ignore all possible concepts and possibilities —
ignore Beethoven, the spider, the damnation of Faust —
just make it, babe, make it:
a house a car a belly full of beans
pay your taxes
and if you can’t fuck
make money but don’t work too
hard — make somebody else pay to
make it — and
don’t smoke too much but drink enough to
stay off the streets
wipe your ass real good
use a lot of toilet paper
it’s bad manners to let people know you shit or
could smell like it
if you weren’t
This 1972 poem by Charles Bukowski is read gently and slightly adenoidally in a voiceover during George & Zalman, a 2006 quintet by Ohad Naharin that makes up one-eighth of the evening-length mixtape Deca Dance. It’s modified only in that the poem is revealed slowly through a series of restarts: The voice is first heard saying “Ignore.” Then, after some moments of silence, “Ignore all.” Then again with another word or line added, and so on. The quintet lasts about 15 minutes.
As Naharin pointed out in his PSD with Lucia Mauro, it’s the same compositional structure that forms the “Ehad Mi Yodea” from Anaphaza (1993), the evening’s second-oldest excerpt and the second section of most variations of the Deca Dance and Minus series. If any of his choreography can be considered a “signature,” it’s likely this, or perhaps the audience-participation section from Zachacha (1998).
What I saw so much more in this than other performances of Naharin’s works (all by other companies–this was my first time seeing Batsheva live), was this incredible adherence to structure and composition. Having danced some of his work (a few dozen Minus 16‘s with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago), I certainly knew firsthand the formal rigor of his methodology–in intriguing contrast to the faith and freedom evident in his movement research and language exploration adventures, his approach to organization is hyper-systematized; although the geometries are complex or, in the case especially of 2005’s Three (part of which was this Deca Dance‘s second act), intricate nearly to the extremes of William Forsythe’s late compositions, they remain visible throughout. He seems interested in exploring the outer limits of the viewer’s ability to process rapidly-shifting visual information, sure, but never shows a desire to triage the house by intellectual capacity (or caffeine intake).
Composition seems to be on his mind, too, as he returned to it in answers on multiple occasions. A little frustrated by most of the selected audience’s questions (maybe they should’ve taken a couple of raised hands from further back?) and their general focus on a need to extract meaning from the performance, he repeatedly stated that the work itself, or the entire body of possible meanings from which a viewer might find its content, “is there in the composition.” He’s confident about his skills as a choreographer and, as one who currently sets the bar when it comes to innovation in this regard, he should be.
I wept openly through much of Deca Dance‘s first act (there is so much coming in such short order; the experience of taking in the stage can be overwhelming. The sensory satisfaction of being in the Auditorium Theatre on top of a great performance there can put me over the edge, but then something was such a perfect match here, the dancers like each gilt lightbulb-surround in a room filled with delirious, happy detail). Naharin delights in managing a roller-coaster feel. He’s able to induce specific emotional responses in people; I remarked after the show that both his choreography and direction make the intangible tangible, and unexpected combinations of bold flavors can combine with shocking cleanliness and surprise. I’m aware food analogies in a dance review are rarely delicious, but Naharin truly is a chef de scène.
In moments with which I was more familiar–Anaphaza, Zachacha, some of Three that I’ve learned of through video, the duet from Mabul–I was able to focus on what specifically the dancers chosen and trained by Naharin himself can express that I haven’t seen before. The “Ehad” section, which I’ll remember for the rest of my life, is done by Batsheva not only with tremedous force but also incredible calm. The moment when one dancer hops from sitting to standing on his chair (“shisha, sidre mishna” or “six are the orders of the mishna”) was literally like magic, and the musicality of his reentrance into unison was impeccable. Naharin, pressed once again for meaning, related that on tour in Japan, audiences often thought the suited dancers in that section represented stockbrokers. They could be–they’re machines.
Only they’re also just so profoundly human. It’s an oft-used descriptor of work that frequently leaves people tongue-tied; it’s also an incredibly common response to his dances and dancers, and I think something that surprises newcomers to his work. Indeed, in one of the New York Times’ many reviews of Naharin’s work (unlike Chicagoans, New Yorkers are treated to a visit by Batsheva every other year or so) quoted at the Auditorium’s website (but for some reason highly elusive in its original form) it’s stated that “the Naharin style…is certainly infectious. His fluid, hyperathletic, gestural vocabulary is bigtent: Mr. Naharin doesn’t squelch his dancers’ creativity; rather their individual styles fold comfortably into his.” Well put, even if hard to factcheck.
This George & Zalman excerpt mentioned earlier, with the Bukowski poem being unwrapped on top of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, is a heart-wrenching composition whose images stay burned in the mind. My recollections of other sections may be more sensorially- or energetically-catalogued, but here he created shapes that–like the burdened deep lunge executed in unison upon every instance of the word “Faust”–are as iconic and lasting as marble. The five women are plucked from out of the group’s dutiful répétitions to perform solos whose variables showed a deep dedication to honest practice and craft, and an abiding love and respect for the contributions of Naharin’s forebears and influences. He loves dance–he loves dance so much it hurts; that it’s possible for him to convey this pain in movement is key to his significance.
The B/olero, made last year for two women to Ravel’s score interpreted on synthesizer in a 1979 recording by Isao Tomita, is perhaps the evening’s strongest example of how crucial questions of form have become to Naharin the choreographer. He delights in the subversion of using this version (which you can enjoy while reminiscing about 1980s figure skating here) and stated afterward that he enjoyed it more than the many orchestral interpretations he considered, adding the thought that, were he alive to hear it, “Ravel himself might feel the same way.” It’s a rewarding part of the evening, though, and the interplay between the banal simplicity of the repetitive motif (the two women frequently return to an en face tick-tocking of swinging arms and reverbby weight-shifts) and short bursts of awe-inspiring innovation builds with a steady back-and-forth rhythm that captures something about the 1928 ballet I’d thought was lost. He’s winking about it, sure, and has at least part of his tongue in his cheek, but he’s also really trying to do justice to the music. On the subject, his musical choices remain one of his greatest strengths, partially because they betray his most idosyncratic qualities. I remember hearing during the few gaga classes I took from him everything from vintage reggae to DJ Vadim’s “Your Revolution” featuring Sarah Jones. The music for the parts of Three that were on the program was especially satisfying, although besides the Beach Boys’ “You’re Welcome” was not clearly credited–Gia Kourlas didn’t know either, although from her review I did learn that most if not all of what I saw of Three last night was from the section “Secus” (meaning, in legal terms, “otherwise”).
This “Secus” bit of work is a thrill ride. Again constructed like a Mies or a Corbusier, it’s saturated with detail, formal and textural. The costumes–chic, simple ready-to-wear–do much to give it its warm geniality, efficiently framing some ambiguous touches (punching one’s self hard in the stomach, frenetic slapping and licking of body parts) in playful rather than violent tones. Naharin can close an evening like none other; indeed, the Minus and Decadance series’ popularity on mixed-bills as the über-closer has changed that game forever, and as the curtain closed on the full company (beautiful and generous creatures all) running and ducking in avant traffic patterns to the Beach Boys, it was abundantly clear that Batsheva dances last because, well, who can follow? When it comes to Ohad Naharin and his dances, I can only thank him for making it.