An inflatable white guy, cousin to the floppy figure sometimes visible at auto dealerships, dominated the stage at the start of Naharin’s Virus, Ohad Naharin’s 2001 adaptation of a Peter Handke play written in 1966 called Offending the Audience. First seen here in 2002, when Naharin’s Batsheva company performed it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Virus is currently on view at the Joyce, danced by the troupe’s Young Ensemble, a collection of gifted artists still in their twenties.
Naharin, who’s directed the Israeli troupe since 1990 and recently announced his impending retirement, invented a movement language called Gaga that’s oddly similar to the inadvertent choreography of the wildly gyrating plastic figure, his pliant spine reliant on a hidden source of power.
Outside the Joyce on the Eighth Avenue sidewalk earlier this week, two different protesting groups, contained behind police barriers, vied for public attention as the opening-night audience arrived; security guards carefully searched and grilled us. Batsheva, whose summer tour to the States is supported in part by the Israeli government, drew the ire of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and supporters of Bibi Netanyahu’s policies hollered back. Inside the theater, sixteen dancers, nine women and seven men, toggled among powerful movement, rapt silence, Handke’s language, and snippets of personal disclosure.
Virus asks a lot of its young performers. In addition to dancing they scaled the blackboard-like walls of the set, climbed and descended the stairs behind it, and marked all over the walls with chalk, creating capital letters bigger than they are and writing commentary in several languages, including English and Hebrew. “PLASTELINA,” five of them inscribed on the back wall while the others performed adagio phrases in perfect alignment. Was this an anagram of Palestine, or the misspelling of a modeling clay called Plastilina? Alongside the huge letters were doodles of the sort first graders might produce, or adolescents in the thrall of a crush: a jewel, a kite, a little house.
Wearing Rakefet Levy’s black tights and white leotards incorporating gloves, they moved in unison and separately. They also talked to us. Evyatar Omesy, a sturdy, bearded man in a suit, stood atop the blackboard wall clutching a microphone, speaking Handke’s text. Periodically he sidled sideways and dropped down to join the other dancers, leaving the rigid suit, a kind of false front designed by Zohar Shoef, standing by itself on the high ledge. Down below, a female dancer scribbled a bright red square atop some white graffiti. Another woman carved a huge circle with many layers of chalk. Once in a while a couple embraced; a man dangled a woman from atop the wall.
Karni Postel’s original music, interspersed with smarmy passages from Samuel Barber and other composers as well as Arab folk music, segued in and out: We heard high-pitched sounds, ardent percussion, even church bells. At one point the movement resembled an Israeli folk dance, with an undertone of military marching.
The intervening decades have not been kind to the Handke play; what seemed outrageous fifty years ago sounds pompous and obvious in 2018. The stream of amplified insults that wrapped up the hour-long work, perhaps trying to goad spectators out of their seats, is all too familiar to us now. Hardly shocking anymore, it’s the rhetoric of our bloviating president’s tweets, a spate of name-calling that still makes us squirm. The empty suit, the hollow declarations, a girl’s whimpering confession of a loss of faith: They’re the stuff of our news broadcasts and our nightmares. Naharin’s Virus has infected us. Our culture, like that inflatable dancer, is full of hot air.