3 reasons Israeli modern dance should make the list of top exports
Audiences in North Texas have seen Israeli modern dance for years thanks to a few first-rate touring companies. But last Friday, Texas Ballet Theater became the first company in the Lone Star state to perform a beloved work by Israeli modern dance maker Ohad Naharin.
The piece, titled Minus 16, has been performed by major companies in Europe and the U.S., but when Texas Ballet Theater, a smaller regional company, tackled it, the reach of Israeli modern dance seemed to extend a little further.
Naharin, as artistic director of the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company, is Israel’s leading dance maker. He has earned a stellar international reputation for creating original, vibrant, and intriguing modern dances for his company, which has toured worldwide. At 63, Naharin is among the world’s most respected choreographers, and there are only a handful of these people working today.
I attended Texas Ballet Theater’s First Looks show May 6 at the Dallas City Performance Hall just to see the Naharin piece, Minus 16, included on the bill. After all, this is Texas dance history in the making. Here’s why I think Israeli dance should make the list of top exports.
TBT in Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16. Photo courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater.
- What makes Naharin so unique is the Gaga movement dance language he created (before there was a Lady Gaga). It’s “an experience of freedom and pleasure,” according to Batsheva’s website. Gaga is moving your body any way that feels good. Naharin’s Gaga came ashore in the U.S. roughly a decade ago and really took off on the East Coast after the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, at the invitation of the Russian dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, introduced gaga to dancers and non-dancers alike. Like many things, what starts on either coast eventually moves inland.
2. By exporting his brand of innovative Israeli modern dance, Naharin has placed it on the worldwide map. Of course, there are many other Israeli choreographers and companies sending their work abroad, contributing to this growing trend. And next season, Texas Ballet Theater will perform a new work by Israeli-American dance maker Avi Scher. At this point, Israeli modern dance should be added to the list of Israeli exports in my view.
3. What makes Naharin’s Minus 16, a collection of excerpts from his previous works, so enticing is the unexpected nature of it all. Even before the intermission ends and the dance begins, he plays with the audience. As people chat while the house lights are still on, a single male dancer dressed in a dark suit appears in front of the curtain, causing patrons to wonder if they’ve missed something. The dancer is still at first, then begins several minutes of impromptu dancing, moving, gyrating and comically entertaining the crowd. He’s then joined by several other dancers moving in a freestyle type of groove, signature Gaga movement. The music is a captivating and rollicking mix including cha-cha, the traditional Passover music Echad Mi Yodea set to a lively rock score, Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and a techno mix of Over the Rainbow.
The first vignette was Echad Mi Yodea, which I’d seen many times on YouTube (click here) and has been part of Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s repertoire for years. But the live version is far more startling and powerful. The dancers are sitting on chairs arranged in a semi-circle, dressed in dark suits, hunched forward and looking serious. As the Echad Mi Yodea music plays, the dancers slam their bodies back on the chairs with arms and heads looking skyward one by one, until the last one, dressed with an Orthodox rabbi hat, falls to the floor. The motion repeats itself throughout the song and gets strong, with the dancers shouting out the chorus in Hebrew, ending with the dancers throwing off their outward clothing (underneath they had on t-shirts and shorts) into a communal pile in the middle of the floor. Left open to interpretation, some feel like the piles loosely represented the Holocaust, others see it as freedom.
A riveting pas de deux, a dance for two, set to Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, danced by TBT’s Paige Nyman and Jiyan Dai, was a gorgeous and technically challenging number that was over too soon.
In the final section, the dancers come down from the stage and choose audience members to bring onstage and dance with them. This was thoroughly engaging. When one of the dancers extended his arm to me, seated on the aisle, I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. (This was not planned, and he didn’t know I was there to write about the show.) Seconds later, after kicking off my three-inch wedges, I joined a dozen or so other unsuspecting women also brought onstage. He gave me very little direction except to follow and kind of mimic him. The stage lights were bright and oh so hot and all I kept thinking was, ‘These people didn’t pay to see people like me dance, let alone Gaga.’ Ah, but that’s exactly what Naharin was after. What better way to show Gaga than to have talented young and svelte dancers partner with self-conscious older non-dancers who looked ridiculous. I don’t remember too much from those few minutes, which seemed much longer. My cha cha was pretty slow and at one point, when my partner went to lift me, I cautioned, ‘You’re going to throw your back out.’ The result was hilarious and thoroughly captivating for the audience.
The company also performed Voluntaries by Glen Tetley and Without Borders by Val Caniparoli.
(Top photo: TBT in Ohad Saharan’s Minus 16. Photo courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater)