Gestures From an Explosive Movement Palette

Published: September 26, 2010

The big hook for the Batsheva Dance Company”s Joyce Theater engagement is that two casts perform Ohad Naharin”s “Project 5″ sampler program, one all-female and the other all-male. Audiences can compare and contrast, seeing just what a difference gender makes in this Israeli choreographer”s intensely physical work.

However, having seen the women at Tuesday night”s New York premiere and the men on Saturday evening, I must say that the only distinction of real note was the presence, on Saturday, of the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, accompanied by a considerable security detail and heckled by members of Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel.

Adalah-NY has been protesting throughout Batsheva”s run, picketing and handing out pamphlets criticizing Israeli policies toward Palestinians and urging a boycott of the company, which receives substantial support from its government. Mr. Peres”s arrival raised the ante: as audience members and passers-by were firmly herded to the end of the block by police and security officers and the protesters yelled “You”re dancing around apartheid,” Mr. Peres and his contingent swept into the theater.

How strange, then, to shortly thereafter watch again “George & Zalman” (2006), the opening piece in “Project 5,” which begins with the five dancers holding poses as a recording of a female voice repeats the word “ignore.” Art comments on life in the funniest ways sometimes.

But the moment passed quickly. Mr. Naharin is not an overtly political artist and the word (read by one of his dancers, Bobbi Smith, is actually the beginning of a Charles Bukowski poem, “Making It.” His blunt, sometimes caustic words (“Ignore all possible concepts and possibilities,” “just make it, babe, make it”) unfurl in a stop-and-start accumulation of phrases. These are echoed by an accumulation of choreographic phrases and gestures, which sometimes obliquely refer to Bukowski but generally stick to their own slickly handsome devices.

“Project 5″ is the second Naharin sampler to breeze through New York in recent years, following “Decadance” in 2007, which included some of the material in the current program. This time we get whole and excerpted works made between 1985 and 2008, including “B/olero,” the one piece made specifically for the show. It”s quite a time range, if not a stylistic one.

I”m not sure what to make of Mr. Naharin”s best-of affairs, which come off as incredibly thin and lazy efforts. He is celebrated for his Gaga technique, which yields a voluptuous, explosive movement palette: powerful, tensile dancers rocket from low crouches to buckling leaps, moving fluidly between full-on attack mode and sculptural stillness. He creates worlds full of tribal frenzy, atmospheric ritual and pockets of archly self-conscious intimacy (audience participation often comes with the territory). People, pardon the expression, go gaga for all of this.

But it”s a language that has become increasingly calcified, offering the letter of the law, not its spirit. Nowhere is this more dispiritingly evident than in efficiently designed crowd-pleasers like “Project 5,” which feels shorter than its roughly hourlong runtime, rote in its themes and carelessly conceived in the selection and juxtaposition of its four sections.

“B/olero,” the new duet, epitomizes this. Does the world really need another “Bolero”? (There should be a moratorium on this and Arvo Pí¤rt”s “Fí¼r Alina,” which Mr. Naharin used in “George & Zalman.”) This version features Isao Tomita”s electronic interpretation of the much-abused Ravel composition, and sets a pair of dancers mostly next to each other, now fluidly windmilling their arms from the elbows while shifting their weight side to side, now striding to the lip of the stage to offer their bored cocktail-party faces to their public.

The women, dressed in short black dresses (designed by Alla Eisenberg), bounced on beveled ankles with fierceness; the men, in black crop-tops and high-waisted knee-length tights, were somewhat coyer, playing the diva moments for laughs. The female cast was generally more effective throughout “Project 5.” This is perhaps because the program was originally performed by women, or perhaps simply because dance is a field in which women face much, much stiffer competition, and often are the stronger artists.

But the men did shine in “Black Milk” (1985/1991), hurtling through the air in twisting jumps to Paul Smadbeck”s “Etude No. 3 for Marimba,” their faces and bare chests smeared with a dark claylike substance. Here Mr. Naharin”s longstanding preoccupations with tribal behavior came most clearly to the fore; the five dancers may have been acolytes, or warriors, engaged in cryptic rituals.

“Black Milk” is the hot exception on a generally cool program, which is completed by “Park” (an excerpt from the 1999 piece “Moshe”), a work for three modish individuals who chant forcefully about food and sex and death. Those are primal subjects, all – only not here, in the proficient but empty “Project 5.”

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