New moves from the old world

Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company blends ballet and modern styles.

by Katrina Wilber

Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company presents a remix of pieces from eight or nine dances this Saturday at Northrop Auditorium. The only problem must have been deciding which parts of which dances to showcase, since the choreographer’s been wowing audiences all over the world for a long time.

Based in Tel Aviv, the company was created by Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, one of Martha Graham’s patrons, back in 1964. Graham took a trip to Israel in the late 1960s and invited Ohad Naharin, a dancer in de Rothschild’s company, to dance with her New York company. He accepted the offer and moved to the United States. He took classes at the School of American Ballet and started a dance company, but he went back to Israel in 1990 to be the artistic director at the Batsheva Dance Company.

Now a full-time choreographer, Naharin likes to push the comfortable limits and boundaries or just ignore them altogether. His productions are almost cult events with youthful audiences, but the company’s following goes beyond just young people.

His dances don’t stay in Israel, either; the Nederlands Dans Theater, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago are among the international companies that perform his pieces.

“Deca Dance” covers 16 years of choreography in less than two hours. The company picks and chooses their selections for each performance from a certain number of dances that are always subject to change.

Among those on the Northrop schedule are “Anaphaza,” “Zachacha” and “Naharin’s Virus.” “Anaphaza” contains many short vignettes, and the first is the longest. It’s a fierce, percussion-based dance with just enough of a sweet tinge to keep it from becoming too torturous to watch. It’s hard to distinguish the genders of the dancers, thanks to the costumes, but that should be the least of the audience’s worries.

It’s usually easy to categorize a dance company, whether it’s a ballet or a modern company, for example, but that is not so with the Batsheva Dance Company. Naharin combines his ballet background with the training he received in Israel, and the result is internationally appealing. Some aspects of his works seem ballet-based but others definitely are not, so ballet buffs can go see a new twist on the old stuff, and those who appreciate more contemporary dance can still be satisfied.

“Naharin’s Virus” contains text from a 1966 play called “Offending the Audience” that provides aural sentiments to go along with the flowing choreography. The costumes compromise the bottom halves of the dancers to heighten the effects of the upper bodies.

Batsheva Dance Company is known for audience participation at its performances, whether it’s a question-and-answer session or a dance between the performers and the audience members.

Just as an artist needs the correct brush, the exact colors and the right canvas, a choreographer requires the perfect mix of lighting, costumes and sound to convey his message. Naharin has collaborated with the same lighting and costume designers since 1990, and the combination takes the dances to a whole new level.

Choreography is only one aspect of the picture, so the costumes have to move the message along. The music, sound and lights have to work together to create the work the choreographer is after. It’s tricky to get the combination just right.

It sometimes seems difficult to agree on the themes of Naharin’s pieces, but that doesn’t matter. One of the most thrilling aspects of watching a dance performance is being able to leave the auditorium with an idea that’s different than that of the person in the row behind you and the row in front of you. Naharin’s works promise to achieve that objective. Understanding, but not entirely comprehending, leaves much to the viewer’s imagination.