Ohad Naharin doesn’t just choreograph pieces; he molds them to dancers’ bodies and injects them under the skin of their souls. In adapting his constantly changing retrospective anthology Decadance for 16 members of Cedar Lake, he worked with them for three months, thanks in part to artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s ambitious vision for this company. These are superb and versatile performers, but the Naharin experience has transfigured them.
The stunning excerpts comprising Decadance (most of them made after Naharin assumed leadership of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company in 1990) require the dancers to invest every gesture with total concentration and intensity, whether that involves throwing themselves to the floor in a split second or grinning fixedly at us, while twitching their hips and slowly raising pointed fingers. But they can also become loose and fluid in astonishingly complex ways. When Jon Bond improvises a solo throughout intermission, he looks as if he’s melting and congealing simultaneously.
I’ve often wondered if Naharin’s style subtly reflects a fact of life in Israel: required military duty. His rhythms and structures create an interplay between regimentation and abandon. In Decadance‘s opening sequence, drawn from the 2001 Naharin’s Virus, the performers line up across the front of the stage, dressed alike (by Rakafet Levy) in thigh-high black stockings over white unitards that muffle their hands. Every now and then, one of them has a quick tantrum of movement, and periodically they all lunge to face left and, in exact unison, wield both fists as if battering on a heavy door.
Naharin is wily. He sometimes tests our patience with almost paralyzing repetition, but he knows just when to stop, to alter a pattern and throw in a surprise. It becomes a game for the audience to predict who’ll freak out next. Watching a passage from Anaphaza (1993), in which a movement repeatedly travels down a semicircle of seated dancers as if a breeze were ruffling a wheat field, we know pretty quickly that the man at the end will, unlike everyone else, fall to the floor after each passage. But as the movements escalate, we get a little jolt: Another man jumps up to stand briefly on his chair. The choreographer thinks nothing of having a fabulous glamour-puss on stilts (Heather Hamilton) strut briefly through Black Milk, a male ritual from 1985; the five men pay her no attention and keep up their terrific, wide-legged changes of direction and bursting jumps. Later, her outrageous lip-synching act cross-fades with their calm retreat.
Each of five women in plain black dresses has a pose to which she returns after all have responded, more or less in unison, to a woman’s recorded voice repeating a gradually accumulating text that begins, “Ignore all possible concepts and possibilities” (these include “Beethoven. The spider. The Damnation of Faust”). The speaker plows forward from “just make it, babe” to what sounds like good advice: “Wipe your ass.” Naharin varies the relentless yet fascinating picture by introducing short, breakaway solos and shifting the placement of the home-base poses. The women are sensational.
Intimate exchanges also blaze with intensity. In a duet excerpt from Mabul (1992), Jason Kittleberger—walking almost in a squat, shaking his clasped hands as if ready to roll dice—backs Acacia Schachte along, then jams his head into her chest. In the “Spit Duet” excerpt from Telophaza (2005), Jessica Lee Keller jumps with both feet onto Bond’s chest while he’s supine. But—as in a charming and funny excerpt from Zahacha (1998), when the men and women, dressed alike in dark suits and hats, choose partners from among the spectators to dance with and for—tenderness lies just beneath the clumsy violence.