The Birth of a New Batsheva Performance

Unique work processes, a metaphysical connection with the dancers, questioning masculinity — a dress rehearsal with legendary Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin

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Members of the company at their frantic dance, during rehearsal.
Members of the company at their frantic dance, during rehearsal.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

Ohad Naharin is sitting in the middle of the eighth row in the dark hall at the Susanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater with a look of serious concentration on his face. Now he has to divide his attention: On his right is a microphone on a metal stand that he uses to give directions to the dancers on the stage, and on his left ear is a headset with a small microphone that he uses to communicate with the technical crew sitting three rows behind him.

While his crew is adjusting the sound and lighting, bent over the screens and consoles in the pitch-black hall – they sneak a look at the soccer game streaming, on mute, on a small computer screen. It’s now the afternoon; the rehearsal started a long time ago and no one knows when it will end. But the open dress rehearsal – with an audience and all – will be held the next evening, and the official premiere is within the week, so Naharin and the company have many hours of work ahead of them.

For now, four dancers are standing in a line on the stage, their torsos exposed. They are roaring together; at every “Ha!” they shout simultaneously, they point in a different direction. At the same time, seven dancers spin behind them in perfect ellipses. An orangey light washes over them, lengthening their shadows. Naharin mutters into the headset and asks to make the lighting warmer, to cool it down, to increase it by 10 percent, to lower it even more.

The cast of the Batsheva Dance Company's "MOMO," with Ohad Naharin at the center.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Between sentences, he instructs the seven dancers. “Find your groove, people.” He speaks into the microphone, prodding them in English. Somehow, they understand the meaning of his vague comment, and something in their internal rhythm relaxes. As for Naharin, although his voice demonstrates restraint, moderation and measure when he speaks to the technical crew and the dancers, his leg is bouncing so much that the chairs around him are trembling with it. Even after more than three decades as the dance company’s choreographer, after dozens of works and incredible success, he shows neither fatigue nor apathy at this occasion.

“MOMO,” Batsheva’s new work, for which Naharin shares the credit along with choreographer Ariel Cohen and the Batsheva dancers, is another link in his long chain of work – but also a tool and means for reexamining the elusive alchemy of creating choreography at this supreme level. Three years have passed since “2019,” Naharin’s previous work for the company, and a lot has happened in the meantime. The coronavirus pandemic; halting performances; postponing programs; loosening the practice, performance and creative routines; the composition of the dance company itself.

Ohad Naharin, at rehearsals.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

And then there is Naharin, who turned 70 this year. He decided to share the production credit for this work with Cohen, who was his assistant in a number of his recent creations. And maybe 30 years have passed since “Anaphase," his foundational work for Batsheva that defined a new era in Israeli and international dance.

Many points have turned “MOMO” into a major moment, and when you peek into the process that birthed the work, accompany the dancers through intensive rehearsals, repeating the scene time after time with the same amount of devotion and effort, this process is one of the splendor of cooperation.

A delicate but clear balance is at the foundation of this journey undertaken by the dancers and Naharin, and in their joint aspirations for beauty, tension, precision and pushing boundaries. It manifests in the laborious and devoted dynamic of the dancers – and in the perfect execution, even during the fifth hour of a technical rehearsal for adjusting the lighting. It is also expressed in Naharin's precise knowledge of what the dancers will do during their breaks, and of each one's preferred menu – who buys food, who cooks at home and who drinks a Coke instead of eating. Mutual dependence and strong ties between them. They are his and he is theirs.

Spilling their guts in the studio

The male quartet opens "MOMO" in unified and coordinated motion. For the 70 minutes of the performance, they will almost always move pensively, almost always together, completely separate from the seven dancers, men and women, who surround them on the stage. The quartet and septet are differentiated in their costuming as well. The four men are shirtless and clad in cargo pants, hypermasculine.

The seven, who very rarely move in coordination, are dressed in tight-fitting shorts, tank tops and corsets, in a small classic tutu skirt for one dancer and a pink bodysuit with emphasized shoulders, made out of soft velvet, for another. This is not just an external element: "MOMO" is a melding of two works on a single stage – the hypnotic silence of the quartet and the septet's excess franticness that occurs in parallel, everywhere, at all times.

The quartet of male dancers, in "MOMO."Credit: Ascaf Arts

The seven, by the way, switch between themselves in two casts that appear alternately every evening. Every dancer has a complement in the other cast, and even though they are performing the same work, the dancers have created their own movements; watching one of the casts is not the same as watching the other. Three weeks before the premiere, during a dress rehearsal open to the press, Naharin responded to a question about the glut of activity onstage. His advice was to treat this multiplicity as part of the scenery. “I can shift my eyes to every detail in it, and find at every point something else interesting to look at.”

