Batsheva's Deca Dance: Dance Beyond Boycott
I should have known I was going to a political event. I didn’t see it coming until the very day that I was scheduled to see *Deca Dance*, choreographed by Israeli artist Ohad Naharin, and performed by the "Batsheva Dance Company":http://www.batsheva.co.il/ of Tel Aviv. I suppose I’m glad that I read Jessica Werb’s "short piece":http://straight.com/article-202620/batsheva-could-face-picketers-tonight in the Georgia Straight; knowing in advance that there would be protests outside of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, I had time to collect my thoughts before I approached the venue and heard the bellowing of a voice through a megaphone crying out “Dead children can’t dance”.
But why boycott Batsheva? Of course I understand the reasons behind the protest; the horrors that have taken place in recent weeks and months in Gaza are innumerable and bloody and fresh. In today’s news, the role of Prime Minister has all but been handed over to Benjamin Netanyahu whose right wing, hawkish notoriety precedes him. Though perhaps an even more discouraging sign of the times, Israeli president, Shimon Perez, who has long been known for his dovish ways, recently publicly lamented that Israel withdrew from Gaza in the first place, as this seemed to create the power vacuum that made room for Hamas. There are many reasons to protest against the policies and acts of the Israeli government, but I can’t help but feel that protesting Batsheva is a bit misplaced.
In the author’s notes of the novel Life of Pi Yann Martel writes: “If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imaginations on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams”. Watching the superlative talent that went into Deca Dance, I was transfixed; how could participating in such imaginative, such beautiful, such clever art not be edifying? *Deca Dance* was such a tremendous offering that I feel certain that such a performance has the ability to reach people in a way that transcends the harsh reality of life in the quagmire that is the Middle East. If art is the triumph of imagination over crude reality, then Deca Dance is the proverbial victor, vanquishing the ordinary with the power of creativity as its only weapon. At the risk of sounding naïve and overly idealistic, I have to wonder: if the small group of protesters outside had snuck in and watched Naharin’s choreography, would they be moved out of the rigidity of rhetoric and into the relative softness of dialogue? Would they see something in the work of these immensely talented Israelis that showed them that they too are human with the same longings for peace and security and the same fears as their Palestinian brethren?
I have seen precious few dance shows in my life that hit me in the way that *Deca Dance* did. As I write, I’m considering adding this show to my very short list of all time favourites which currently includes only three other pieces: _Le Cri du Monde_ by "Marie Chouinard":http://www.mariechouinard.com/flash.html, _Masurca Fogo_ by "Pina Bausch":http://www.pinabausch.de/and _Kagemi_ by "Sankai Juku":http://www.sankaijuku.com/sankaijuku_e.htm What all of these works share is a grounding in technical excellence on all fronts, but beyond that, each of these choreographies draws power from its ability to excavate the depths and all the layers of the human imagination and psyche, and to emerge with a coherent work that is, at once, utterly original and totally recognizable as the sometimes beautiful, sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragic reflection of what it means to be a living, thinking, sensitive human being in a world that contains beauty and sorrow, violence and redemption.
*Deca Dance* opened with a single male dancer performing a staged pre-show show. The house lights were on, the audience talked and milled about and the whole time this lone dancer moved to the rhythm of music that was part swing, part show tune, all the while making us feel like were the privileged recipients of a special feature. The dancer played with and to the audience, literally inviting members to join in the fun that he was having. This set the inviting tone for the piece: *Deca Dance* was captivating throughout, moving seamlessly through sections that were humourous, sections that were dark, and sections that brought the artists and the audience into the realm of the absurd; all the while the dancers maintained a level of technical excellence and emotional commitment and absorption that not only sustained the piece but made it a glorious, exalted work of art.
Once the audience was fully seated, the solo dancer pulled a suit jacket over his white shirt and without even a pause he was joined by the rest of the dancers who were now moving to a rocked up version of “Hava Nagilah”. There’s nothing so powerful as a large number of dancers on stage, especially when they have the level of unison and clarity of intent that Naharin’s dancers clearly have. All 17 of them wore the same suit as the first dancer, reminding me somewhat of Jean-Pierre Perreault’s choreography "Joe":http://www.nac-cna.ca/en/nacnews/viewnews.cfm?ID=703&cat=cat; and as in that work the dancers in *Deca Dance* managed to suggest the power of unison and congregation while also exhibiting their individual talents.
