1. Baroness Bethsabee/Bathsheba/Batsheva de Roschild, and Martha Graham, jointly established Batsheva Dance Company in 1964. Graham trained, Bethsabee funded.
2. Ohad Naharin, Batsheva's choreographer since 1990, created Gaga, his own technique, not because of a back injury, but thanks to it. It has been variously described as awareness through movement, reaching emotion through your physicality, and the other way around.
3. The dancers are very good.
4. First is a philanthropist, second the century's most important choreographer (according to the Time magazine), third a therapy of movement, fourth a tripartite omnibus (beauty, nature, existence), and fifth a military drill.
Waltz with Bashir, another Israeli piece of art that reached our island recently, despite a world of difference has the same underground rivers running. By digging and poking, it opens up to examination an occasionally malfunctioning yet stable collective mind, laying naked the strange and complex ways in which we adapt to and absorb cumulative shocks of war. As I have mentioned elsewhere, tragedy rarely manifests itself in everyday life with overt gesture. Shock, violence, terror, chaos instead wash over the mind and the body, forcing them, more often than not, into a pragmatic reconstitution. Over and over again, Batsheva made me contemplate the effect of nation-wide military service on a culture; of constant preparation for a war.
Meeting Israeli boys and girls of my age always left a strange, but strong, impression on me. How beautiful they were, with their big eyes, with their freckles and their bony, elastic physique! The most beautiful, her name, Anat, of just the right type of angular grace, looked like your typical mongrel goddess, all blonde curls and sunburnt freckles, until rumours spread that she had been trained as a tank operator; a military specialist. They were like sunny winters, distant people, unwilling to smile too widely, unwilling to be impressed, unwilling to say too much. They always seemed wrapped around a central backbone of internal discipline, teeth clenched even when they were having fun, which they were often and with deep investment. Nothing was ever light with these kids, nothing was taken seriously, but there was a considered principle hidden in this cynicism. And yet there was a certain spring of step that marked them, unmistakably, as boys and girls, not men and women.
Batsheva dance like nearly abstract bodies in a war zone.
It is not too far from modern ballet, unless, as Ditta Rudle said in Die Presse, we promote it into contemporary dance on the basis of having brains. With such clean precision, long lines of movement, the bedrock of this dance is clearly modern American. But the atemporal and placeless modern American looks somehow juvenile, untainted with life experience, with joys and sorrows, compared to the hard, solid and world-weary Batsheva. While the choreography is often somewhat inconclusive, the sheer quality of the movement is something new to me, and to this country.
It is a male choreography: male dancers are better across the board. The line of inquiry is not intellectual as much as abstractly emotional. Every limb is thrown straight from the stomach.
Batsheva's is a body trying to break into figuration, shed its abstract skin: abstracted by modernism, by dance, by war and by discipline. Each member of the Batsheva ensemble has the straight back and the poise, the inner centeredness of a tango dancer (tango being an honourable acceptance of neverending pain). There is a strong internal conflict in the movement of the warm human body inside and the mechanical shell of choreography that wraps it, stretches it, makes it leap, curl, bend. But the conflict is truly internal. There appears to be no rebellion of the body against the shell, just a wilful acceptance of the drill, less disciplined than simply sober, pessimistic. More than yielding, the body absorbs the hard lines of movement – and there is no particular distinction between men and women in either of the two pieces; duets are conversations of emotional equivalents – turns violent blows into learning. And when it manages to break out of abstraction, it secretes no gesture, nothing but direct, masculine emotion, raw, unstructured and frightening the way male emotion always is.
To call these two shows humanist may be an unreasonable stretch: apart from a military type of camaraderie, there was nothing that suggested any values, just a brown, earthy understanding of what humans are capable of. Enlightened strain. I would call it medieval Catholic for the sheer pathos of accepting suffering, minus the melodrama, were it not so Israeli. I would call it expansive if the word didn't contain a faint fragrance of thinness, which is not the case here. Three and Max are both dense dances, concentrated in the middle the way expansive, sharp movement rarely is.
Three is uneven in a very consistent way. The first of the short segments, Bellus, performed on Glen Gould's 'Goldberg' Variations by Bach, is conceptually the soundest, dancing around the idea of beauty by producing a harmonious dialectic between Pretty and Strong. The second, Hommus, 'nature', is compositionally the most successful: women only, in 13 short sequences of homogeneous movement, get to every corner of the stage in counter-clockwise motion. Their synchronised bodies are pulled and pushed by an internal clash, absorbing the shock, but the earthiness is never lost to mechanical violence. Female dancers, by and large, are not as impressive as the males, which risks making this section dull, but instead gives it room to breathe, and a delicately covert softness that makes this giving in of the body extremely moving. The final piece, Seccus, on experience, is the least coherent theatre. While the dance vocabulary is the most impressive, it often feels like a vapid showcase of abilities, a slap in the face meant to impress before the finale. There appear glimpses of slowly accumulating didacticism: in a camp, tango-sprinkled male duet that had none of the nude, raw beauty I've come to associate with male duets; Christ-like gesture of pointing fingers at skinny dancer ribs; and a triumphal proof that men can make vaginas too. It never resorts to academic or cute, no, but does create a sort of eisteddfod that didn't sit very well with the Australian audience. (American critics, as a note on cultural disagreement, loved Seccus much more than the spare, simple Hommus).
MAX, in comparison, is Spartan. A single block of camouflage-coloured movement, it runs around a bit less, always a little bit surer of what it's doing. It is even less dressed than Three: a lot of it to no musical accompaniment, most only to spoken word in an unintelligible language, a combination of Arabic murmur and Latinate resonance (composed and spoken by Ohad Naharin himself, credited under the name Maxim Waratt). The theme, this time foregrounded, is the subtle, insidious terror of the collective over the human body, but there is more than simplistic individualism in Nasarin's treatment: the brotherly collective of Batsheva (and not, by any means, sisterly; with an unsentimental precision of a war-harassed organism) finds strength as much as strain in collective discipline. At one point, progressive numbering forces differently grouped dancers into series of progressive moves, building little stories through dictation. At another, a soundscape of industrial noises is transcribed into individual dancers as instruments: yet instead of registering violation, bodies appear to embrace the heavy-hitting beat as a source of power.
I have seen the same sober discipline, the same bleak yet intent acceptance of deep movement, without a hint of frill, in Dalija Acin's dance (another dancer in a war-torn place). It is grounded dance. Not sad, not angry. Dance coming from one's centre of gravity. Rather un-Australian. From modern to contemporary, everything that Australian dance has picked up (frills, objects, tweeness, cocooness, warm humour, surfaces, stories) is absent in Batsheva's heavy, hard-edged movement.There is nothing like this in Australia, and there won't be for a while. We are not a war zone after all. We don't dance with death, when we dance.
Melbourne International Arts Festival.
Batsheva Dance Company: Three. Choreography Ohad Neharin. Costume design Rakefet Levy. Lighting design Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi). Sound design Ohad Fishof. Music JS Bach, Brian Eno, and others. The Arts Centre, State Theatre, Oct 10-11.
MAX. Choreography Ohad Neharin. Music Maxim Waratt. Costume design Rakefet Levy. Lighting design Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi). Music Production & Mix Ohad Fishof. Sound design Moshe Shasho. The Arts Centre, State Theatre, Oct 12-13.