Batsheva Dance Company
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, New York
March 7, 2012
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Popkin
Ohud Naharin’s eclectic and hour-long “Hora” was both funny and troubling. The dancers were beautiful, captivating and well trained. Sequences of grotesque movement segued to dance parodies of cliché femininity before the whole company posed in a circle to a recording of Wagner on a synthesizer. But the work was coldly entertaining instead of engaging and left you with questions more persistent than the pleasure you experienced watching it.
Isao Tomita rendered familiar classical tunes on a synthesizer, saturating the theater with sound as an organ fills a church. The score relied on familiar musical choices to form chapters that had no transition but moments of silence. An opening drone to which the dancers responded with slow motion movement was followed by a long section to the well-known flute theme from Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” Another section featured the melody of the John Barry hit “Born Free” (credited in the program to a classical antecedent, “Solveig’s Song” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”). The Wagnerian segment actually began and ended with the opening theme from Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (more familiar as the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”).
The company’s dancers and movement quality are distinctive. The men and women are attractive and individual across the board; all are equals and there’s no sense of hierarchy. The men are wiry and agile; the women have normal hips, chests and thighs instead of ballet physiques. Everyone is strong and in clear control of their bodies and it’s not unusual to see extensions to the side struck and held with the greatest aplomb, strength and ease.
Naharin makes a good deal in interviews of a personal movement style he calls “Gaga” that he trains his dancers in. It seems to emphasize control of the body from the pelvis and the small of the back instead of the torso, hips and shoulders. Flexibility in the lumbar region is at a premium. Dancers undulate and twitch from the lower spine and the image of personhood, human dignity and interpersonal relations this engenders is grotesque, odd, and alienated. Instead of classical harmony, the instinctive and autonomic is emphasized and, watching it, you have the repeated feeling of seeing people striving for nobility, but being pulled back into pre-human muscular response.
Deliberately anti-lyrical, extended sections of the work have the dancers getting up off the bench to confront each other with twitches, convulsions and mechanically repeated movements. To familiar sentimental music, the women sway their hips and sashay in a parody of conventional feminine sexiness or the posturing of runway models at a fashion show. The audience laughs at such passages and the result seems intentional; but the picture you get is of a society where alienated individuals have the choice either to interact with grotesque gesture or engage in a pastiche of conventional sexiness.
Naharin’s greatest strengths are as a dramatist, controlling the stage and moving his dancers around in blocks to create arresting images. The best part of “Hora” involved his Wagnerian scene. To the “Ride of the Valkyries,” he first posed the company kneeling in a circle in his only overt reference to the traditional Hora. Then, as Brünnhilde’s famous theme swelled, everyone extended one leg upward into a kneeling reach for heaven while still remaining crouched, and continued holding this position again in a long pose for numerous bars as the music rose and fell. Finally, as if this was too much stasis to hold against the building physical drama, the group burst willy-nilly into motion about the stage, disintegrating into individuals, duos and small groups. When the score then morphed into the portion of the overture from “Tannhäuser” that Baudelaire (reviewing its first performance in Paris) described as a “heavenly choir” or “advancing phalanx of angels,” the company – spread out across the stage in ranks - finally began to march towards the audience. They came forward one after another to fall down and then get back up, as if they were being knocked over or shot, repeating this sequence over and over again. Their mass processional, in syncopated time for a minute or two to this elevated music, was the one moment in the show that was as traditionally rhythmic as theatrical dance.
Coming from the most famous dance company and leading choreographer in Israel, it registered as blackly ironic that the one moment of unfettered dance impulse and elevated feeling in the work was a response to Germanic bombast that looked like the company marching into a firing squad. But this image didn’t engender more than an intellectual afterthought. Carefully thought out and rehearsed, “Hora” was cold and didn’t add up. Themes from Sibelius and Ives followed the Wagnerian segment; but had the various sections of “Hora” been taken apart, thrown into a dice cup, and then rolled back together in any of a dozen other sequences, it would have made no difference at all to how you perceived or appreciated this work. No organic connection between this music, these dancers and steps, and ultimately the audience had come into being.
Photographs by Stephanie Berger: (Top and Bottom) Batsheva Dance Company in Ohud Naharin’s “Hora”