Without Even Trying, Choreographer Ohad Naharin Can Move You

If one forsakes the desire to decipher each segment, 'Sadeh21' is a stirring and extremely challenging work.

Tal Levin
Tal Levin
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'Sadeh21' in 2013.
'Sadeh21' in 2013.Credit: Gadi Dagon
Tal Levin
Tal Levin

In 2011, 19 years after presenting “Anaphase,” perhaps his most successful and popular work, Ohad Naharin returned with the Batsheva Dance Company to open the Israel Festival with “Sadeh21.” It’s an abstract work, possibly the most abstract this choreographer, who is also the company’s artistic director, has ever presented, and one in which the dancers are listed as co-creators. The title of the piece is also enigmatic. In an interview with Haaretz that year, Naharin insisted that “Sadeh21” – sadeh means “field” in Hebrew, with connotations similar to those in English – does not refer to the group of people who created the work (he and the 20 dancers), or to the 21 seconds of the solo that concludes the work, nor even to the 21st century. The work, he explained, is divided choreographically into 21 parts, and that is all one can know about it. The transition from one “field” to the next is marked in a caption screened on a kind of white wall at the rear of the stage.

To some degree, Naharin’s refusal to confirm in any way the meaning of the work’s title is also its great theme. It is a work that resists any single interpretation, a narrative that will describe its development from start to finish. Although one can extract insights from the work, it is far from being “about something.” The partnership with the dancers divided the piece into fragments that are very different from one another. There are some highly personal solo segments, alongside fast and slow duets, segments in small groups, and ensemble sections packed with dancers and dense with movement. Because of the superb technical ability of the Batsheva dancers, they are interesting also in terms of their groove and personality, and the feeling of tension and curiosity is maintained even in the particularly slow and abstract segments, of which there are quite a few.

As in other works by Naharin, the sound track is by Maxim Waratt, the choreographer’s alter ego. He compiled, edited and sampled works by a variety of composers into a sound track that shifts from sounds of urban bustle and horror movies to melancholy music bordering on kitsch. At the conclusion, the distant voice of a woman 
screaming ceaselessly is heard. The dancers perform solos against the background of those screams, as though wishing to say something about the sound we tend to ignore in the course of our personal everyday behavior. Before that, when a group of male dancers executes steps borrowed from the military world, music rife with pathos and self-importance plays in the background. Indeed, these choices and the conflicting interaction between movement and music can make it difficult for the audience to be swept up into the work.

“Sadeh21” seems to have been created more for dancers than for the audience. Not for a moment is there an act aimed at pleasing the viewer who is observing the performance. It is also worth noting that to grasp “Sadeh21” and in some way enjoy it, one must see it several times. The work’s slowest and most abstract segments thereby become another phase or dimension within the complete composition.

If one forsakes the desire to decipher each segment, “Sadeh21” is a moving and extremely challenging work. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a work that contains many funny moments. The ridicule that informs the row of militant males recurs throughout the work. The most notable segment is that in which one of the dancers stands on the stage and emits barking noises. He’s not imitating a dog, of course – it’s an act that makes fun of the sheer effort to explain the work in words. It’s as though the dancer is saying, “You want me to interpret everything clearly, but lucid language is not interesting.”

If I were obliged to extract a message from ‘Sadeh21,” I would say that the work composed by Naharin and his dancers deals with the relations between law and order and their shattering. It can refer to counting steps or just a way of living in a group. The shattering does not necessarily dismantle the law, but shows how it always contains violence. In this way, perhaps, “Sadeh 21,” like “Anaphase,” is a political work that says something about the tension between law and violence in our lives.

Ohad Naharin.Credit: Daniel Bar On

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