Dancers talk about being part of Ohad’s alchemy.
It’s mid-afternoon in Tel Aviv, and the members of Batsheva Dance Company are gathered for rehearsal in the second-floor Studio Varda, the largest of the troupe’s three studios. Mirrors are nowhere to be seen, but inviting views beckon from windows on either side of the room: look one way to glimpse leafy citrus trees dotting the courtyard of the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, Israel’s premier venue for dance; turn the other direction and the Mediterranean Sea is visible beyond a smattering of tiled roofs.
Ignoring the tantalizing vistas outside, several dancers sprawled on oversized pillows fix their gaze on the action unfolding inside the studio. Eleven of the company’s 18 dancers are fine-tuning a section of Ohad Naharin’s Hora (2009), which will be performed during Batsheva’s North American tour (see schedule box on page 28). A member of the original cast helps a newer dancer with a rapid-fire series of diabolical floor work. As they banter with one another—and as they burst into short, quirky solo phrases from Hora—each dancer emerges as a compelling persona. Yet in brief moments of unison, the troupe projects an arrestingly united front. This group wields a magnetic synergy, striking both on- and offstage.
Under the artistic direction of Naharin since 1990, Batsheva Dance Company has exploded on the international scene (see “Naharin’s Influence”). Supported by daily sessions in Gaga, Naharin’s movement language, this band of fiercely expressive dancers has thrown themselves into the work. Their electrifying physicality makes dancers in the audience yearn to get up and move. The main company has attracted talents from Sweden, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and the United States as well as from Israel. Most of them have passed through the junior company, Batsheva Ensemble.
What are the challenges these dancers face? How do they contribute to the creative process? What does it feel like to rely on Gaga for daily class? Dance Magazine spoke to three dancers who have committed life and limb to this work.
Regardless of their background, dancers new to Batsheva undergo a transition from their earlier training. An alumnus of Juilliard and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance, Shamel Pitts arrived in Israel after a stint in BJM Danse Montréal and was accustomed to starting his workday with ballet class. While he now prefers Gaga's dynamic laboratory, he calls the change in training “a huge adjustment for me.”
Like Pitts, Doug Letheren graduated from Juilliard and performed with Hell’s Kitchen Dance as well as with Aszure Barton & Artists. Steeped in ballet and modern dance, he viewed Gaga as a revelation. “It felt like coming home to the way you want to work as opposed to fitting into some other thing,” recalls Letheren.
Longtime Batsheva dancer Rachael Osborne joined the ensemble in 2001 after studying ballet intensively in her native Australia. “I got in on the ground level before Ohad developed all these phrases he uses, which are basically keys to describe a whole sensation or a string of things,” she says. “Now it’s almost immediate: He says a word and you know exactly what he’s talking about, whether it happens to be ‘thick,’ ‘soft,’ ‘quake,’ ‘moons,’ or ‘horizontal forces.’ ”
Naharin frequently sets work on other companies abroad, assembling collages of his work like Deca Dance and Minus 16. Last autumn at Fall for Dance, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago wowed the audience with his Three to Max. But Naharin has long vowed to choreograph new dances only at Batsheva, likening this choice to a commitment made between life partners. Batsheva, he says, is his home for artistic experimentation.
Naharin often invites his dancers to improvise during the creative process; Osborne observes that, as Gaga has developed, the dialogue between the choreographer and his company has become more intuitive. Now, for the dancers, she says, “his world is more clear, and then inside that world you can let your imagination go wild.”
Osborne adds that Naharin usually sets rules “but always gives us the freedom to break those rules.” Even when he devises most of the movement himself, he leaves ample room for the dancers to make decisions. During the creation of Hora, made for two casts of 11, the choreographer retreated to the studio with each pair of dancers and concocted material specifically for that role. Then the dancers played together with their phrases, and Naharin tinkered further, ultimately setting the choreography. The resulting work is brimming with unexpected, sometimes whimsical juxtapositions—like one dancer’s matter-of-fact port de bras towards another’s chicken-like head pecks—and moments of unison delivered with an almost tongue-in-cheek humor.
Letheren notes that in all of Batsheva’s rehearsals, the dancers are less focused on replicating a precise image and instead “work more from the sensation of it, or the drive of it, or the energy of the movement.” The dancers are encouraged to go further with what they are doing, to fully commit to each moment with unapologetic authenticity. “The best thing you can do is be the most yourself and be fearless in doing that,” says Letheren.
Pitts connects the spirited style of feedback in the studio to the nature of interactions in the surrounding Israeli culture. “I find here that it’s much more direct,” he says. “Sometimes as an American, that could be misunderstood for harshness. But for me, in terms of a working environment, I accept it and I learn from it.” While the feedback Naharin offers each person shifts as that dancer evolves, Pitts notices, “He chooses his words well. Somehow this choice of words hits you hard, deeply, to the core.”
In MAX (2007), also on tour, the cast’s 10 dancers contend with an unusual costume element: earbuds. Although these devices transmit a variety of cues, ranging from basic counts to resonant vocals, they also muffle everything from the sounds of the dancers’ breathing and footfalls to the rustling of the stage curtain as it opens. “Having these headphones on changes your orientation,” explains Letheren. Pitts adds, “You have to be very alert and sensitive, with the qualities of a night creature ready for whatever is going to happen.”
Hora poses its own set of challenges. “Hora still feels a little bit raw for me,” says Osborne. “There are a lot more moments I can be surprised by what happens.” With Isao Tomita’s synthesized renderings of well-known melodies like Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and John Williams’ theme for Star Wars, the score of Hora sounds alien yet oddly familiar. The audience’s task is to leave behind these references and dive into a fresh experience. And one of the dancers’ tasks is to foster this freshness. Onstage for an entire hour, the performers must be wholly present—whether they are sitting motionless, moving minimally, or devouring the space with gusto. “The personal performance seems very influential to how the piece comes across,” Letheren says. “If we’re not really alive, the work doesn’t feel like it’s going forward.”
Far more often than not, Letheren and his fellow Batsheva dancers do appear fully alive onstage. They possess an animalistic alertness. They approach Naharin’s multilayered movement with astonishing dexterity and an insatiable thirst for exploration. These dancers live according to a frequent directive in Gaga: “Connect to your passion to move.”
And, as the Batsheva Dance Company revels in the pleasures of moving, its audience revels in the pleasures of being moved.
Deborah Friedes Galili is the founder of danceinisrael.com and the author of Contemporary Dance in Israel.
From top: Rachael Osborne, Guy Shomroni, and Iyar Elezra; Elezra and Osbourne; Hora (2009); MAX (2007). All photos by Gadi Dagon.
Where to see them
Feb. 23–25, San Francisco Performances, MAX • March 1–3, Place des Arts, Montreal, Hora • March 7–10, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Hora • March 15, Choregus Productions, Tulsa, OK, MAX • March 17–18, Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, MAX and Bolero • March 20, Texas Performing Arts, Austin, MAX • March 22, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, AZ, MAX
What Ohad Looks For in a Dancer
“I always spend time to see if they can connect to the pleasure of dance—what it feels like, not what it looks like. If they can respond when I say things like, ‘Let your bones float inside your flesh’ or ‘Connect your form to the distance between our body parts.’ If they can use these suggestions to go beyond their familiar limits, then I’m happy. I like dancers who have the leftover baby in their bodies—being without self-consciousness, letting movement echo their feelings. This is just one color in the palette. It’s about being untamed and available.”
Naharin with daughter, Noga. Photo courtesy Naharin.