The Next Lady Gaga: Batsheva's New Director Puts Her Foot in the Door

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The Batsheva Ensemble performing George & Zalman by Ohad Naharin.
The Batsheva Ensemble performing George & Zalman by Ohad Naharin.Credit: Ascaf

Some years ago, when Gili Navot was a young dancer in the Batsheva Dance Company, she had a small accident. Navot was living at the time in an apartment with many roommates on a busy street in Tel Aviv. In the mornings she worked in an ice cream shop, and in the afternoon she would jump on her bike and ride to rehearsals with the company. Navot was performing a duet from “Anaphase” when she landed badly after a leap – so badly that she broke her foot. She bravely managed to hobble offstage before collapsing. “The crowd applauded and no one noticed that the duet didn’t end at the right time.”  

That injury occurred over a decade ago. But Navot’s connection with the Batsheva Dance Company– which has been distant at times during that period – recently grew tighter than ever. This weekend, the company will complete its 2019 performance season with two festive performances of “Last Work” on the big stage at the Opera House.

Gili Navot. 'I think that Ohad had come to a point where he wished to change the make-up of his activity.'Credit: Meged Gozani

This was a particularly packed season, with a long period of performances abroad, and is ending symbolically with a 2015 work by company choreographer Ohad Naharin, who until recently was also the company’s artistic director.

Two years ago, Naharin announced his resignation as artistic director and chose Navot to succeed him. She took over the position in September of last year. Thus the company’s performances this weekend also mark the culmination of Navot’s first season as artistic director of Israel’s most celebrated artistic group, whose fame is due in large part to Naharin.

“For the past 30 years, Ohad was artistic director and choreographer, and this is the first time there was a separation between the two,” says Navot. “For me, it means being responsible for selecting dancers from the ensemble, planning the yearly performance schedule – which works to perform, how many performances, how many existing works and new works, and so on.”

Naharin remains in the picture as the house choreographer and is very involved.

How does the division of labor between you work?

“Over the course of the season we were able to go through a process in which he learned to let go and I learned to take. There was something harmonious about it and it is still happening and taking shape, but somehow it is clear. Anything unrelated to the work in the studio, to the needs of the new and existing works, falls under artistic direction. I am glad that Ohad is there; his knowledge and experience are essential to every layer of the work, including the production and technical side. Because the works are his, his presence is significant. It’s important to me to share with him my thoughts about the dancers; it’s important to me that he enjoys working with them. It’s nice for me to be able to have his help and it’s good for all of us to discuss things together.”

Batsheva Dance Company's new artistic director Gili Navot Credit: Meged Gozani

Gaga over the company

Navot, 38, was born in New York when her parents were living at the time for work and studies. They returned to Israel when she was two years old and settled in Haifa. At five, she began studying gymnastics, and later gave that up for dance: She studied in the dance track of Haifa’s Re’ut Art School through high school, and was then given outstanding dancer status and exempted from military service.

In 1999, she was accepted into the Batsheva ensemble and began dancing with the company. Her deep connection with Naharin began to take shape right away. This was when he was just starting to establish his Gaga language of movement, and Navot was among the first generation of dancers with which he experimented. “I fell in love with this process. I felt like I had insights not just related to dance but to growing up in general. I felt a deep emotional connection to the works.”

The Batsheva ensemble performing "Black Milk."Credit: Ascaf Arts

Navot danced in the ensemble for two years and then for seven more years with the company. She also taught Gaga and ran rehearsals, until at a certain point in 2008, “I just felt like I couldn’t picture myself in the next season.” About a year after she left, she gave birth to her first child. Over the years when she had her three children, she continued to teach Gaga and the company repertoire in Israel and abroad. She and her husband developed a growing friendship with Naharin and his wife, the dancer Eri Nakamura, and once in a while Navot would pop in on company rehearsals, to instruct and to choreograph.

There were meetings with Naharin and company executive director Dina Aldor before Navot was offered the artistic director position, “but from the dancers’ perspective, the appointment made sense. After all the years in the company, there was a natural evolution here. I’m not the kind of person who has an agenda. I’m not sure I had ambitions of becoming artistic director, but the opportunity came up and I believed that I was capable. It’s the kind of thing that you have to experience in order to really know.”

Nonetheless, her appointment did trigger a few shock waves. For many years, Adi Salant had shared the artistic director role with Naharin. When Navot’s appointment was announced, Salant announced her resignation. Navot is not eager to comment on this. “It’s not my place to speak about it.”

Ohad is an artist who has had tremendous international success, who has an ego and an agenda. You have to be able to fit into the space that he leaves. Sharon Eyal, who was a co-artistic director and choreographer for several years, found it too crowded at some point.

