One word that might be used to describe Ohad Naharin’s choreography and the members of Batsheva Dance Company who perform it is “insistent.” That doesn’t mean that Naharin’s Project 5 is showy or delivered glossily to the audience the way a chorus line shows its stuff, but that every move is perceived as a demanding task, however fluid its dynamic or tender its context. So full-bodied, focused, and exact are the dancers that you can imagine the sweep of an arm cleaving an invisible rock.
Project 5 (2008) anthologizes five earlier works of Naharin’s—one of them, Black Milk, dating from 1985, five years before he left New York to return to his homeland and take over the Tel Aviv–based Batsheva. At some performances during Project 5’s two-week run at the Joyce, the cast is composed of five women; at others, five men assume the roles. New Yorkers who can see both casts will undoubtedly be tempted to make comparisons to do with gender, but there’s no doubt that both will be equally powerful.
The terrific opener, George & Zalman (2006), advances by accumulating a series of poses; each of the women in the cast I saw has her own sequence, but one or two moves pull them into unison. The music is Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina”; in addition, the recorded voice of company member Bobbi Smith reads an abrasive poem by Charles Bukowski that establishes and controls the accumulation. The text inaugurating the first move begins with “Ignore”; after five additions, it has become “Ignore all concepts and possibilities, Beethoven, the spider, the Damnation of Faust.” You get the point.
Between each addition, the dancers (wearing short, trim black dresses by Alla Eisenberg) re-group, and this constantly changing organization of the space keeps your eyes and mind busy and entranced. Also, you can play with the idea that the poses may reflect the words—at least sometimes (the women smack their abdomens on “a bellyful of beans”). As the piece progresses, each of the five (Iyar Alezra, Shani Garfinkel, Bosmat Nossan, Michal Sayfan, and Smith) has a brief, arresting solo that’s subtly different from those of her colleagues.
Naharin makes interesting musical choices. His 2008 B/olero is set to Isao Tomita’s refiguring of Maurice Ravel’s famous “Bolero” for synthesizer. It sounds almost delicate with its tinny percussion, wobbly flute tones, and kazoo-like sounds, and its otherworldly ambiance contrasts intriguingly with the power of Alezra and Smith. There’s no pause between this and the preceding piece. The two women wear the same black dresses as before and inhabit the same set of medium-height dark gray walls. Whether they’re moving in unison or counterpoint, they’re grounded—their legs often wide apart, their knees bent. Schooled in the training technique, Gaga, that Naharin has devised, they’re both powerful and highly flexible in every muscle and joint. When they stride or thrust a leg out into space, they seem to devour an unexpected amount of space. Their bodies seem heated, malleable in spite of their boldness; movement travels through them like branching currents, opening up new avenues of flow.
That’s true of Garfinkel, Nossan, and Sayfan in Park (an excerpt from the 1999 Moshe), which is set to equally pungent music by the Finnish duo Pan Sonic. The lighting (by Bambi and Naharin) hits the three in the face. Standing mics are brought in for them, and they chant in unison words I can’t understand, angling their hips and shoulders into stopped poses, jetting briefly away from the mics and then returning.
The final Black Milk (1985/1991) comes after a five-minute pause (counted down on a projected video of the motionless or barely moving recumbent women). This is a very different sort of piece—more of a ritual, less involved with repetition. Now the women wear full, draped pants by Rakefet Levi with matching bandeaux around their breasts. The music is Paul Smadbeck’s “Etude no. 3 for Marimba.” In the beginning, one woman (Garfinkel) is separated from the group, and the others are clustered around a large pail. After a few moments, they line up and sit downstage. One by one, each dips into the pail and smears her cheeks and the front of her body with thick, shiny, gray paint, after which, with a meaningful look, she passes the bucket to the next woman. The act and the increasingly driving music spur them to rushing about, leaping, jumping straight up. But in this piece, they also touch one another. Sayfan presses herself against another woman’s back and lays her head on her companion’s shoulder. One dancer lies down and another repeatedly sits her up and pushes her down. Garfinkel may be an initiate. In the end, she again kneels by the pail and starts splashing its contents on herself. A miracle! Now it’s clear water, and she washes herself clean. A fit ending to work that clears dance of excess and makes it thrillingly legible.
Another Israel choreographer has been showing her work here—several blocks west of the Joyce at the Kitchen. Where Naharin contains intensity in pristine forms, Yasmeen Godder lets chaos rule within highly flexible boundaries. A choreographer cannot, for instance, plan exactly how thick green paint will splatter on a performer’s head, when another bites down on the green balloon he’s been holding in his mouth. She can’t be sure just how limbs will thrash and tangle when three dancers fall on one another in an erotic adventure so close to an improvised wrestling match that it’s doomed to fail.
