Watching one of Ohad Naharin’s dances for Israel’s Batsheva, I often see a tension between group conformity and individual expression. Perhaps that tension comes from Naharin’s youth in Israel—the organizational structure of kibbutzes, the universal military duty. His powerful dancers collaborate in the creative process but defer to his structuring concept and directorial choices. In one passage of his gripping Mamootot, Gili Navot begins a long, serene, purposeful solo. Whenever she pauses, the eight dancers watching her hurry to spots on the floor to copy her pose, hold it for a second, and return to the sidelines. Her stops occur more and more frequently, and the copycatting suggests both encouragement and affirmation, as well as the notion that they’re reviewing something they already know.
Mamootot was made in 2003, the first piece Naharin choreographed after the premature death of his wife, Mari Kajiwara. Under the auspices of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, it’s being shown in the huge white-walled studio at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Seated in two rows on each of the room’s four sides, the audience is often within touching distance of the dancers. Performers temporarily out of the action sit with us on reserved seats scattered amid the front rows. Noa Zouk sets the tone; striding into the blaze of white light designed by Avi Yona Bueno-Bambi, she begins with a series of strongly defined poses and moves, taking huge strides along a diagonal, jumping sideways in a squat, arms and hips moving counter to each other. The piece’s nine performers (Batsheva boasts about double that number) all dance boldly and extravagantly, affirming the weight of their bodies. They seem to strain against the possible, to try expanding themselves beyond their allotted reach. Their spines torque, their backs arch until their butts protrude, their elbows jut out, their fingers splay, their feet slam against the floor. At other times they are more delicate—fingers fluttering, feet taking tiny sideways tiptoe steps, one leg probing high into the air.
They are passionate about all this, and their discipline and fervor combine provocatively with the prevailing toughness of the vocabulary. Although
Mamootot is a non-narrative piece, every move exudes heat, the dancers’ seriousness mixing almost ironically with the intermittent sound effects and raucous Japanese pop in Frankie Lievaart’s score. The costumes, by Rakefet Levy, outfit them for action and semi-uniformity; they all wear zip-up jumpsuits made of heavy-duty sweatshirt fabric, with raveled edges at mid-calf and at the ends of their long sleeves. The colors are muted and mottled. Work clothes.
However formal Naharin’s patterns, they contain the occasional loaded gesture or act. One of the poses the group imitates looks like weeping. In a unison passage, the dancers clutch their necks with one hand. Sitting, they quake. Stefan Ferry kneels, puts his forehead on the floor, and stretches out an arm; Navot crawls under the arm. In one solo, Ferry strips naked and dances close to the recumbent Talia Landa. His body parts assume characters that please or displease him. A shoulder rises, as if of its own accord, and he twists his head to kiss it. His other shoulder too is in favor, so are his clasped hands. But at other times in his slow passage through the solo, he spits at those hands. In the end, Landa is perched on his hip, and he revolves, his mouth stretched in a forced grin.
At the end, the performers slowly walk the perimeter of the space, stopping to take the hand of a spectator, to lock eyes with someone, to smile. But what counters the predominant fierceness of the dancing and the precise unison sections is not only these “meetings,” the serene moments, and the individual passages (almost everyone has a brief solo), but the sense that these people are vulnerable, that their pugnaciousness is a defense. It is for that stratum of tenderness that we love them: Yaniv Abraham, Caroline Boussard, Matan David, Ferry, Landa, Navot, Rachael Osborne, Gabby Spitzer, and Zouk.