Ohad Naharin in San Francisco
What I should like is to write a book about nothing at all, a book which would exist by virtue of the mere internal strength of its style, as the earth holds itself unsupported in the air—a book which would have almost no subject, or in which, at least, the subject would be almost imperceptible, if such a thing is possible. The finest books are those which have the least subject matter; the more closely the expression approximates the thought, the more beautiful the book is …
Few artists of any discipline achieve the ideal Flaubert expounded in his letters, but one contemporary dance maker’s work embodies the choreographic equivalent of it—that of Israel’s Ohad Naharin.
This became clear last November when the Batsheva Dance Company, which Naharin has led since 1990, performed his Sadeh21 in San Francisco. The company was en route to New York during a U.S. tour celebrating Batsheva’s 50th anniversary; it was formed in 1965 in Tel Aviv by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild under the guiding directorship of none other than the mother of modern dance, Martha Graham. I should make clear that I am no expert on Batsheva’s 25 years before the appointment of Naharin, who himself danced for Batsheva, beginning his training at the very late age of 22. Nor have I been fortunate enough to see many of the approximately 35 works he has made since. I am just like the rest of the dance community in San Francisco, waiting impatiently for Batsheva’s too-rare return, making do with the smaller Naharin works we can see performed (never quite as thrillingly) by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or Ballet San Jose. I have been fortunate to see Batsheva in Naharin’s DecaDance in 2004, and again in Three in 2006. In both cases, I returned to see the same work multiple nights, hoping to burn it into memory.
Like the unapologetically abstract Three, Sadeh21 did not arrive with a catchy marketing angle or a “premiere” designation—it was made in 2011—yet San Francisco Performances, the presenter, sold out the 757-seat Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the engagement. In part, this is thanks to Gaga, the immensely influential technique that Naharin developed on Batsheva and has now propagated, via sanctioned teachers, around the globe. A new generation of conservatory-trained dancers is being forged by Gaga the way earlier generations were formed by the technique of Graham, and they make up much of the Batsheva audience. Another sizable portion of the Batsheva following consists of fellow choreographers and artists of all varieties who have gotten the memo that Naharin is arguably the foremost choreographer in the world. Still, I suspect the real reason Batsheva performances in San Francisco are always full is that once you see the way Batsheva moves, you have to see them again to confirm that your experience was real.
The Batsheva style is focused, explosive, and feral. A dancer might drop to a crouch, snap up straight with the leg extended to the side, rotate the leg behind, the toes groping like claws, then fall into an extreme backbend, all in about two seconds. Not a twitch of energy is superfluous. Elegance has no place here, unless used as a moment of absurd posturing. Naharin seems constantly to find fresh gestures and feats of virtuosity, yet he does have some tics, particularly a low squat with the knee torqued beyond the foot, the pelvis tilted under, the head jutted slightly forward. The effect is almost reptilian, more so because, like creatures in a zoo, Batsheva dancers do not condescend to “performing” for onlookers but are so attuned to each other’s presence that they seem not to notice ours. At the same time, they are markedly individual—about half hail from Israel, half from elsewhere—and are usually costumed in “regular” clothes (shorts and T-shirts of all colors). So they are as intensely human as they are animal, forcing the viewer to recognize that “human” and “animal” are actually inseparable categories.
As usual, after Sadeh21 the lobby was abuzz about the dancers. What fierceness! What wildness! Most dance critics who would normally dissect a dance’s themes, musicality, or structure are reduced to a physical play-by-play of Naharin’s mysteriously compelling episodes. This is not because Naharin’s works fail, in the way of so much physically spectacular but vapid contemporary choreography, to be “about” something. It is because the “internal strength” of Naharin’s style is so intensely considered and particular as to give the lie to that “mere” in Flaubert’s ideal. Watching Batsheva last fall, I thought of a passage from another triumph of style, Edward St. Aubyn’s autobiographical novel Some Hope. In it a character proclaims, “Everything in life is a symbol of itself.”
“A symbol of itself”: That’s what every passage of Naharin’s Sadeh21 creates.
In Hebrew, “sadeh” means “field,” as in a space of investigation, indicating just how few exterior cues we are to be given as to some intended interpretation. In twentieth-century dance, it became the norm for choreography to respond to the given structure of a masterful piece of music, effectively giving the dance an exterior scaffolding to replace the old exterior scaffolding of narrative. Naharin denies himself any such ballast, piecing together his own soundtrack with short pieces of mostly ambient and electronic music by artists like Brian Eno. Nor does he prop up Sadeh21 with a single program note.
We are taking our seats in the theater, the house lights still up, when a crash shocks us and our attention snaps to the already exposed stage. (This is a maneuver also used masterfully by the world’s other leading choreographer, William Forsythe. In both his work and Naharin’s, it makes us feel we have been slammed into an alternate universe because it denies us the niceties of settling in for a “show.”) We are in a white room created by the three walls of Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi)’s lighting and stage design. “Sadeh 1” flashes across the back in white letters, and one at a time each of the 18 dancers marches on and dispatches a short solo. “Sadeh 2” flashes across the back, and the controlled chaos begins.
