Batsheva Dance Company
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House
New York, NY
February 2, 2017
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman
By the time the machine gun fire of the soundtrack went off, in the last several minutes of Ohad Naharin’s “Last Work,” the audience was so keyed up with the intensity of dancing that many lightly levitated out of their seats. The piece, thankfully not really his last work, insisted that no moment included respite; behind the never-ending movement of the troupe of 16 from Batsheva, a woman in blue ran endlessly on a built-in treadmill; the relentless pounding of her feet was an underlying heartbeat. It said: we will not stop.
Bret Easterling and Zina Zinchenco in Batsheva Dance Company in "Last Work." Photo © Gadi Dagon.
Naharin, the creator and master of “Gaga,” a dance form he describes as a way “to use your flesh to grab your bones,” has spread his movement vocabulary around the world. Many contemporary choreographers have spent formative time in his tutelage (just as he spent formative time with Martha Graham in his 20’s, before returning to Israel to start Batsheva in 1990.) The dances he creates do have rules or guidelines, and in “Last Work,” one of the guideline words was “executioner.” The machine gun fire that startled the audience near the end was only one of the mortal dangers that seeped through the dance.
Characteristic of Naharin’s choreography, and especially of the remarkable athletic strength of the Batsheva dancers, the movement was a mix of animal power and precise lines, whether straight or entirely melted. The dancers, on the one hand, have perfect balletic extensions and angles. A moment after offering a clean vertical arabesque, though, a dancer is just as likely to ooze to the floor in double-jointed curves, the earth’s gravity pulling that flesh down, to grab those bones.
Naharin also moved his dancers in echoes of movement. One went forward and back, slithering then crawling on extended straight limbs like a film being run forward then backward; later, a frog man with sharp angled elbows and knees moved forward, then flipped in the middle of a step, just as angled and easy on his back.
After several solos, duets, trios, all the dancers were assembled on the stage, and in a magical combination came together to form a 16-headed beast, all of their hands stacked in a vertical line, some holding the thighs or calves of the center dancer, some whose hands folded over their or others’ faces. From many: one; and just as fluidly, they melted, moving back into separate but connected dance sequences.
In a central scene, the dancers, who had been dressed in black, stepped upstage, turned away from the audience, and formed a line as they stripped to white underwear, and most of the men put on black caftans reminiscent of the Greek Orthodox priests of old Jerusalem. The women (including one who pulled on a white tutu skirt) were in white. As the dancers sat watching each other from behind, duets and trios of performers slid into the center.
Where much of the movement had been individual before, in this scene, the clear parallel duets were a reminder that every moment was choreographed – as fluid and strong as they were, nothing was improvised. One short duet was disturbingly sexist, the woman in her white underclothes wearing a smiling leer, but entirely vulnerable under her looming, black hooded partner.
The score, by Grischa Lichtenberger, was electronic but rhythmic and musical, laced with haunting Eastern European folk songs. In concert with the music, movement that looked independent would, all of sudden, take on an almost invisible beat or accent. The music mirrored the dancers’ particular surprises; each muscle group seemed its own disconnected master, until an invisible shift pulled all together. The music did the same.
In the final scene, a trio of political images assembled upstage. A hooded man waved a large white flag (and, in a closing image, handed it to the runner – her bright blue and the flag’s white evoked the Israeli flag and colors.) A center dancer, with his back to the audience, whipped a long wooden instrument in a pounding circle that roared as it turned; and the machine gun burst erupted from his station.
Finally, a dancer began to create a spider web of wide sticky tape, enmeshing all of the dancers, one by one – a reminder of our connections as well as our traps. Finally he taped in the runner, as the dancers sat, crossed legged and enmeshed in long rows on stage. Their bodies shook and shuddered, their hands held in prayer stance, and then on top of their heads – metaphoric prisoners in a scary world. The crowd’s roar as the curtain fell was their own erupting energy, building for an hour. “Last Work” required release from participants on every side.
Top: Bret Easterling and Zina Zinchenco in Batsheva Dance Company in "Last Work." Photo © Gadi Dagon.
Bottom: Batsheva Dance Company in "Last Work." Photo © Gadi Dagon.
copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman