Choreographed Messages

Israel's leading contemporary dance troupe, Batsheva, promises to emotionally charge its audience

Seven years ago, Japanese dancer Yoshi Fumi Inao gave up a job dancing in Norway and moved to Israel for the express purpose of working with Ohad Naharin, an internationally acclaimed choreographer.

"I saw one of his pieces," Inao said by telephone last week from San Francisco, where Naharin's Batsheva Dance Company was performing. "I reacted--I thought the work was a very special sensation. It's rhythmical, sensual, physical."

Batsheva, the leading Israeli contemporary dance troupe, comes to Centennial Hall Wednesday for one night. Inao, now assistant artistic director of the company as well as a dancer, is not alone in his glowing assessment of Naharin's work.

New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff declared that "no one can be immune to the emotional charge of the choreography" of "Naharin's Virus," a 2001 piece that's on the program at Centennial. "This is not dancing that you will see anywhere else."

Lionized in Europe these days for his experimental choreography, Naharin--who won the Bessie Award for Choreography in 2003--is much in demand as a guest choreographer. Last April, Tucson audiences got to sample some of his work when Nederlands Dans Theater II danced his "Minus 16." This commissioned piece was a compilation dance with music ranging from traditional Israeli to "Over the Rainbow."

The show he's now touring throughout the United States is also a compilation of sorts. Called Deca Dance, it gathers nine Naharin pieces composed during the last decade or so.

"We specially formed it for the U.S. tour," said Inao. "It's a reconstruction of work we have done over the last 10 years in our repertory."

Danced to a wide variety of music that includes everything from "Israeli-traditional music to classical to something Naharin composes," the program is "very diverse," Inao said. The works, divided into group pieces, trios, duets and solos, are to be performed by the company's 18 dancers. Routinely described by reviewers as dynamic and athletic, the dancers include a dozen native Israelis. The others, like Inao, come from abroad to work with Naharin and hail from Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States.

Spliced together into a new evening-length work, Deca "allows us to look at what we do, laugh at ourselves and take the work to a different level," Naharin said in a published interview. It "allows the dancers to go beyond what was familiar before, and gives audiences a chance to look at our work from a new angle. Often, these sections come out better than they were before."

Now 52 years old, Naharin had a long career as a performer, both with Batsheva and with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Modern-dance pioneer Graham co-founded Batsheva in Israel back in 1964 with the exotically named Baroness Bethsabee (Batsheva) de Rothschild. Ten years later, Graham set her "Jacob's Dream" on the Israeli troupe and picked Naharin, a young Batsheva dancer, to dance the part of Esau.

After that, Naharin came to the United States to join Graham's company, and danced for her for a number of years. Along the way, he began creating new dance works, especially in Europe, and earned a reputation as an experimental choreographer who, as Inao puts it, "researches the movement of the body."

If Naharin breaks new ground in art, he doesn't follow a party line in politics. either. He's gotten into trouble from time to time in volatile Israel, to which he returned in 1990 to become artistic director of his old company. Batsheva had lost its way during the 1980s, and Naharin re-charged it with his athletic choreography and international team of dancers. But as a supporter of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation, Naharin periodically gets into dustups. His most publicized tempest was over the Israeli 50th-anniversary celebrations in 1998.

The conflict highlighted the divide between religious and secular Israelis. According to the New York Times, conservative religious groups were offended by a Naharin piece that the dancers were to perform in their skivvies. The Israeli president and prime minister begged him to put the dancers in long johns in the interest of harmony. Naharin agreed, to protect the company (which relies on government money), but resigned as artistic director. His dancers showed their solidarity by refusing to dance.

Bruised by the brouhaha, Naharin lamented that it was one more example of hate in a country already driven by Palestinian-Israeli hostilities. He nevertheless yielded to remonstrations to come back to Batsheva. The troupe is based in Tel Aviv, and despite Israel's continuing travails, enjoys "quite a large audience," said dancer Inao. "It's not much of a problem to bring audiences in, especially the youth."

Some of Naharin's works directly address the nation's conflicts. One of the Deca dances, "Naharin's Virus," has the dancers scribbling graffiti about Palestine on a wall, their movements choreographed to the music of Arab composer Habib Allah Jamal. But Naharin is hardly programmatic. Another of the pieces, the joyous "Anaphaza" from 1993, takes a completely different tack.

It's "as much a musical as a choreographic potpourri," wrote the New York Times' Jack Anderson, with "something in it to amaze everyone."

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