WE DANCE TOGETHER, WE STAND TOGETHER: Batsheva’s 50th Anniversary Tour to San Francisco

By James Graham

October 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
60. Batsheva
Photo by Gadi Dagon

WHEN I EMBARKED on writing an article about Batsheva Dance Company, Ohad Naharin (company artistic director), the company’s 50th anniversary, Gaga, and their upcoming tour of Sadeh21 (2011) to San Francisco in November at YBCA, my mind continually circled back to the situation in Israel. What I assume comes up for many people with the mention of Israel is the ongoing conflict, most recently what has happened in the Summer of 2014 with Gaza. Is it possible to extract Batsheva Dance Company from these associations? In the dance world, I think, yes, it is, but sometimes in the greater world the lines get blurred; Batsheva Dance Company/Ohad Naharin are conflated with the conflict. Their work and touring suffer the consequences.

Batsheva receives state funding (i.e. money from the government) and could therefore be seen as a proxy of said government; they are an easy target for protestors when they are on tour. However, the company is comprised of international dancers, does not answer to the government, and has the potential to bridge the gap between groups, to bring healing, and to look at the Israelis, the conflict with the Palestinians, and human experiences in a new way. During a tour of Hora (2009), people in Edinburgh, Scotland took this opportunity to engage in what they called a “cultural boycott,” against the Tel Aviv-based dance company for the Israeli government’s actions. Naharin came out of the theatre, confronted/addressed these protestors, and said in his perfectly relaxed tone, “We all sympathize with your causes. I stand with you, I agree.”

I recently spoke to a fellow dance writer and she said she didn’t know if she felt safe to attend Batsheva’s upcoming San Francisco performance. I understood the security concerns, but I was baffled; I tend to separate my experiences of living in Israel, studying with Batsheva and becoming a certified Gaga teacher (the movement language utilized by Batsheva) from the political situation of greater Israel. To conflate Batsheva with the conflict is a bit simplistic, and begins with the assumption that they are politically aligned with the Israeli government. Many countries’ governments, not only Israel’s, engage in a slurry of deleterious actions that obviously do not represent every one of their citizens’ beliefs.

Let’s say that we have a dance company, we are American citizens, we pay taxes, and we have a grant from the N.E.A. (National Endowment for the Arts). We go on an international tour and we are met with protestors telling us that we continually harm and disparage Native Americans, Afghanis and Iraqis, and they boycott our San Francisco company to help end these injustices. I think many of us would be flabbergasted, thinking to ourselves, “What?! My work doesn’t deal with these issues. Plus, I agree with you, it’s just awful. I don’t want my tax dollars funding these wars.” Batsheva constantly experiences this possibility, or the threat of it, while on tour. A distinction between culture and politics is needed. It is possible to disagree with a country’s politics yet be open to their culture, art, and people.

There are many views on this situation of protesting Batsheva. If you live in a country far away from Israel, yet your convictions call you to protest that government’s policies, then protesting a performance of a touring Israeli dance company is the easiest thing to do. I also understand that people can see an Israeli dance company as ambassadors or a part of “Brand Israel.” Naharin directly addressed the protests by saying, “There is a movement that calls to boycott everything that comes out of Israel. And we are an easy target, so people have been demonstrating and disturbing our tours in many places. The agenda of those people, is really because they care for the Palestinians and what is happening in the West Bank…It’s not anti-Semitic, it’s not the hatred of us, it’s more like pro-Palestinian with the idea that they want a two-State solution. There are actually many Jews and many Israelis also sometimes demonstrating. I don’t agree that demonstrating and boycotting our show will help the Palestinians, because if it did, I would boycott my own performance.” He understands that these protestors are not anti-Batsheva, but that they are primarily operating from a pro-Palestinian stance. He connects with the protestors, and attempts to find a commonality as humans.

