Two women in white lean toward an unseen prize. Together they tread cautiously, captivated. Tenderly they reach for it, claim it, bathe in it. After a beat, they get a sharp slap in the face—each by her own hand. Meanwhile, seated dancers watch without affect.
Part of the beauty with dance is the wordless space it leaves for interpretation. To catch the shifting imagery of Batsheva Dance Company’s Last Work, you must not blink. Luckily, it is hard to look away. Dancers travel from swan-like grace to a pile of twisted bone at the speed of a finger snap. In a particularly mesmerizing scene, a huddled mass of bodies clasps its many fingers, producing a spine at the center of its collective form.
Some imagery lingers: a woman on a treadmill chases nothing in her party dress and slippers. A man in his work clothes runs against a tide of dancers. The group rows its bodies forward like an ensemble of sea waves while he continues the other way.
Throughout the seventy-five-minute piece, dancers go with and against the music, purposefully and unapologetically. Sometimes they provide percussion with their own bodies. Sometimes they are the very picture of fluid elegance. Stunning physical actors, these performers are able to abandon inhibition, stepping back into their graceful skeletons as they please.
Batsheva Dance Company is a force in the new surge of contemporary ballet, renouncing its aristocratic past and embracing the concept of the stage as a canvas for social commentary. Based in Tel Aviv and named for the baroness who backed its creation in 1964, Batsheva originally focused on American modern dance, under the artistic advisement of Martha Graham. Slowly, the works of emerging Israeli choreographers were incorporated into the repertoire, until finally, Ohad Naharin signed on as director in the 1990s.
By implementing his signature “gaga” technique, Naharin created a category of his own. Gaga requires constant movement: a physical stream of consciousness with a focus on connecting to one’s inner groove. Dancers are encouraged to admit, savor, and respond to their joyful thoughts, sensual experiences, and painful twitches of the mind. In class, company members are encouraged to find a rhythm from inside that they can locate in silence or in sound. Teachers call out prompts—ideas or imagery for the dancers to respond to—and the results often end up on stage.
Gone are the days when dancers were seen and not heard. Inside Naharin’s choreography is the streaming imagination of every individual on stage, ensuring that the curtain opens on a living thing. Hopefully, the title of Last Work is not to be taken literally.
Arrive open-minded and early. The show, which the University Musical Society brings to town January 7 and 8, has tons of beauty, some partial nudity, and no late seating.