Choreographer Ohad Naharin, the longtime artistic director of the company who stepped down in September. Credit: Daniel Bar-On

“I think that Ohad had come to a point where he wished to change the make-up of his activity. He wanted to pass on the artistic direction to someone else.”

Could he have chosen someone who wouldn’t demand her rightful place?

Navot nods calmly, as if she’s heard this theory countless times. “That not realistic with Ohad. I’ve known him since I was 18. It was clear to both of us that we are able to communicate on many subjects, including sensitive ones. It’s not that he tells me what to do and I execute his vision. I have support to go the way I wish to go.”

As the conversation continues, Navot shows herself to be more forceful than the soft and delicate first impression she gives. She strides quickly into the restaurant near the Suzanne Dellal Center where we’re meeting, slender and erect as expected. Her straight long hair is loosely tied, and she’s wearing a big T-shirt and wide cotton pants. She talks about rehearsals for upcoming shows and plans for the coming year, which include the renewal of some works from Naharin’s repertoire and the commissioning of guest choreographers to create new works for the company.

For a guest choreographer, this would count as quite an honor. This year, the ensemble mounted a production of “The Look,” a new and gorgeous work by Sharon Eyal, which Naharin commissioned before he resigned as artistic director. It was performed as part of a special evening along with two of his older works. In 2018, the company performed “Canine Jaunatre 3,” a work commissioned by Naharin from Portuguese choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas. Generally, though, Batsheva does not often dedicate its dancers’ time to works by guest choreographers.

What happened with Freitas deserves some consideration too. A young artist whose avant-garde work has catapulted her to the top of the modern dance world, she was invited to Israel and created an extraordinary work that had its premiere at the Israel Festival. The reviews here were decidedly mixed. Some found the work – which could be described as sensory overload and organized chaos, with a willingness to disgust the audience – to be truly awful. Others felt it was a thrilling and extreme artistic experience of the best kind.

From 'The Look', choreographed by Sharon Eyal, performed by Batsheva Dance Company.Credit:

The work’s resonance was limited. It was performed in Israel less than 20 times. Then, after performances at the Montpelier and Amsterdam dance festivals, a number of important European theaters and festivals invited to company to perform the work, but these invitations were turned down. “Batsheva said they were too busy to plan ahead,” says Freitas. “I would have expected to see greater desire on their part. It’s absurd. It’s as if the work doesn’t exist. There’s a big gap between what they say about the work and what they’re willing to do for it. I didn’t create the work just to create something for Batsheva. The aim is the encounter with the audience. Otherwise what’s the point?”

It seems very odd that the company did not find time to perform the work of such a highly successful foreign choreographer.

“We all loved the work,” says Navot, “and are still feeling the effect it had on the dancers. For some it was a life-changing thing. I would like to see more of this kind of thing going forward, because the encounter with her was so meaningful. It’s something to think about, too, whether she was done wrong here or whether she was given an opportunity she hadn’t been given before, to work with a company of this magnitude, with the Batsheva dancers, with all the conditions provided by Batsheva. It happened this way because of schedules and previous commitments that were already finalized. For me, there’s something to learn from this for the long term – about how we finance works by guest choreographers and ensure that the works live on.”

Conditional support?

It likely won’t be all smooth sailing from here either. With the construction of the company’s new permanent building near the old central bus station in Tel Aviv in the coming years, the company’s activity will expand significantly. A dance school will be added, as well as a home auditorium. Upon assuming the position, Navot said she would be embarking on a long learning period and that the word “vision” was too big for her. But she will have to come up with a vision before too long.

“I can tell you what I feel now,” she says. “It’s important to me that Ohad continues to create works and that his works remain an inseparable part of what Batsheva does. It’s also important to have encounters with other choreographers, because this contributes to the company and to the dancers. I am hopeful that my artistic freedom will continue, that the dancers’ wellbeing will continue to improve. Mostly, I aspire to see fertile work in the studio, because that creativity is the heart of what we do.”

A few weeks ago, Naharin said in a radio interview that he supports the BDS agenda. Culture Minister Miri Regev and others immediately called for his Israel Prize to be revoked. You are a company that is supported by the Culture Ministry and your budget was cut not so long ago. Is there a threatening atmosphere?”

“I want to believe that we’re not in a situation of conditional support, and that the people in Batsheva have freedom to feel and believe what they want,” says Navot. “If we don’t have support, we’ll have a serious problem. The support we get was cut when they re-divided the budget pie and it created a funding gap that we had to fill in other ways. It’s not at all easy to raise money. We hope it will be possible to keep creating and performing our art.”

From 'Canine Jaunatre 3', choreographed by Marlene Monteiro Freitas and performed by Batsheva Dance CompanyCredit: Courtesy of Batsheva Dance Company

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