Batsheva's Latest: Dancing 'Elephants,' Rap and Gregorian Chants Color New Work by 'Mr. Gaga'

'Venezuela,' by veteran Batsheva choreographer Ohad Naharin, is intriguing and features superb dancers, but is less fully realized than his other efforts

A scene from "Venezuela," Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's new work for the Batsheva Dance Company, May 2017.
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Ohad Naharin is always trying to challenge himself in new ways. In his new work for the Batsheva Dance Company, “Venezuela,” the veteran choreographer does this in two ways: First, by exposing familiar movement sequences to different kinds of music. This is a known technique that offers a way to create a variety of dialogues between movement and music, to expand the language and reveal new images. However, the experimentation here is not taking place in the studio, in connection with a specific sequence of movement; instead, it forms the basis of the work itself.

To this end, Naharin repeats the same piece twice. It is constructed as a collage of scenes, the second time with a different musical collage. The effect is reminiscent of the children’s game of “Find the differences.” It prompts questions such as: What has changed for you, the viewer, as a result of seeing the new combinations? What do you remember from the first version and what have you forgotten, now that you’ve seen the second one? Also: What seemed unimportant before but now has made a big impression?

The ensemble of the dancers changes, too, and moments that had really struck me for their fantastic quality of movement by this or that dancer, were subsequently overshadowed in the second part as new nuances were revealed.

The other approach worthy of note in "Venezuela" is the use of movement materials associated with South American ballroom dancing, especially the Argentinean tango, which offers a new kind of dance language executed at great velocity, as when one speeds up a movie. It’s interesting to see how the Batsheva dancers, faithful to the Gaga style pioneered by Naharin and its attributes, perform a dance that is essentially characterized by external movement cloaked in emotional passion, but in virtuosic style, comprised solely of movement and devoid of emotion.

Gentle waves and mourners

The dance opens with a bloc of dancers with their backs to the audience, moving slowly toward the rear of the stage while swaying right and left, like a ship rocked by gentle waves in calm waters. Gregorian chants accompany them and seem to suggest a mourning procession. But, defying expectations, what’s left behind is not a pair of mourners but two figures assuming the position of ballroom dancers – one long arm far outstretched, fingers poised, hands curving, chest raised, hips thrust out – a pose that says “Look at me.” And then, with the religious music as a backdrop, a South American-style ball ensues, juxtaposing two unrelated but thought-provoking dimensions.

Then the scene shifts suddenly as performers rush onto the stage, the energy picks up, the leaps cover more ground, and more and more dancers join in as the space grows more crowded. Then there's another sudden shift as a dancer enters with a microphone, proceeding slowly, taking his time, observing the crowd – and then another dancer joins him and the two of them burst into a string of curses, to a rap song by Notorious B.I.G. The words are hard to make out but the fierce energy and cry from the heart is palpable.

The troupe gathers around them, freezes the movement, and reacts to and reinforces the soloists’ words. The whole thing is spectacularly composed, both vocally and choreographically. This is followed by a scene featuring rectangular sheets of white fabric that the dancers shake and beat on the floor, also wrapping up one dancer as if in a death shroud. Here, too, Naharin leaves things open to interpretation.

A scene from "Venezuela," Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's new work for the Batsheva Dance Company, May 2017.
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Another interesting scene that differs from all the rest involves male dancers slowly advancing on all fours, laboriously extending their seemingly heavy arms and legs, as female dancers sit atop them. The women’s legs open out to the sides, their feet working like fins or paddles. These “elephants” create lines of composition in the space, coming occasionally to an abrupt stop, like a kind of ornamentation, and then continuing, as if moving within an infinite space, in another world.

Virtuosic solos

The first part concludes with bursts of short, virtuosic solos that are beautifully performed, especially in terms of the quality of the movement – as in the case of one female dancer who at first moves stiff-limbed like a doll, and then suddenly appears to be devoured from within. The solos stand out compared to what precedes them. In this first bit, the work of dancer Zina (Natalia) Zinchenko particularly catches the eye. The scene ends with electronic music that keeps getting stronger and stronger, until it seems that it will obliterate everything and leave a blank slate upon which to start again.

The second part is mostly danced to upbeat music that lends a more optimistic interpretation to what we just saw before. For example, this time the “elephants” dance is performed to music by a Bollywood singer that makes their procession, which seemed somewhat spiritual the first time around, feel more earthly and charming. The dance with pieces of fabric morphs into a dance of variations on the colors black, white, red and green – the colors of the Palestinian flag – that are again beaten on the floor and used to cover the dead. Who is the corpse here? Why is there no Israeli flag? And how does a piece of fabric come to bear political implications because of its colors? It’s all open to interpretation.

This is an experimental work emblematic of Naharin’s curiosity and ongoing search for new challenges. One senses that something here has not truly been deciphered, and that the work is not as fully realized as his earlier efforts. "Venezuela" is intriguing and the dancers are superb, but it doesn’t leave the same kind of emotional mark on us that we’ve come to expect.