By Marcia B. Siegel
This mysterious dance may have no meaning at all beyond its cryptic theatricality and movement. Or it may mean a lot.
Venezuela by Ohad Naharin. Batsheva Dance Company of Israel presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at Boch Shubert Theater, Boston, April 5 and 6.
Somewhere in the middle of Batsheva’s Venezuela, a man gets draped with cloths that the other dancers have carried in — a possible burial garment. One of the women regards him thoughtfully; then, just as he starts to sit up, she launches herself at him and they both topple to the ground. Soon after this, the woman sits on the man, who’s now lying on his stomach, and he inches them forward. Other prone dancers are also inching forward by their elbows. In between these actions, individual dancers emerge from the group to do their own phrases of tortured movement.
This mysterious dance may have no meaning at all beyond its cryptic theatricality and movement. Or it may mean a lot. When you try to understand, you can’t write off the many provocative signs offered. Taken by itself, the movement looks intricate. It could be impersonal, because the 20 dancers maintain neutral expressions no matter what they’re doing. The dance is given twice in succession. The second time, a different cast takes the main roles; the lighting and music are different. That’s when you can see things that you’ve seen before, with slight movement differences.
We’re informed the Batsheva dancers study Gaga with former company director Ohad Naharin, and that means they’re seeking to make their movement deeply personal. Naharin developed Gaga, a form of dance training that’s usually called “research” rather than “technique.” His mother is a practitioner of Feldenkrais therapy, one of several approaches to healing the mind-body split that everyone in the movement fields discovered in the 1960s and ’70s. His father was an actor and psychologist. Naharin’s Gaga is not specifically a therapeutic method, but it does ask participants to explore every aspect of their body to achieve psychic and psychological integration. It doesn’t prescribe exact moves so much as prepare the body to move expressively. Gaga is taught all over the world now. Dancers love it because it frees them to go as far as their bodies will let them.
Naharin doesn’t call himself Venezuela’s choreographer, and the dance doesn’t have much set choreography in the traditional sense. Groups of people share certain actions, without working toward the formality of choreographed unison. Several times, the dancers group together and share a repeating pattern — walking or skipping or stepping from foot to foot — that can serve as a background for individual actions. These groups aren’t like ballet ensembles, where everyone tries to do the same movement in the same way. Naharin’s dancers explore each action according to their own physicality.
In one arresting scene, five women straddle five men who are crawling forward on all fours. They’re all going at slightly different speeds. Imperceptibly, the women put down their feet and stand while their mounts continue on. The sequence is very calm, even when the women suddenly leap back onto the men’s backs. When the dance repeats, the music switches from Gregorian chant to Arabic song. The men roll onto their sides and gaze at their captors, and the whole sequence looks exotic, as if we should be seeing a belly dance.
Venezuela as a whole looked more decorative the second time: wrists, arms, heads and shoulders seemed to move in curvier ways. When the group was skipping around the stage, it seemed to me the second group of dancers were more invested in covering space than the weightier first group.
I’ve always believed dancers don’t put things on the stage if they don’t mean to. Venezuela was so strong and effective, and it held so many overt clues besides the movement—I didn’t expect them to do sobbing contractions when they wanted to be perceived as sad. But I’m sure those sudden solo outbursts weren’t just random releases of energy.
And what about the music? The first repetition was accompanied mostly by Gregorian chant from the Middle Ages — pure, uninflected men’s and women’s choruses singing the Christian liturgy. The second half featured vocals and rhythms from the Middle East, India, and the Western rap world. Were these nothing but aural contrasts?
I learned a lot by digging around the Internet. On an undated Vimeo of an open rehearsal at Paris’ Théâtre du Chaillot, Naharin and the company ran though one section a couple of times. I realized that the individual outbursts had probably been touched off by a flamethrowing rap number, “Bullet in the Head,” by Rage against the Machine. The rappers spew a poem about violent sex, drugs, and fratricide, in graphic detail.
While this track plays, the dancers line up facing the audience. One man paces up and down with a mike, looking earnestly at us as if he has something to say but he doesn’t speak. Other dancers step up from the line and appear similarly stifled. But then the first man drapes his hand around another man’s shoulder and begins whispering to him. Before long, he and the rest are yelling invective along with the rappers. As the diatribe goes on, the dancers burst into individual movement phrases that overlap, stop and start unpredictably.
The words were quite unintelligible on Friday night in Boston. I don’t know if the producers blurred the tape to spare the sensibilities of our audience, or if the Shubert’s sound system had dampened the words. On the Vimeo I could see that the dancers were riffing on the rappers’ words, with lewd gestures, imitation injections, shuddering fits, arms thrown out in abandon.
I’d thought of the piece as having oppositional themes of the group versus the individual; periods of calm versus sudden, jarring interruptions of intensity. But there are deeper dualities in the movements than expressive neutrality and explosive violence. Musically the accompaniments spanned Arabic drumming, angelic voices chanting Catholic prayers, and an angry rabble shouting about outlaw behavior. Could this mix be without political resonance in this day and age?
Both halves of the piece ended with movement and musical phrases that repeated to exhaustion. Eventually the drone we’d been hearing underneath the music got louder and turned into a roar. It finally drowned out the music, then stopped abruptly. As the repeat-performance’s machine music (“Mirage” by BIZ) swept into silence, a woman was kissing the cheek of a man, compulsively, angrily, like a predatory bird.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.