Such moments are abundant; the eye is unable to catch everything, and is not satiated by the flood of images, either. A bald dancer in a tutu and corset (Ohad Mazor, whose counterpart in the other cast is Gianni Notarnicola), moves back, bends over on the tiptoes of his arched feet; his bent fingers are spread out in front of him, like Nosferatu in ballet costume. The four dancers march on their hands and knees one after the other, and sing with masculine strength in a line, one to the behind of the next, as if it was a tribute to the horror film “The Human Centipede” – what scares traditional masculinity more than homoeroticism?

Behind them, a tall dancer in a pink ballet outfit moves in ecstasy (Sean Howe, whose counterpart in the other cast is Billy Barry, who has been dancing in the company for over a decade). He looks like a competitor in the talent portion of an American beauty pageant – like a gorgeous androgyne and queen of the night and a drag queen and club kid in a vogueing competition – a dance style born in 1960s New York gay clubs, inspired by fashion show catwalks – a masculine-feminine-alien image.

“I think that more than trying to tell you what to think, I’m trying to enable,” Naharin explains to me. “We are different from each other… At a point when you will cry, someone else will laugh. I want to allow you to cry and then laugh afterward. I'm less pretending to know, or even wanting to plan, what you will feel, and more committed to creating a place that will allow you to feel there. What to feel is on you. I never tell dancers what to feel, but as an emotional junkie and a fan of thrills, it is important to me to create this possibility. Gentleness, acquiescence, giving, surrender, can be the key to it. Crying and the moment after weeping, the moment in which something is unraveled – can enable this.”

Ohad Mazor, among the dancers in "MOMO."Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

But before this there are rules, right?

“When I create, I don’t try to place a mirror in front of the world, but to create a world. The rules are the world of creativity. I provide limits and regularity; a playground is made and the dancers learn the rules of this specific game. One of the most important things in every process is a clear connection to the mood. Maybe because this is a complex work and rich in movement, it was important to me for there to be something bright in the mood.

"But there are more rules. I set them early in the process so that the dancers will learn to play with them as early as possible. These are not metaphors, but operating instructions, do this and don't do that. If you do violate them, there should be a reason for breaking the rules. The [four] men move together a lot, the seven almost never do, and it breaks – with a reason.”

“The process,” as they like to call it at Batsheva – that is, the working process of a new show – is something that usually happens once every two years and takes a few months. In the case of "MOMO," it began in discussions between Naharin and Cohen on the mood, inspiration, music and ideas. After that, for two or three months, with intensive work with the dancers in the studio. Yael Ben Ezer, who has danced with the company for over a decade, says that the work process has never before given so much freedom to the dancers to create their movements for themselves. This also manifested in monetary compensation for them as choreographers, in addition to their salaries as dancers.

The way in which the idea makes its way from the source of inspiration to a performance on the stage is interesting in its own right. When he created “2019,” Naharin talked about the intention of integrating a group of protestors into the work. It was a gesture with roots in the BDS protests against the dance company, which accompanied – then as now – its international performances.

Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Naharin's political identity is well-known, and he has said in the past that while he supports the agenda of the movement boycotting Israel, he believes it is neither helpful nor effective in ending the occupation. Still, he was curious about the possibility of including it. There was no demonstration in the end; it didn’t work, and was removed from the show at some point. But something of its spirit – rage, criticism and frustration – did make it in.

The pace of "MOMO" is completely different. The inspiration for its movement are rooted in a tribute to twerking, for example, as well as in classical ballet and movements identified with Naharin’s own style. The treatment of all of these together removes them from their recognized contexts and charges them with the opposite meaning. The classical becomes ingratiating and entreating. The contemporary movement, originally characterized by a murderous tempo, comes slow and calculated. The mood is contemplative and heavy.

It seems that the issues "MOMO" investigates are masculinity and its mythical performances – and the thing that undermines it: individualism. But dance is different, and being such an abstract art, you do not have to search for a story or narrative. The score for "MOMO," most of which is made up of the 2018 album “Landfall” by Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, avoids ecstatic peaks and generally seems to have no drama or climax in it – elements that Naharin usually likes to create.

"MOMO" is a very Naharin-esque work, but also a completely different one. It’s enticing to ask him about this, but Naharin hates interviews. Since 2015, when the film about him, “Mister Gaga,” came out, he has preferred to maintain his silence. “Mister Gaga,” directed by Tomer Heymann after years of filming, was a very successful documentary, in Israel and around the world. To a great extent, it also assured Naharin’s supreme status. He was interviewed about the film, and a long feature on him and Heymann was published in Haaretz’s arts section.

This writer was the author of that piece, and it is time for proper disclosure: That interview with Naharin developed over the seven years that have passed since then into friendship. It did not lead him to agree to an interview now, but it did lead him to offer to accompany the dancers and him during their work, because “when I’m in rehearsals, I spill my guts and brain in the studio. You don’t need my proclamations to understand.”

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