforgettably crafted tableau, the Husband and Wife stand on opposite sides of an orange rectangle (door), pressing against it to lift and move it haltingly from one side of the stage to the other. Setting the door down with the Wife visible and the Husband hidden on the other side, he begins undressing and throwing his brown suit over the top of the door. The wife quickly puts on each piece of his discarded clothing. The couple revolve themselves and their prop so that the door stands sideways like a wall between them. They slide down to sit on the floor staring blankly out at the audience as their heads slide robotically side to side. Grandpa stands behind the door, his hands lifted above their heads, snapping his fingers like a magician controlling their movements. The children are scattered about the stage echoing the back and forth zombie movement with other body parts.

The door duet continues and in a humorous detail, the Husband flings his pants over the door completely covering the Wife’s face. An instant later, however, she is wearing the pants. The couple revolve themselves and the door once again, and we see that the Husband is completely naked. He dramatically falls to the floor and pulls the door on top of himself. The Wife promptly jumps on top of the door as if to keep him dead and buried as the family grooves together in a dance. When the Wife joins the party, Zultari Gomez (in the role) drops her pent up tension and shimmies in a brief release. The images come together with the intrigue and impact of a Magritte painting.

One cannot overlook the fortune cookie scene, in which one of the daughters carefully lays out a diagonal row of fortune cookies across the stage—a trail to find the way home . . . or to one’s dreams or fortune. No sooner than the path of cookies is laid out, then Grandpa treads upon them crushing and crunching each one to bits. For the remainder of the piece, everyone is dancing on cookie crumbs, and they are flying in the air along with the amazing dancers.

Different aspects and details of the work jumped out at me during Gibney’s live performances (I saw two with different casts). Liberated from the computer screen, you can actually see how the action plays out in space—quite different from the controlling (although wonderful) focus of the camera direction. The tactility of stepping on crisp cookies was much more felt in live the performance. I could hear more layers within the evocative sound tapestry supporting the narrative made up of diverse selections from the unsettling, ambient sounds of John Zorn’s “Naked City” (from the album Absinthe) to the orderly, refinement of Elizabethan lute music and more. The intimate New York Live Arts theater space allows for a detailed, close-up viewing experience—the dancers’ breathing and cookie crunching are audible; subtle twitches and shimmies are visible.

Gibney gave the audience quite a gift with this program series titled “Gibney Up Close.” Gina commented on the idea saying, “Very often when you see the work of renowned artists, you see it on a very large stage. It’s very rare to have the opportunity to see such a work up-close. I believe it’s important to be able to see a work that is highly theatrical and nuanced from ten feet away in a theater where you can absorb every sound, breath, twitch, and movement. So this performance is embodying exactly what we want to do with this series, which is to make work available in proximity─to be able to discern detail and nuances, to absorb the work and be present with it.”

The Gibney dancers with their technical skill and open and robust spirit brought “Yag” to life in their own way.

In response to my original question, Gina reflected, “What I find so rich about this experience with Ohad is that he is not just putting the piece on the dancers. He is reimagining it for them. He even retitled it ‘Yag 2022’ because he believes it’s a reimagining, a revisioning, a reshaping, an adaptation of the piece—not just for today, but for this particular group of dancers.”

The Gibney dancers with their technical skill and open and robust spirit brought “Yag” to life in their own way. The dancers grew within the piece from night to night. Everyone had and took the opportunity to dance this family exposé in an empowered, personal way. Gina championed, “This is a very diverse group of dancers—and they are bringing their racial and cultural backgrounds, their varied levels of experience, their aesthetics, tremendous openness, curiosity, and imagination to the context of forming this family onstage. These are not dancers that you put work on. These are dancers that you bring work out of.”

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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