As I Watch the Dancer Running on Stage, I Discover: It's Me

Batsheva's 'Last Work' fires memory into motion. As well as artistic director Ohad Naharin understands composition, movement and body, he also understands theater.

Ohad Naharin smiled. To himself, almost. With his ever erect, majestic posture, absorbing the emotion of the whole audience – its amazement, its boredom, its astonishment, its anger. Naharin smiled, almost to himself. Silence descended on the hall. Shock. The dancer who was running in the rear of the stage on a treadmill in running shoes stopped. “Last Work.” A piece in which the dancer's body is very soft and almost disassembled. Atonal music intertwined with beats and quotes from the great Russian composers.

To my left are distant acquaintances. We exchange glances. Bored, angry, busy with themselves, they want a circus, a spectacle like “The Hole,” Naharin’s previous work for Batsheva — the dance company of which he’s been artistic director for the past 25 years – when dancers descended from the ceiling.

Naharin knows what the next segment will bring; they don’t. But for me, the movement on view here exists precisely in this modest photograph by David Bachar. It’s a shot that depicts what actually went on, not indulging in proximity to the dancer’s body. It’s hard to photograph dance, easy to photograph muscles. What I see is the soft movement by the dancer, who launched himself in a rotating action until he became a perpetuum mobile, like a crank that, when turned, fires my memories into motion.

To my left, the man with graying temples and the amiable woman who’s his working partner in the office – stunned. The dance is demanding. They’re not really an item, and in fact you could say that the facade of friendship between us also fell away some time ago. I try to curry favor with them, understanding as I do that it’s over, and watch the movements of this dancer and of the woman who’s running upstage. It’s me. Manifestly. Identification. Running on a treadmill. Obsession. That’s the right word.

I think about how the heart of this whole Naharinian mechanism beats. Pulses. Works. Happens. Genuinely. Within the mechanism is a school, an ensemble, a company, a dance method, global performances, resilience, power, effectiveness. Force of creation. Alive. Ohad Naharin leans back on the stage, holds the microphone to his chest, looking like the guys from kibbutz before they’re drafted, whose shoulder blades have been stretched laterally, far beyond the straps of their tank tops, narrow-waisted. Sounds of gurgled breathing through the microphone. Suddenly he looks, once more, precisely now, like a very young dancer, and he smiles a certain smile. He knows that the audience wanted dancers who would fall from the ceiling. And knows, too, that in the second half, things will intensify – that there will be a noisemaker, that the body of the dancer from the first act will fire in the third, that there will be props, big ones, and sticky tape. He knows that. Only the audience doesn’t know.

The dancer who’s been running all the time is his Milgram experiment, and in the end everyone will accept the uneasiness of seeing her running all the time. It will seem justified to them. Forsake judgment. It is justified. Totally liberated segments, new movement, but the whole show, “Last Work,” is like an almanac, a retrospective of what’s gone before, a quotation and extension.

Despite the difference — I recall a dancer — Angelica Bongiovonni, from Le Cirque Eloize — whom I saw dancing inside a giant hoop. A dance that was a fusion of the obsolete objectification of women trapeze artists with highbrow dance.

Naharin, on the edge of the stage, returns here to a frontal show, to the supposed standard, rather than seating the audience around an arena. And he knows the audience is asking itself: Did she train? Is she a dancer? Is she in pain? What does it signify? Is it stressful? And afterward in the second part, there’s a self-quote from previous shows, like the singing dancer, or the dancer who entwines others in a ribbon, and more – we won’t say, so as not to spoil surprises – because what Naharin understands in composition, in movement, in body, he also understands in aggregates of theater and performance, props. Stage. With him the body fires in the third act.

My heart pounded, I was bored, I tensed up, I identified, I laughed, I was astonished, I was envious. And I very much missed the person in whose company I saw the previous show, and I thought of the treadmill I’m running on, and excel in running on it, and on it alone, and about the last time I went to see a dance performance with him, and it was so marvelous – “The Hole.” He said something right about that work, which took place around an elevated stage, on which the dancers hurtled themselves in kamikaze leaps, and they cascaded down from the ceiling and there were firecrackers. And how after the closeness came a breaking apart and nothing could help anymore. No getting up in the morning and wrinkled clothes and closeness and messy hair and coffee and empty words and mutual actions and instructions involving dressing the children.

The lights come on. Applause. Outside the hall, Naharin looks on, eyes glowing. The staff hovers around him; corrections are needed. The acquaintances went out to eat and didn’t pretend I was invited. And I thought that without that previous work, “The Hole,” which had the impact of a circus-like sensual stimulant, this new composition, “Last Work,” which is deep and beautiful, would not have come into being. That night, I dream that the dancer ran and ran and ran, and I have a long, thin scratch under my eye.