Dance of The Best Kind — Provocative, Evocative and Meaning-Laden: Ohad Naharin's DecaDance

(Images taken from Batsheva’s website).

Wednesday night I went to contemporary ballet company Cedar Lake‘s performance space in west Chelsea to see “DecaDance,” a new work comprised of pieces from the past 20 years choreographed by Israeli dancemaker Ohad Naharin for his Tel Aviv-based company, Batsheva.

Still a bit disoriented from jet lag, a long drawn-out meds-laden TAC headache, and coming down from my ballroom high, I was worried I just wouldn’t be into a small, modern dance performance enough to appreciate it (I’d ordered the ticket a while ago). But, happily, I was very wrong! “DecaDance” was just what the doctor ordered to get me out of my Blackpool-withdrawal depression and back into the ever-alive NYC dance scene.

To me, this is the best kind of dance: movement creating images that, combined with provocative words and/or exhilarating, exotic, or evocative music, unsettle, evoke, just compel you stop, look, and think. I remember Joan Acocella reviewing in the New Yorker Telophaza, the work Batsheva performed nearly a year ago at last year’s Lincoln Center Festival. I remember her saying she wished with all the goings-on in the world at the time, Israel’s premier dance company would have put on a program infused with some kind of political meaning. I understood her sentiment, mainly because I like that kind of work as well and am always immensely interested in knowing what it’s like to be a citizen of another country, to exist in a world completely different from my own, but I thought it unfair to demand dance containing some kind of meaning about world politics from a troupe simply because of the geopolitical situation of its country. But the funny thing is that, watching Wednesday night, though none of the pieces made any kind of simplistic statement, I think my brain just naturally infused everything I saw with a socio-political undertone, perhaps because of that geopolitical situation.

The program began with a line of dancers, dressed in white leotards and black tights. The dancers shouted chants whose meaning I couldn’t understand, then one by one, each dancer took a couple of steps forward and danced, then stepped back into line while another dancer took a turn. Then, after each dancer had his or her piece, the line stepped backward together, fading into the background shadows. The way the light reflected only the bright white leotards had the effect of making their legs fade into the dark, so that they looked like limbless torsos. The chanting made me think of a military regime, and the legless bodies of the effect of war. I have no idea if that was what Naharin had in mind, but that’s what I got.

That scene led to a very brief pas de deux between two women (or was it a woman and a man … can’t remember) dressed in black corsets lifting, scratching at, bouncing off of each other, and that blended into a scene with several men engaging either in a monk-like ritual cleansing involving a bucket of dark, muddied water, or else splashing themselves with war paint. About three-quarters of the way through that scene a scantily-clad yet virile-looking woman wearing a feathery headdress and a face-full of garish make-up (perhaps another kind of war paint) walked sexily across stage on low stilts. After the men left, she returned with a free-standing microphone atop a giant pitchfork and, in the manner of a cabaret performer, lip-synced the words to an industrial techno-aria. Because of her raunchy garb, gawdy makeup and the manly yet sexy way she walked on the body-distorting stilts, she evoked for me a frightening vision from the late Weimar Republic or perhaps a contemporary Russian sex slave (thanks to Blackpool, I have Russia on the mind lately: anytime there’s a ballroom dance competition, the environs are tranformed into a “little Russia”) — either way, a grotesque reminder of the way a time of uninhibited freedom can turn into a reign of terror or how one person’s idea of fun is another’s hell.

My favorite piece involved several women who danced to a spoken word accompaniment. In all of the reviews I’ve read where this program or different versions of it have been performed elsewhere, none mention this piece, so I have no idea what it’s called and unfortunately can’t remember the words of the voice-over perfectly. One of the annoying things about this program is that the playbill doesn’t specify which piece is from which longer work, and which musical number accompanies which work, so I couldn’t figure out what each piece was called or research it very well. Naharin says, the playbill notes, that he enjoys “breaking down and reconstructing” his work, “enabl[ing him] to look at many elements in the works from a new angle,” so he obviously doesn’t want us to get bogged down in trying to figure out which piece is from which larger work, but wants us to see it as a new whole. The ‘problem’ or maybe I should say ‘challenge’ with this for me is, I’m unfamiliar with his work and so have no idea if I’m totally reading anything completely wrong. I may have a wholly different interpretation if I saw, for example, the Weimar / Russian slave woman in the context of the whole “Sabotage Baby.” It made me want to see his other works so I could compare, see if I “got it right” or see how my interpretation shifted depending on context.

Anyway, back to my favorite piece, about which I couldn’t research since I couldn’t figure out it’s title, longer whole, or sound accompaniment …: the male (if memory serves correctly) voice-over, issues forth various orders to the women dancers, and perhaps to the audience, providing, as I saw it, an ironic commentary on living female. The voice orders you / them to play the game enough to be able to own a house and car, resist working or thinking too hard so as to over-stress their fragile compositions, reject big ideas or philosophies, reject too much beauty so as not get carried away with art, and my favorite line — always wipe your ass really well because it’s uncouth to let others know you just shit. The piece – both the lyrics of the voice-over and the dance movements, was repetitive: the speaker repeated each line before adding a new one. And each woman had a certain movement corresponding with each word. Everytime the phrase repeated, so did each woman’s dance phrase. It was really interesting seeing the way the dance phrase corresponded to the written, and the way the movement added to the meaning of the words. For example, when the voice-over dictated, “reject Beethoven, the spider, the damnation of Faust,” a phrase near the beginning of the piece and thus repeated many many times, it was interesting to see each dancer’s interpretation of “spider,” “Beethoven,” and “damnation of Faust.” Some movements were unique to each dancer; others universal. It definitely didn’t speak to the state of Israel or have any huge overarching meaning for world affairs in the way the Acocella article wished for, but sometimes I find those quietly ‘personal-is-political’ pieces to have the most profundity.

Then there are a couple of pieces that “break the fourth wall”– ie: involve audience participation. One female dancer tried to pull me onstage with her to participate in this group jumpy hip hop – turned tango-y number, but I had to refuse because I was still woozy from the meds and, perhaps, ridiculously, still jet lag. Anyway, I never feel comfortable doing such things. She was nice and let me go, found someone else to get up there with her!

There are some other compelling pieces that I left out. I’m really interested to hear what others think about this. I found it very evocative, thought-provoking, very open to interpretation, and just a lot of fun. It’s showing through July 1st at Cedar Lake. Go!


  1. I cannot f-ing wait to see this. His work is so phenomenal and I excpect this to be no exception. I’ll be there as soon as I’m back in the city.

  2. Haha, I knew you would be envious, M! You MUST return to NY before July 1st so you can see it — I can’t wait to hear what you think!

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