Near the middle of “Sadeh 2,” the company’s most entrancing dancer, Adi Zlatkin, begins to walk with her feet turned in, her hip rising, gimp-like, with every step. Is she playing Charlie Chaplin? Is she injured? Handicapped? You can feel people in the audience holding their breath. Can we laugh? Or should we be concerned for her? This feeling of emotionally confused paralysis and potential complicity (am I callous for wanting to laugh at her?) descends upon the audience like a spell. Just how long is Zlatkin going to continue to walk in this absurd yet disturbing fashion? A very long time, as it happens, while the other dancers carry on around her and, eventually, one man remains lying on the floor.
Bodies left on the floor, bodies carried off like corpses, militaristic marching—or is that vigorous folk dancing?—these are recurring images in Naharin’s work, and a horror that began as subtle breaks through to our eardrums as the final section of Sadeh21, in which the dancers repeat their solos, unfolds to a soundtrack of harrowing screams.
To achieve this “no subject matter” quality (which is very different from a work that has “no point”), a work of art must have a finely textured style—but it must also have a highly attuned sense of organic form, an internal abstract logic that becomes the work’s geometry and the style’s container. This may be obvious to accomplished composers and abstract painters, to whom form is all, but it is an elusive idea for writers and choreographers, who may become trapped in pitfalls of representation.
Writers have people and things in their stories and poems, choreographers have people in their dances, not mere sounds and colors. For artists working with necessarily representational material then, form tends to become a vexing either/or. Either the work of art is telling a story or it is abstract. George Balanchine’s ballets endure because he knew better than this; objecting to the notion that his ballets were “abstract,” he said, “Put a man and a woman onstage together and you have a love story.” Still, he rarely told us what that love story was; he didn’t have to, because the style he created, held by his inventive development of form, allowed his works to, as Flaubert would say, “hold themselves as though unsupported in the air.”
Form requires pattern. In writing and choreography as in music, form requires awakening the viewer or reader to attempt (perhaps even subconsciously) to perceive a pattern, to notice when the work of art has not followed its own pattern, and to wonder how the sense of pattern will then be restored. Naharin’s and his near-contemporary William Forsythe’s importance in contemporary dance is built, I think, on their mastery of this—their understanding that pattern requires limitation to be perceived.
Like Forsythe, Naharin sets up his own rules to govern the creation of his dances. In Sadeh21, the rules were no unison movement, no music with rhythm, and no improvisation during the choreographic process. Naturally, rules are made to be broken, and Naharin does so at key moments, to cathartic effect.
Just as importantly, Naharin cues the viewer to certain rules within Sadeh21 and can then use our understanding of these rules to amplify tension and its release. In one episode, Zlatkin walks to the edge of the stage and begins calling out numbers: “2-1-1-3-2-4-1” and on and on, with the dancers behind her scrambling in response. We soon realize that her numbers are dictating how many dancers should move in the action behind her—solo, duet, trio, or more.
In a similar and even more crucial invitation of the audience to the game, as soon as “Sadeh1” is projected across the back of the stage during the opening solos, we know 20 more Sadehs must follow and expect each to be cued. But each Sadeh is quite long—by “Sadeh 4,” though we are engaged by the intense actions unfolding before us, we are growing worried. Will we be here all night? “Sadeh 5,” “Sadeh 6” . . . then we get, in projection, “Sadeh 7–18.” Eleven Sadehs come in rapid succession. Expected pattern thwarted, but rule maintained. Tension released—and the cathartic energy propels us onward.
The build-up to and resolution following “Sadeh 7–18” brilliantly supports another subconsciously perceived form, one we all learned in high school English as Freytag’s Triangle. Exposition, rising tension, with a climax and turn coming at approximately the 85 percent mark, and the resolution following expediently. That triangle has been drilled into us as though it were a formula imposed from without, but really it is a natural shape of human experience—we build and build towards turning points, and when a turning point has been reached, carrying on afterwards would be tiresome—the afterglow of a climax lasts just that one cigarette.
Naharin moves step by step along this arc surefootedly. In “Sadeh 5,” he breaks two of his rules, giving us rhythmic, even catchy music, and a line of women high-kicking in unison as the entrancingly cool Bobbi Smith takes a headstand at the edge of the stage, lowering her split legs into provocative but somehow not “sexy” straddles, a gaze on her face like a crocodile’s. We have launched from the steady exposition of Sadehs 1–4 into a rising emotional pitch.
That carries on in “Sadeh 6,” in which Omri Drumlevich speaks in a high gibberish that gives us the same discomfort as Zlatkin’s earlier gimp walk. We want to laugh. But is he mentally challenged? In any case, he is increasingly in distress. “Sadeh 19” then brings us the definitive emotional turn, and it is a simple yet devastating one. After all the restrained, electronic music, the soundtrack introduces surging strings.
Eight men take their place in a line. A woman lies down behind them and begins furiously peddling her legs as the men move slowly, arm in arm. Most choreographers would have satisfied themselves with this tense contrast. Naharin adds another element. As the other men in the line raise their left arms, the man on the end remains with his hand on his hip. It makes sense—he is maintaining the pattern of being last in the line. But he is very noticeably creating a new asymmetry. The audience’s need to resolve this, fueled by the surging music, grows urgent. The tension created by that one left arm is purely formal, but not merely formal—we project upon its impassive disharmony all the realities of life in Israel, all the realities of our own lives. That one left arm makes all the difference.
Naharin was not always such a master of subtlety. It is fascinating and strangely heartening to watch a YouTube video of his work Kyr performed by the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in 1991 (the year after he took over Batsheva). The movement has the energy and snap of today’s Batsheva, but also moments of generic contemporary ballet, with the legs fanning for a pretty flight through the air. The rhythm is mostly on the beat. The body shapes do not have as much complexity and texture. There is “filler” language—an arabesque that will do nicely to fill out a bar here, a perfunctory arm flinging that is not really a motivated, gestural reach there. You can appreciate that Naharin required daily time in the studio with the astonishingly responsive dancers of Batsheva to reach a point at which every reach and twitch was a true, specific gesture, just as Flaubert required weekly sessions with the two friends who believed in his talent, Louis Bouilhet and Maxim Du Camp, to read aloud every sentence of draft for Madame Bovary, meticulously choosing every word and rhythm and cutting every hollow metaphor.
Many choreographers today, particularly in ballet, do not have enough time in the studio with their dancers to develop style deeply. Yet some do manage, but still rarely achieve those “symbol of itself” moments in their work. Is it because they neglect to develop organic form? Why does most work seem not to have enough intended “aboutness,” or too much?
I hoped to gain some insight from Naharin as to how he navigates this last November, when I had the chance to interview him before Sadeh21 came to San Francisco. He said:
I do have clear intentions sometimes and want people to understand my intentions. But many times what I mean is not in the sense of story or an idea that can be described. I mean it has something to do with ritual, accumulation, with things that you need to recognize. Rhythm, acceleration, the relationship between movement and music, the clarity of form that brings some kind of content. If I meant it and someone does not understand it, then I am totally missing that person, and he is missing me.
We can talk about an idea, these were my intentions. But at the heart of it, it has to do with a sublimation that I try to make of my imagination to my skills, and how I articulate my ideas to these dancers so they can make this sublimation with their own skill. And then how together we come up with a mix of content and form that you cannot even separate between the two. Then you can talk about the structure—how the piece starts with a series of solos in which you meet all the dancers, for example. And it ends also with a series of solos. I’m telling technical things, but it has to do with the spirit of the work.
“The spirit of the work”: Perhaps, infusing all this, the spirit matters most. A finely developed style and attuned sense of form will only allow a work of art to be the “thing itself” when the artist is committed to honesty, curiosity, and freedom from agenda. Like other artists supported by state funding from Israel, Batsheva has been the target of picketing and boycotts on their tours. I understand the objections to the actions of Israel, but not to the work of Naharin, whose work implies no polemics or prejudices. As Naharin was talking, I found myself thinking of Chekhov’s stories and his response to readers who wished to pin down his agenda:
I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines and who insist on seeing me as necessarily either a liberal or a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a gradualist, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one. I hate lying and violence, whatever form they take, and I am equally repelled by secretaries of consistories and by Notovich and Gradovsky. Pharisaism, stupidity, and tyranny reign not in shopkeepers’ homes and in lock-ups alone: I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation. That is why I have no partiality either for gendarmes, or butchers, or scholars, or writers, or young people. I regard trademarks and labels as prejudicial. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom—freedom from force and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves. This is the program I would follow if I were a great artist.
It would take a separate essay or several to discuss how stories like “The Lady with the Dog” and “The Bishop” achieve their fineness of style and perfection of form. But we all know that God did give Chekhov the power to be a free artist, and fortunately he has given it to Naharin, too.
 Trailer for Sadeh21: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6RWvh0JMv8
 The word “gaga,” to Naharin, represents the idea of a basic language. Every movement in his training system has a word corresponding to the body part that initiates the movement—for instance, a movement called “Luna” is driven from the moons of flesh between the toes. Other features of Gaga are that every participant dances continuously from the beginning of the class to the end, and no mirrors or spectators are allowed.
 It is a bit painful to watch the creative trajectory of a highly gifted choreographer like Christopher Wheeldon, who learned much from Balanchine (cf. Wheeldon’s Polyphonia) but tends to make “abstract” ballets that are all external packaging and no unfolding “love story,” or narrative ballets in which characters noodle on busily, with only a perfunctory sense of given or expected form. Form—not given (expected) but finely achieved organic form—creates the space for the represented “thing itself” to be that symbol of itself. A fine sense of abstract form is not a sucking out of content, but a liberation of it.