In this first section, the dancers were all eventually seated in chairs that were arranged in a semi-circle, although seated seems like the wrong word for what they were doing. They were engaged in a repetitive, highly kinetic sequence that had each dancer moving as if performing an extraordinarily athletic duet with his or her chair. However, it was the music that seized my intellectual and emotional attention. The music, played at top volume, was a version – punctuated by what sounded like the earth shaking beat of taiko drums — of a Hebrew song that is typically sung at the Passover meal (the seder) once the religious rituals and the meal are finished. The song “Echad mi yodea?” is a counting song that enumerates the 13 attributes of God. It begins and ends with the words: “Echad mi yodea? Echad ani yodea. Echad Elokeinu, shebashamaim uva’aretz” or, translated, “Who knows one? I know one. One is God, our God of the heavens and of earth.” That line is returned to over and again, thirteen times to be exact, (though Naharin, like so many weary families at Passover, elected to shorten the song) and each time the dancers got to that line there was a sense of emotional catharsis that bordered on the ecstatic. If this had been the only piece in the evening, it would have been enough for me.
With this section Naharin reminded me of the beauty of my own somewhat spiritually cynical father pouring his heart fully into the song every year at Passover, letting the music work its magic by drawing him in without restraint, prompting him to leave doubt behind. It was thus that Naharin also evoked the idea of the sacred and of the transcendent power of prayer, his own art performing for the audience what the song was clearly doing for the dancers. I have a stubborn belief that no matter the form we project onto God, we, all of us, pray to the same force. Seeing this piece I could only think that surely there is a way for the terrible differences between people to be bridged. Even if I am wrong in thinking this, Naharin’s courageous exploration had the emotional depth and breadth to lead me to this feeling, if only for a short time.
*Deca Dance* was not a singular, cohesive piece. It was a series of re-constructions of several of Naharin’s previous choreographies; however, the overall effect was so smooth that I could scarcely tell where one piece ended and the next began. It was as if the various themes and styles were made to embrace each other, each one complementing the next, showing that a choreographer whose work is of such a consistently high caliber can easily weave together his varied threads to create an aesthetically beautiful tapestry, the marvel of the sum exceeding the already elevated value of each part.
Another section that stood out was a hilariously clever and quirky piece where the dancers, garbed once again in their suits, this time with the addition of brimmed hats, entered the audience and selected a partner. This had the potential for embarrassment, for a unique form of theatre of cruelty. But instead the dancers displayed an elegant and highly disciplined ability to lead their partners through a fluidly choreographed pas-de-deux that mimicked the tango, amongst other partner dances. Although some of the audience partners looked nervous to begin with, the dancers’ friendly humour and relaxed yet certain demeanor amply demonstrated that anyone can look graceful in the arms of a good lead.
And I should say, too, that there was something that was at once chic in its formality and delightfully ironic about the dancers’ suits. In their black outfits and broadly brimmed hats, they vaguely resembled Hasidic Jews, or perhaps Amish men. Yet the choreography bordered on cheekily funny, and the music included a version of “Over the Rainbow”, thus gently playing with the apparent seriousness of the dancers’ attire. And this is one of the things that Naharin excels at: injecting an unexpected and perfectly timed element of humour that is so witty and so intelligently executed that it doesn’t even come close to undermining the gravity of his work.
In the spirit of risk, *Deca Dance* included moments of nudity that were at once provocative and comedic in a measured way, sudden transitions that could have come across as being abrupt, but were perfectly handled, and a series of nearly Degas-like tableaus that were underscored by a soundtrack that instructed the audience (or perhaps the dancers) to “Pay your taxes. Fuck. And if you can’t fuck, copulate. Make money, but don’t work too hard…Drink enough to relax”.
After the intermission, there was only one piece left, and for this the dancers were costumed casually in t-shirts or tank tops and short pants that went just to the knee. They opened as though they were on the dance floor of a club. This evolved into a more ordered and serious piece whose choreography dived into the realm of human sexuality, exploring the full spectrum of playfulness to violence. It was as the piece grew more somber that I noticed that the pants many of the dancers were wearing reminded me of military fatigues. And then I realized that if most of the dancers are Israeli, many of them probably have only recently finished their military service. Reflecting on this, the dance became an eerie reminder of my Israeli cousins, all of them born and bred, like Naharin, on a kibbutz, all of them hungry for peace in the region. The intensity of the dance on the stage brought to mind a comment one of my cousins once made about the splitting that so many young Israelis feel; he explained that he feels obliged to serve his country, but is also frustrated to the point of devastation at the ongoing violence. All this was explained to me while we sat outside his kibbutz’s Saturday night “disco” where young Israelis, some of them home for the weekend from their military service, let loose after long weeks of discipline and of shouldering their part of the burden of a country mired in conflict. The dancers on the stage, so young in appearance, have probably carried a similar weight, and I wished that they could go outside and introduce themselves to the protesters as the eloquent interpreters of a lofty and visionary imagination. Leaving the theatre, I felt precisely what Yann Martel meant. It is the freedom to think imaginatively and to see possibilities that do not yet exist that might be able to save us, if even for an evening, from perishing on the altar of crass reality.
_Deca Dance by Batsheva Dance Company of Israel performed at The Vancouver Playhouse, Sep 20 and 21. It was presented by Chutzpah!, DanceHouse and Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad. More information can be found_ here: http://www.chutzpahfestival.com/dance.html#2