Ohad Naharin doesn’t hesitate to discount the political innuendoes that audiences, both at home in Israel and particularly abroad, read into his choreography. The artistic director of Israel’s most important and renowned dance troupe, Batsheva Dance Company, Naharin takes pains to insist that his highly visceral and often richly imagistic movement vocabulary is about anything but politics. It’s about the body, the process, the individuality of the dancers, and their ability to give themselves over to pleasure. But it’s absolutely not about longstanding conflicts that his native Israel has been embroiled in for generations.
On Nov. 18-19, Batsheva returns to the Kennedy Center for the first time in a decade, performing Naharin’s 2011 Sadeh21 in the Opera House. The highly lauded company has an illustrious history. Its first patron – and namesake – Batsheva de Rothschild (yes, those Rothchilds) was a great lover of dance. She was a friend, confidante and supporter of one of America’s founding mothers of modern dance, Martha Graham. In fact, Graham served as artistic director in Batsheva’s early years, bringing a decidedly American point of view to the young Israeli troupe, including choreographic works by Graham, and other American dance luminaries including Jerome Robbins, Anna Sokolow and Jose Limon.
Naharin, 62, grew up on Kibbutz Mizra, where his mother was a dance teacher, but, a self-described physical child, he didn’t begin his own dance studies until completing his Israeli army service at 22. Within a year Graham, on a visit to Israel, saw him dance and invited him to New York to join her company. He did and also studied at Juilliard and at the School of American Ballet and opened his own company when he began choreographing. In 1990, he returned to Israel to become artistic director of the company where he began his career.
For Naharin, process is paramount. “When I start a process, I go into it with some clear ideas, but I use them all as a jumping board … .” the choreographer said last month while in Los Angeles as his company was embarking on a North American tour celebrating its 50th anniversary. “The idea is that I don’t want to know where I’m going, so once I start a process, when I arrive I get a sense of discovery. I call it going places I didn’t know exist [and] my dancers they also join me on this journey.”
Sadeh21, created for his company’s 18 dancers, is, like all Naharin’s works, a collaboration, drawing on his dancers’ individual physical qualities as honed through his inventive movement technique, which he wryly named gaga. He describes gaga as a “movement language” and when practiced effectively it allows dancers to access their physical movement capabilities in the purest sense, their individuality, even, he has said, their “groove.”
“I fall in love with my dancers but not with my choreography,” the choreographer admitted. “What excites me when I watch my work is the dancing of it, the interpretation of it. It’s how I recognize the growth of the artists, the dancers, that’s what excites me … and it’s also what can disappoint me, too.” The result is revelatory: the dancers are both highly expressive and kinesthetically raw as they attack Naharin’s choreography with an unbridled virtuosity. And, it’s also quirky, unexpected and fun; he has a sardonic and sophisticated sense of humor that often reveals itself in his creations and his surprising musical choices, everything from Pachabel to Brian Eno to Autechre & The Hafler to movie soundtracks (in this case Mulholland Drive).
“Sadeh” means field, as in field of study, he noted. And 21? “It’s very specific because it’s the number I like,” he said, as if it’s obvious. “It looks good to write in Hebrew and English to go with the word sadeh: I like the typography and weight of it and the way it sounds. Twenty-one doesn’t symbolize a number of something specific, but it was very specific that I chose it.”
That said, there are 21 scenes or sections in the work, which takes place in front of a wall that goes half way up the back of the stage. Each sadeh number, from one to 21, gets projected on the wall denoting a section. Dancers perform in front of and even on top of that wall. Some viewers have called the scenery a political statement, comparing it to Jerusalem’s Kotel, or Western Wall, while others believe it suggests Israel’s security wall, separating the West Bank from Israel. What does Naharin say? Not much. He prefers that viewers make up their own minds and give in to the movement itself.
He did say: “Yes, we’re an Israeli company. If you talk about the philosophy of the company, about what is really important, the geographic connotations are very much at the bottom of our priorities. We believe in a kind of ethics that are universal ethics, things that are the opposite of a lot of nationalistic feelings and emotions that you can recognize in a country like Israel.”
Naharin pointed out that half his company is neither Jewish nor Israeli. “I don’t let any nationalistic feelings, even if I have them, I never let them manage me, manage my choices, my decisions, my judgment. The way I relate to people, the way I appreciate humans and value them, has nothing to do with them being Jewish.”
He noted that the universe he crafted in Sadeh21, including the musical score (the attributed sound artist Maxim Warrat is Naharin’s alter ego), is about mixing content and form. “That’s what turns me on: how can I sublimate my feelings, my anxiety, my ideas, human values? How can I abolish the borders between the form and the content to become one thing?” Naharin is not, he emphasized, trying to tell a story with gestural movement, but: “I can convey content that can come out of structure and form.”
Batsheva Dance Company is onstage Nov. 18-19 at the Kennedy Center Opera House in the District. Tickets, $62-$20, are available by calling 202-467-4600 or visiting kennedy-center.org.