Dancers' playground a realm of invention

By Bernadette Rae

Israeli dance company's work is renowned for its ingenuity and freshness

Explosive expression is the signature style of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company.
Explosive expression is the signature style of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company.

Remarkable energy, both explosive and subtle, mesmerising flexibility of spines and limbs, and the innovative choreography of its artistic director, Ohad Naharin, has long marked Israel's Batsheva Dance Company as a world leader in contemporary dance.

The company will perform its constantly evolving Deca Dance in next Friday's opening week of the New Zealand Festival, in Wellington.

Naharin describes Deca Dance in exotically accented baritone rumbles down a phone line from Tel Aviv, as "to do with dance knowledge of current repertory" and "as a playground, with rules" in which his 18 dancers will create new meaning from segments of previous works.

"About two weeks before we leave I will do a little bit of meditation," he says, "and I will decide what I want to say. There is nothing the dancers need to learn. It is all already in the brain."

There might be some newly minted segments, he adds, but mostly it will be existing pieces presented in a different order, or he might choose for men to dance previously female roles or vice versa.

The creative process is then highly collaborative and Naharin claims if he is moved or excited by anything in his own work, it is "the uniqueness of the dancer, his passion to move, his generosity, his sensuality and his awareness".

"Dance is fragile, vulnerable, immediate and disappears so easily. It is not something we take off a shelf and dust off to present again. Dance doesn't exist until it comes out of the dancers' bodies and brains. So it is always fresh, new, different."

The facility of Batsheva's dancers to produce spellbinding performance has everything to do with the company's unique training. Founded in 1964 with the financial backing of Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, with Martha Graham at its artistic helm, the company continued to have a strong American flavour through to the 80s. Naharin started his dance career in the company in 1974, though he soon departed for America to make a name as a dancer and, later, as a choreographer of work that already bore his signature qualities of intense physicality and rich emotional texture.

He returned to Batsheva Dance Company as artistic director in 1990, quickly dropping others' work from the repertory, and slowly evolving his training system, the world-renowned "Gaga".

Gaga's most obvious departure from tradition is the banning of mirrors in the studio. Neither do dancers perform specific movement combinations. Instead, the class is led by verbal instructions that elicit attention to a particular body part, an action, a quality.

New Zealand dancer and choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull attended a 10-day Gaga course in Tel Aviv in 2011.

"Everything was described very specifically," she says. "I remember one teacher asking us to take a position 'as if looking down on Japan after the tsunami'."

Foster-Sproull went to Tel Aviv after being impressed by the athleticism and power of Batsheva's women. "They are so strong and so able to express themselves."

She now uses the improvisation-based technique with her own dancers.

"Gaga is about working with flow, energy and balance," says Naharin, "and connecting with your body, and taking care of the body. It is about explosive power and the ability to exaggerate speed, about the link of effort and pleasure - but it is also about small gestures, sensations, tuning into animal instincts and going beyond the familiar but with awareness: of the moment, of being part of something else, of being part of the universe."

New Zealand Festival

What: Deca Dance, with the Batsheva Dance Company from Israel
Where and when: St James Theatre, Wellington, February 21-24

- NZ Herald

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