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Batsheva Dancers Fete the Imagination

February 19, 2009 By:
Cantor David F. Tilman, JE Feature
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One of the great cultural ambassadors of the State of Israel, the Batsheva Dance Company presented its first-ever Philadelphia performance at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts during the area's most recent winter storm. But the weather did not deter a full house of multigenerational modern-dance aficionados from enjoying this engrossing program.

Founded in 1964 by international choreographer Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva De Rothschild, the company -- led by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin since 1990 -- is comprised of 17 dancers, plus an additional group of apprentice dancers who spend two years studying Naharin's unique methods before moving up to the senior troupe or departing.

"Deca Dance" -- consisting of eight excerpts from Naharin's works presented in a different order at every stop on this six-week tour -- showed his new method of modern dance instruction called Gaga, rooted in unblocking the body, releasing untapped reserves of agility and fostering connection among the dancers.

His system creates incredibly clean and unified movements among the various members of his troupe.

The dancers moved together as if unified by one will and one breath. They never seemed tired, even though their actions were alternatively severe, lyric, robust, subtle -- emanating from nearly every body part.

In the first half, the dancers wore black-and-white outfits comprised of black pants, suit jacket, fedora hat and white shirt. The Israeli connection was established early on; near the beginning, the dancers energized to a rock version of "Hava Nagila."

A piece called "Anaphasa" had them sitting on chairs as they swayed to "Echad Mi Yodea/ Who Knows One," the traditional finale of the Passover seder. As the dancers sang "Echad Elokeinu She-ba-sha-mayim U-va-a-retz/One is our God in the heavens and the earth," the last dancer in the semi-circle abruptly fell to the floor multiple times at the end of each verse.

Some Audience Participation

The most entertaining and joyous piece on the entire program was "Zachacha."

After dancing to "Hooray for Hollywood" to a cha-cha beat, the dancers -- radiating somber and intense stares -- entered the audience and invited attendees to join them on stage.

At the post-recital press briefing, I learned that the dancers selected audience members who were wearing colorful attire, especially red, to contrast with their stark black-and-white costumes, and who looked to be "nondancers."

The company members skillfully joined with their new partners in various formations, eventually leaving the stage until only one couple remained, dancing in a highly romantic fashion.

At the conclusion, the company member left his much older partner, and she walked slowly back to her companion accompanied by tumultuous applause.

The dances on the second half of the program were drawn from an extended work titled "Three." These pieces included some brief moments of male and female frontal and rear nudity, which provided abrupt shock value. One piece had five female dancers moving to an ever longer cumulative narration of disconnected phrases, including X-rated slang.

A major characteristic of post-modern dance is encouraging the audience to find its own meaning, an approach taught by choreographer Merce Cunningham.

I inquired of Naomi Bloch Fortis, company executive director, if Naharin had any specific message in any of his dances: "There is no one message, no one story," she explained.

I offered a specifically Zionist take on a fragment of a recorded narration in which the narrator intoned, "Welcome to come!" Was this an invitation to visit Israel?

Fortis smiled, and said that if I thought so, that was fine.

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