What makes big-time music artists and their collaborators think they can directly plagiarize the work of concert dance choreographers?
And, no, this time we're not talking about Beyoncé.
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.
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.
The first piece that Ohad Naharin brought to New York City after taking over Batsheva Dance Company exploded onto the Brooklyn Academy of Music stage in 2002. The NYC dance audience knew immediately that something big was happening in Tel Aviv. The piece was Naharin's Virus, and it seemed to embody both rage and a Zen acceptance of the unique strangeness of every human body. Now it's back in NYC until July 22, danced by the second company, known as Batsheva — The Young Ensemble, which ranges in age from 20 to 28.
The choreography has the ferocity yet humanity we've come to expect from Batsheva, plus a text from Peter Handke's agitating play, Offending the Audience. The dancers speak Handke's accusations, saying one minute that we, the audience, have a private part of our minds that no one can touch, and then in the next breath that they are invading that part of our brains.
Los Angeles-based choreographer Danielle Agami is taking on a new role in New York City: performer. While her company Ate9 is on a "vacation," she is in residency at The Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University.
We sat down with Agami to discuss creating her first solo titled framed, which she will perform May 6 at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and why she is excited to get back to her company.
Just as a dancer shapes a phrase with tension and release, a documentary filmmaker often gives equal weight to obstacles and triumph. The maker of Mr. Gaga, Tomer Heymann, took nine years to convey the layers of Ohad Naharin's art—and the depth of confusion he stirs within us. In 2009's The Last Tightrope Dancer in Armenia, Inna Sahakyan made viewers care about an obscure subject by showing a poignant student/mentor relationship between two tightrope dancers. A good documentary can cover any genre of dance, but what does it take to make a film grab the hearts and minds of its audience?
A newcomer to Batsheva's main company, 23-year-old Amalia Smith is quickly learning how to keep her body safe and supple during Ohad Naharin's rigorous rehearsals and world tours. Fatigue has become both a hurdle and a teacher.
"Decadance is pretty much a marathon, and the new piece Venezuela is such crazy cardio I nearly had an asthma attack!" says Smith. Fortunately, the new discoveries she's made through Gaga have helped her handle its intense demands.
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Elvira Lind's documentary Bobbi Jene took the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival by surprise last spring, sweeping the awards for Best Documentary, Best Editing and Best Cinematography. For those of us who have watched Batsheva and Bobbi Jene Smith's career, the film's success is not unexpected. It is a validation of what we already know: Bobbi Jene is absolutely fascinating.
She is the dance equivalent of a method actor, like a Daniel Day Lewis who lives inside his characters for months or years. Seeing her choreographic process first-hand reveals there is no trying to portray emotion through dance, what we see is true emotion as a result of dance.
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.
For Dance Magazine's 90th anniversary issue, we wanted to celebrate the movers, shakers and changemakers who are having the biggest impact on our field right now. There were so many to choose from! But with the help of dozens of writers, artists and administrators working in dance, the Dance Magazine staff whittled the list down to those we felt are making the most difference right now.
Click through the links below to find out why they made our list.
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.
"Start with less." Those are the first words that Keren Lurie Pardes says as she guides her fellow dancers through a pre-rehearsal class in New York City. They have recently arrived to make their debut at The Joyce Theater as members of L-E-V, the small, intriguing company founded in 2013 by Israeli artists Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar. Eyal is a former star dancer and choreographer-in-residence at Israel's renowned Batsheva Dance Company, and Behar is a former party producer.
Keren Lurie Pardes with Mariko Kakizaki. Photo by Jim Lafferty.
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.
Rattle off the names of a few dancemakers whose brains you'd love to pick.
Did Ohad Naharin make your list? He made mine, too. I've always wondered what goes on between his ears. How Naharin makes work that shows off his dancers' technical and physical skills to the maximum, while balancing it with sincere and incredible emotional complexity, is beyond me.
Soon, one lucky young choreographer will find out. Naharin has been selected as the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative's choreographic mentor for 2016–17. In the spring, he will personally select a talent from a pool of chosen finalists. Then, he'll spend the rest of the year helping his emerging choreographer hone his or her craft. Last season, Alexei Ratmansky mentored San Francisco Ballet corps member and choreographer Myles Thatcher. The coming year's participant won't be named until June 2016.
Luminaries from six other fields will also mentor promising young artists: There's David Chipperfield (architecture), Mia Couto (literature), Alfonso Curaón (film), Joan Jonas (visual arts), Robert Lepage (theatre), and another big name you might recognize, composer Philip Glass.
It's been nearly a year since I first heard rumblings of a new documentary about modern dance genius Ohad Naharin. (Though it turns out the film had already been a whopping seven years in the making at the time.)
