Batsheva Didn’t Blow My Mind This Time

March 5, 2009

But their latest piece at BAM, called Max, was almost better than something spectacular or mind-blowing. Quiet, simple, no multi-media, no strange-and-funny video interludes. No hilarious or moving audience participation. But Max is an opportunity to see how Ohad Naharin has changed the dance landscape. He has pried the body open physically, emotionally, dramatically.

You can zero in on each person as an individual. You can see shifts in choreography, a gentle but precise drop to the knee here, a hip swung wildly to the side there. You gotta watch each move, because if you think you know what’s coming next, you’re bound to be wrong. And yet the choreography is not surprising just for the sake of surprise. It’s not at all arbitrary because each dancer is exploring every corner of her or his being. It’s a new kind of organic.

In Max a lot happens in silence. Some sections seem defocused, with each dancer off on her or his own. But then two fall into unison while others go their own way. The unison never looks forced, maybe because each dancers retains her individuality. At one point all 10 dancers rush to the side, stop dead in their tracks, and look at each other as though they are playing that teenage game Killer—the one where you have to wink and not be noticed. A sinister kind of humor, or a funny kind of solemnity.

There’s an animal, prowling look to the Batsheva dancers. I think that’s from so much movement in deep second-position plié. It’s also because of what I think of as Ohad’s paws. The arms end in curled hands that stay close to the body, and in this piece, close to the crotch. The hands will sometimes encircle a small, crotch-level space, as though creating a vase for flowers.

The best moments—the beginning with five couples, the trio for men, the two women who seem to deconstruct bebop—could go on for longer. But Naharin has no particular wish to satisfy the audience’s desire.

I admit I had to take a step back when he used the accumulation form: One, one two, one two three, etc. This is a structure made famous by Trisha Brown. It’s a fabulous compositional device because it forces the dancer to create separate moves and think about sequence, and it forces the viewer to learn the sequence and grow with it.

In this case, part of the fun was trying to figure out what language was being spoken. It began “Uno, Duo, Tera.” Was it Italian, Finnish? It turns out it was a made up language and uttered by Naharin. He used the accumulation form beautifully, and things got even better when they broke away from the strict form. When couples started doing the accumulation, it upped the choreographic ante.

I enjoyed the modesty of the piece—no set or big costumes—because it threw the focus back to the dancers. You see every human quality in them: happiness, sadness, celebration, embarrassment, chutzpah, sensuality. The green and red lighting (by Avi Yona Bueno aka Bambi) didn’t allow me to see their faces as much as I wanted. But there was also a kind of bird’s-eye view lighting, where it comes from above and lights the floor too so the dancers seem more connected to the floor than to each other. Very existential.

I’m enthralled by company member Iyar Elezra. She is a cross between the comedian Martha Raye, a truck driver, and a sexpot. In any other company she would be all wrong, but here she is something glorious. I hasten to add that every single dancer adds powerfully to the whole.

So why is this piece titled Max? The music is attributed to Maxim Waratt, which is known to be Ohad’s pseudonym. Whether speaking or singing, his voice comes across so low and husky that it reminds me of Tom Waits. When I think of how his voice trails off after the dancing has ended in some of the sections, I think maybe it’s his way of hanging onto himself as a performer.