Words by Helen Calcutt / http://helencalcutt.org
About a month before I was scheduled to review Batsheva Ensemble, Israeli writer, novelist, and journalist Amos Oz made a very fine statement.
He said: “I believe a person who imagines the other is a better person than one who doesn’t imagine the other… my own sensitivity to the plight of the ‘other’, my own empathy to ‘other people’, originate from my own inclination since a very young age to ask myself, what if I were ‘him’ what if I were ‘her.’’’
I chose to carry this same warmth, this same openness and generosity of spirit to the theatre; both excited and nervous to experience a style of dance that has been described as ‘fearless’, ‘revolutionary’ and even ‘blind’, following the adventurous curatorial vision of Batsheva Artistic Director, Ohad Naharin, and his controversial movement language, Gaga.
If there’s anything art can be, it’s open. It works on a level that exists above the weighty, cumbersome subjective plane of war and politics. Despite the stigma attached to Batsheva Ensemble’s first UK tour, I was determined to judge the dancers, and their performance, by the grace and skill through which they presented their craft.
Despite the absurd foray of protesters outside, and the handful that made their way into the auditorium, my suspicions on the profundity of great art were confirmed. Not only did the dancing transcend the bigoted ramblings of a few disgruntled audience members, it utilised them; somehow drawing energy from the violent intensity of the protest to further the purity and honesty of the performance.
Let me confirm; Batsheva do not disappoint. They overwhelm. Deca Dance presents a series of incredibly dynamic pieces; testing the strength and ability of every dancer to such an extent, that in the limitation of freedom you have the expression of something far more exquisite – fatigue.
There’s a brutally cyclical nature to the choreography (stemming perhaps from the principles of Luna, Naharin’s method to establish a continuous pulse throughout the body that perpetuates fluidity) and a great deal of repetition. This is, for me, a very particular style of dance that signifies a dynamic shift in the world of movement. Evolved organically, perhaps from the radically angular choreography of Nijinsky (as most contemporary phrases are), we have the agreeably repetitive and circulatory ‘moons’ of Naharin.
With Batsheva Ensemble’s Deca Dance, as well as a lot of humour, colour, and some audience participation, you’re faced with a continuing sense of sadness and loss; defined and locked perfectly in some of the smaller, less frantic sections of movement. With almost every pattern or sequence, Naharin is pushing this notion of continual growth – the idea that movement is singular, and that anyone involved in initiating and/or feeling this movement, is with complete singular fluidity.
The final piece explored this idea in full, mildly echoing the hora in its circular framework, but as one would expect, breaking from tradition and throwing fully into the realms of the cannon, with repeated phrase after repeated phrase. Every movement was exhaustive and revealing, leaving both the performers and the audience in what I can only describe as a state of comatic joy.
At the brief Q&A after the performance, one member of the audience asked where the dancers got their inspiration. There were some fumbled attempts at a response; lots of hand gestures, generally in towards the gut area, and out again, but no one could find the words. And that’s because there aren’t any. Dance is a very powerful medium – to watch yes, but to practice, even more so.
In my own work, I have often experimented with blending lingual and physical phrases, and this is incredibly difficult. In poetry you have words, the mind, the voice, the solar plexus and so on. In the other you have – something I can hardly describe. But watching Batsheva Ensemble’s performance I understood every line of movement, every finish, every evolving pattern or sequence.
Dance of this kind, working at this level of skill and intensity, is a language in its own right. Due to the perfection it liberates, Gaga is probably one of the few creative forms that can tell the human story, echo-paving a route to our earlier selves.
In the light of the recent attacks between Israel and Palestine, this human story has become somewhat heightened. And while I dismiss any kind of political protest against Batsheva (primarily, because their work has nothing to do with political divide), I was quite taken with the atmosphere in the theatre, and again, with how the dancers appeared to push through and utilise this unjustified negativity.
Last month I went to see Swan Lake. The theatre was packed, not a seat empty. Everybody loved everybody else and the ballerinas were, literally, as pure as snow in the eyes of God. Batsheva Ensemble’s audience was quite small, fragmented, and the room permeated with an unusual kind of tension. But the performance was explosive; it was real.
The movement the dancers expressed offered a visually stimulating landscape that was both inwardly and outwardly reflective, engaging with both the emotions of the performers, and with those of the audience. For me, there’s nothing more generous or exhausting than lending your body to the physical appreciations of choreography, and then sharing this appreciation with others.
“Dance is the coexistence of fatigue and elegance,” one of the performers said, and immediately I felt a sense of resolve. This is precisely it, and precisely the reason I hold the company in such high esteem.
Fatigue is the point at which the body creases inwardly, and elegance is where all the stringencies, all the stiffer lines of the body, collapse. In this I think you have something incredibly beautiful; but most importantly, something incredibly honest, cresting on the purity, the sheer flesh-and-bone revelation of it. Every breath is drawn through the body like a paintbrush, every movement evolves for movements’ sake.
Batsheva are, in their inspiration and practice, advocates for this powerful way of life and art. Why, I ask myself, should we regard them as anything but.
For more information on Batsheva Ensemble, alongside the wider Batsheva Company, visit http://www.batsheva.co.il
For more on the Birmingham Hippodrome, including full show listings, visit http://www.birminghamhippodrome.com
Helen Calcutt is a poet, dancer and choreographer. To find out more about her work, visit http://helencalcutt.org