Godder’s Singular Sensation has been drawing awe-struck reviews ever since its premiere in 2008. While her 2004 Strawberry Cream and Gunpowder (it was shown here in the 2006 Lincoln Center Festival) dealt with the destabilizing effects of living and working in an endangered atmosphere, Singular Sensation deals with a phenomenon not entirely exclusive to Israel. The media—reality shows and talent competitions or eating ordeals in particular—have upped the ante on extravagant and violent behavior as performance. Real tears, real blood, shocking confessions…. And the arts often fall in line in terms of gore and explicit sex. What does it take to excite us out of our numbness these days? How much sensation do we need?
One aspect of this provocative work is that the five performers are always “on”—eyeing us to gauge our reactions, wooing us, challenging us. The white floor that curves up at either side contains them, while the black wall at the back braces them when they need support (set by Oren Sagiv). Matan Zamir’s initial, weirdly puckish solo introduces us to a world where self-awareness has been fatally skewed. Wearing mottled tights and an indecipherable logo T-shirt, he sends us suspicious, slitty-eyed looks as he wiggles his hips, smacks his belly, falls, laughs, and turns his body into rubber. Repeatedly, he sticks out his tongue, but at the side of his mouth. He also turns his index fingers into guns as he falls and stumbles to his feet.
War lurks in the sound score that meshes together Random Inc & Tim Hecker, Panda Porn, Ziv Jacob, Rona Geffen, Gabi Lala, and Throbbing Gristle. Roaring, rumbling, exploding sounds are sometimes at a bass level that shakes the floor under your feet and messes with your stomach. Also breaking waves, heavy piano notes, what might be artillery fire, and other drastic disruptive rhythms and noises.
Inbal Lieblich’s costumes combine the everyday with the gaudy in disorienting ways. Inbal Aloni begins wearing a slightly lumpy, oddly cut purple velvet dress. Shuli Enosh has a shiny, sleeveless top over dark leggings. Sara Wilhelmsson’s initial top is a gorgeous black job, heavily embroidered in silver, and her fingers on one hand are tipped with long, red rubber talons. Tsuf Itschaky wears sportier, more casual clothes. Entering and leaving the action periodically, they’re suspicious of one another or moved to hilarity. Not only do their bodies function in gawkily extravagant ways, their mouths are constantly falling opening, smirking, pouting, laughing, crying.
Although all of them, especially the woman, display the practiced erotic come-ons of burlesque or porn stars, they have their own peculiarities. Aloni is constantly, smilingly flirtatious—casting sidelong glances, arching her back, spreading her legs. Sometimes she blinks her eyes rapidly. Enosh—given to fits of shaking—is catlike, her hands poised like paws. Tall, svelte, blond Wilhelmsson struts like a model and is adept at disdainful looks and domineering strategies. Itschaky fancies himself a stud, but becomes a victim. All the performers are given to pulling up their shirts to show us their bellies.
Their contacts with one another are fraught. Itschaky holds Aloni almost upside down and jounces her around. He rides Enosh as if she’s his pony. After Zamir has spat the green stuff onto the seated Itschaky’s head, the latter doffs his protective dark glasses and returns to the action, fists raised. But he still has plugs sticking out of his ears, and for a few seconds you can view him as Odysseus, guarding himself against the three sirens tangling seductively together. In an elaborate sequence near the end, Zamil pulls Enosh’s pantyhose off and puts the top part over his head; she, holding the feet, swings him around like a dog on a leash.
Occasionally, the valiant and gifted performers do “dance,” but that plays a minor role in the evening. More often, they handle objects like kindergarten kids on the loose. Wilhelmsson chews off her red fingertips and spits them out. The performers spew glittering confetti. Aloni uses dry pasta as decoration (of herself and others). Wilhelmsson enters in gold trunks with a belt of little green bags and a bulging bra. Standing (luckily) on a sheet of plastic, she caresses the scissors meaningfully, punctures the green sacs to release more goo, and stabs her breasts—all the while wriggling enticingly. The breasts turn out to be oranges, which the performers can squeeze on one another, or into their own mouths.
Godder fights excess with excess. A daring move. I honor her for it, even though there came a point when I, for one, badly wanted Singular Sensation’s final orgy to end. The horrible climax comes when everyone gangs up to turn Itschaky into a kind of superhero victim. By the end, he’s got the oranges stuffed in his sleeves, masquerading as muscles; the pantyhose are over his head; and Zamir has wound yards of plastic wrap around on top of that, casually poking a breathing hole or two for him. Then they all hoist him up and squish his feet into a molded pile of red jello.
At the end, Aloni walks in wearing dark glasses, high heels, a trench coat, and a headscarf. She has wiped off the red lipstick and walks clumsily. She scrunches up her mouth and emits a couple of little “pssht!” explosions. Zamir laughs at her and stumbles out. But when he comes back to pin his shirt to the wall like a trophy, she turns her back to us, exposes herself to him, and then slumps against the wall, one shoe off.
Is she meant to represent the “ordinary” person, hiding behind the disguise of approved behavior, who is unavoidably goaded by the sensation-prodding extremes deluging contemporary society? Maybe.
I applaud Godder’s bravery and that of the sensational performers (no pun intended). The New York skyline and the nearly full moon outside the Kitchen have never looked so misleadingly benign.