Thinking of these ideas of connecting keeps circling me back to Gaga and Gaza, movement and art, and our ability to connect people through dance in ways that dialogue and diplomacy cannot achieve. I fantasize about the solutions…we need more people moving their bodies, getting in touch with sensations, and experiencing what it is to be human, in our body in the presence of others. I have never heard Naharin directly address this, but I am deeply curious about why Gaga came from Israel. This time and this place produced a movement language that offers an experience for becoming more sensitive, more aware, and more generous and compassionate to ourselves (and by extension others) as movers. As we move in a Gaga class, we notice and listen deeply to what is there, what is happening inside our bodies. Was Gaga a response to the need for this type of practice in a time/place where life is unstable? People tell me stories about running for a bomb shelter moments before going to a Gaga class. And in that class they felt more in touch with their bodies and connected to the greater experience of living on this Earth, all while crying and laughing and letting go, and also because, as my friend put it, “What the hell else are you going to do?” Could you imagine a world where even 10% of the people involved in a conflict practiced something akin to Gaga? The fantasy of it opens my heart. In Gaga we realize that each one of us shares the capacity to experience more…more pleasure, more explosive power, more letting go, more delicacy, more passion, more silliness, more groove, more sensitivity. Sadeh21 is the epitome of this.

Sadeh21 is a touching work that deals with images of human connection as well as the virtuosic display of movers that Batsheva routinely offers to their audiences. If I had any personal critique, it would be that I do not sense the human element as much as the “mover” element. Let me be more clear: I enjoy seeing that it matters that a specific dancer named Ori is doing what he is doing, and not just any random dancer. I want to see him, care about his journey, and when he touches Idan, another dancer, it is felt, by me, because I sense that they are present with one another and feel each other. Then I care about them as human beings. Often, but not always (a quintessential and overt example of this human connection comes at the end of Mamootot [2003] when the dancers walk the perimeter of their four-sided stage, hold the hands of audience members, and look them in the eyes), when I experience Batsheva’s other works I care and am invested differently; I sense the dancers experiencing what they are doing in a movement/sensation/awareness way. They are alive, full, and intensely present in their bodies in the space we all share, and I am drawn in.

Sadeh21 operates with both of these modes. The dancers are present, their bodies alive and brimming with thousands of tiny pieces of information traveling to the edges of their skin and beyond, and also, they are a team, a community, a group of humans going through a journey together sensing each other. They are at times singularly isolated individuals, and at others a welded band, arm in arm, moving and supporting as one. There is a section when the men accumulate into a line, gesture their arms, stomp their feet, grunt, and precisely position themselves with a deadpan face of this-is-who-we-are-and-we-will-not-apologize-or-let-each-other-down. They are in this together. This flank of men is juxtaposed by a hardly noticeable writhing woman who inchworms herself upstage right. She becomes only marginally more noticeable throughout the section until the very moment the men are still. Suddenly her presence takes a powerful pull.

This work makes me think of all the varying ways I relate to other individuals in my daily life, those I love, those who are strangers, and how it would look if I sussed out only the energetic essence of those interactions and those feelings we have for each other, put them to movement, and showed them all on stage. Solos, trios, duets, soft continued adagio arms, spicy jumps and slaps, odd considerations for and relations to other dancers’ body parts, a unison quartet, one non-affected woman counting in Hebrew. Instead of offering a feeling of scattered-ness and isolation, these seemingly discrete items form a sense of commonality and a through line of emotional buttressing and support for themselves and the audience. It is as if the dancers are communicating, “You’ve been through hard times too? You’re also a messy human? It is okay.” Suddenly I don’t feel so alone. I feel connected to humanity, to all of us whether we live in Gaza or Edinburgh, San Francisco or Tel Aviv, whether we are political, religious, protestors, or pacifists, and I understand the suffering and the joy and everything in between.

Even when these crazy-amazing dancers are showing you what they can do physically with their bodies, it is done with an air of understatement. At one point the entire cast slowly joins a group walking in a circle. That’s it…simply walking in a circle, but the addition of each dancer barely allows your eye to see the circle expand. Hands break to allow for the inclusion, and suddenly a simple task turns into a profound human experience. The ending made my eyes widen, my heart melt, and my reverie of Batsheva expand.

San Francisco Performances presents Sadeh21 at YBCA Theater November 6-8. Tickets at ybca.org

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of In Dance.

James Graham is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and writer. He was chosen by Ohad Naharin to be a certified Gaga teacher and to take part in his pilot training program of international dancers/ teachers. He currently teaches Gaga at SF Conservatory of Dance, Shawl-Anderson and LINES Ballet and around the country. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (M.F.A.) and UC Berkeley (B.A.). jamesgrahamdancetheatre.com