Batsheva on our February 2012 cover
And now, finally, Mr. Gaga is here! The Film explores Naharin's work through countless rehearsals, performances and interviews. The footage is beautiful—it's always a treat to watch his superhuman dancers. But what's more interesting is seeing Naharin give cues, and his ensemble take them on without any hesitation. His troupe is more than 100 percent committed to his vision (as we learned when we went into a rehearsal during Batsheva's recent U.S. tour), and because of that, he's able to pull anything out of them.
Currently, Mr. Gaga is only being screened overseas. We're crossing our fingers that it will be distributed in the U.S. soon, and of course, we will update you if we learn more. Until then, you can watch the trailer below.
Choose an improv method that will challenge your weaknesses.
Freedman (left) practices a phrase in the studio. Photo by Anna Maynard, Courtesy Helen Simoneau.
Often, the key to growing as a dancer is getting out of a mental or physical rut. One solution? Improvisation. Its unpredictable, uncomfortable challenges can help dancers find their voices while fostering playfulness and body awareness. But each style of improvisation—Gaga, Forsythe and contact are among today’s most popular choices—has its own strengths. Whether you’re looking to improve your partnering skills, inspire movement creation or become a more confident performer, choosing a method that targets your weaknesses can help you discover something new about yourself.
Uninhibited and often wild, the stylistic qualities of Ohad Naharin’s movement language Gaga are popular in choreography today. Naharin’s work is performed by his Batsheva Dance Company (see page 48) and repertory troupes like Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and has inspired flocks of successful choreographers like former Batsheva dancers Hofesh Shechter and Andrea Miller. “Gaga is certainly a window into a whole aesthetic, which seems to be pretty widespread at the moment,” says Ariel Freedman, a former Batsheva dancer who teaches Gaga classes internationally. “It’s very much about connecting to your untamed and unpredictable nature. And playing with the very fine line between being in and out of control.”
Dancers enjoy Gaga classes because they’re physically and mentally engaging from start to finish. But what’s most difficult, for first-timers and experienced dancers alike, is letting go of the presentational quality that traditional training develops and embracing the style’s raw nature. “Allow yourself to be very silly, perhaps absurd—the many versions of you that are less often asked for in a technique class,” says Freedman. Gaga can help dancersovercome shyness and insecurity, which leads to making bold choices and dancing with abandon—all helpful whether you’re choreographing, auditioning or taking the stage.
For Freedman, exploring her body’s range in Gaga helped her become a more versatile and flexible dancer. “In the time since I’ve been doing Gaga, people comment on how unrestricted, how unbound my body is physically.” She credits this as much to Gaga’s mental training as its physical methods. “My mind and body together experienced a kind of unbinding, a release.”
At its finest, contact improvisation is complex and daring, with partners working through lifts, falls and counterbalances together. Because the study incorporates principals of martial arts (aikido and tai chi), dancers become very aware of energy, effort and the space around them.
One of contact’s great learning curves is being able to trust another person with your body weight during moments of disorientation. “It can be quite scary for someone whose training has taught them to balance,” says Chris Aiken, a dance professor at Smith College who studied under improv great Nancy Stark Smith. Dancers must rely less on visual stimuli and more on physical sensation. “When you practice contact, as much as 80 percent of what you’re responding to is touch, and that has a way of reorganizing your perceptual systems,” he says.
Because of this shift, Aiken says it’s important to make peace with the fact that expertise takes time. Eventually, you’ll take away fine-tuned partnering skills with a much sharper sense of exactly how much force a movement requires. This can make for more dynamic dancing—with or without a partner—and a heightened perception of how to adapt to the bodies around you.
Jill Johnson and dancer Sokvannara (Sy) Sar work through a Forysthe modality. Photo by Rachel Papo for Dance Teacher.
Forsythe Improvisation Technologies
Although William Forsythe designed his movement language on ballet dancers, its principles can boost anyone’s creativity. “It’s beyond a stylistic approach—it’s an approach to the creative process,” says Harvard University dance director Jill Johnson, who danced for Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. “We’re cultivating the ability to respond to any given moment.” With more than 130 modalities, or prompts, such as “room writing,” which involves tracing an imagined room with a specific part of your body, the possibilities for invention are endless.
A challenging—and rewarding—element of Forsythe’s technique is allowing each body part to process movement possibilities on its own. For instance, drawing a shape with your knee is a completely different experience than drawing it with your nose. But through these isolated studies, dancers discover the full range of their bodies, and learn how to initiate movement from unexpected places. “The hope is that the dancers will be empowered with new forms of self-expression that they can utilize as an artist, building a library of resources,” says Johnson. “And it can be greatly individualized. Some may learn through imagery and others may find a structural sense that helps them soar.”
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.