Last Wednesday, country artist Kelsea Ballerini performed her song "Miss Me More" at the Country Music Awards. The choreography by Nick Florez and R.J. Durell—which Taste of Country said "stole the show" and Billboard lauded as "elaborate"—features a group of dancers in white shirts and black pants performing with chairs onstage, often arranged in a semicircle. They move in quick canons, throw their heads back, and fling themselves in and out of their chairs.
Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin's Three. Photo by Gadi Dagon, Courtesy Batsheva
On the Mediterranean coast in Tel Aviv, a wave of change is headed toward shore. For nearly 30 years, Israel's magnetic Batsheva Dance Company has been led by the influential choreographer Ohad Naharin, who has provided the troupe with a vast repertory of evocative works as well as a bold physical identity thanks to Gaga, his distinctive movement language. This month, Naharin, 66, will transition from artistic director to house choreographer, handing the management reins to Gili Navot, a former dancer with the company.
Ohad Naharin in rehearsal with members of Batsheva Dance Company. Photo by Gavi Dagon, Courtesy Daniels Murphy Communications.
It's difficult to imagine a Batsheva Dance Company without Ohad Naharin at the helm. The provocative choreographer has been the Israeli troupe's artistic director since 1990, during which time the company, its lead choreographer and his movement language, Gaga, have become more or less synonymous. But changes are afoot.
Go to almost any contemporary dance performance in the U.S. and you'll see the influence of Ohad Naharin.
Since taking the helm of Batsheva Dance Company in 1990, Naharin has transformed the group into a global force in dance. His contagious movement practice, Gaga, has spread far and wide, changing the way many choreographers think about creating work—and how dancers relate to their own bodies.
Bobbi Jene Smith in Naharin's Sadeh21. Photo by Joe Toreno.
Sometimes, the simplest parts of choreography make the biggest impressions. For weeks after seeing Batsheva perform Ohad Naharin's Last Work, I couldn't stop thinking about the woman running for the entire 65-minute piece (probably 6-7 miles) on a narrow treadmill upstage. I had so many questions for The Runner! Fortunately, dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, who shared the role with other male and female dancers, offered some answers.
Were you chosen for the role because you're an avid runner, or did you train for this part?
I actually volunteered to do it. I'm not a runner at all but I wanted to experience the part. I had to train for several months beforehand.
What kind of shoes do you wear?
Everyone wears their own shoes. I wear Nikes. Once, I ran barefoot. I really wanted to, I think it feels more natural. Everyone tried to convince me not to do it, but I had to experience it for myself…I couldn't walk right for days!
What's it like running in a long dress?
The dress is the most comfortable part to me. It feels very free and more a part of the piece, it wouldn't feel right to wear typical running clothes.
A trailer from Last Work, with another company member as The Runner.
What is more tiring—running or dancing Ohad's work?
They are very different; they channel different colors or rhythms for me. While running, things come up like pain or a cramp, but you have to keep the rhythm going; how you deal with that is part of the experience. You also can't see very well (it's pretty dark), the treadmill isn't very wide and if you lose track you could fall off or trip!
Do you feel like you are missing out by not dancing in the piece?
I learned a lot about the piece from being that runner, things are passing by, this endless trying, the different moods that Ohad creates. People always say how much they connect to the runner, and I also feel so close to the audience, like when the curtain goes up I feel the connection that we are going to do this together. The runner always gets the warmest response during the bows.
What are you thinking about during that hour onstage?
I connect a lot to the endlessness—committing to the fact that I'm going to run forever, what it takes to keep that rhythm going, letting go to continue, my breathing, how I place my weight. It all becomes meditative. Sometimes I feel like I'm running towards something, then running away. Then a magic point comes where I can't tell which direction I'm running. It's actually pretty lonely, but in a good way—she needs to continue no matter what happens.
Last Work, photo by Gadi Dagon, Courtesy Daniels Murphy Communications
Is the flag that the dancers make you carry at the end heavy?
No, although it starts to feel heavy because you are tired! It's a beautiful moment where everything comes together. She just keeps going, what she has done the entire time.
Naharin working with Batsheva dancers. Photo by Gadi Dagon, Courtesy Batsheva.
In Ohad Naharin's provocative Sadeh21, 18 elastic-bodied members of the Batsheva Dance Company explore movement in 21 studies, set to a moody soundtrack. Its striking imagery—narrative gestures such as beating the chest and blowing a kiss—has been interpreted alternately as political and personal, with the work coming to a surprising and dramatic conclusion. U.S. audiences can catch Sadeh21 when the company tours to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, this month.
What guided the creation of Sadeh21?
There are things in common with all of my creations. It has something to do with discovering the work, letting it evolve and enjoying the big gap between what I imagined and what really happens. It's important to create a safety net for the dancers so they are free physically and emotionally. We set some rules so that we could break away from old habits and find new ones.
What are those habits and how did you conquer them?
A habit can be a movement or a thinking pattern. It is easy to let go of old habits and old ideas when you find new and better solutions. We try to create a working atmosphere in which we are not negating “what is" or “what was." The studio can become a laboratory for discovery.
How does your process evolve as the work is being performed?
It is ongoing—a constant discovery of possibilities, weaknesses and solutions. Sections can be easily erased or changed. It could happen on tour. Sometimes it happens when we remount. But the biggest evolution is in the dancers' interpretation of the work.
What do you look for in dancers?
I think my dancers share curiosity. I find them intelligent, creative and very groovy. They're able to sublimate their feelings into form, be explosive and delicate at the same time. There is something compelling about their ability to yield and let go.
What advice do you have for dancers who dream of working with you?
You have to listen to the body before you tell it what to do, and recognize weaknesses and habits. A lot of dancers allow the way they move to be managed by their ambitions. You have to be aware of joy and pleasure, and be turned on by new things you have learned.
How are you and your dancers holding up as conflicts in Gaza escalate?
My concern is for the company's foreign dancers, who are confused, and for the thousands of innocent victims, most of them on the Palestinian side. There is no leadership on either side to find dialogue or compassion. I see so many tragedies—I fear that more than I fear for my shows or tickets. It is very minor what we have to go through versus what victims are going through.