Disco Thunder Drives Dancers as Naharin Pumps Up Theater

Dancers crawl along the edges of an octagonal stage. They huddle and shiver and single each other out in a primitive ritual.

A spotlight picks out the Tel Aviv’s company members writhing against a wall. They’re stripping and gyrating to disco music. At other times, the panting of the dancers is the only sound you hear.

There are sudden intakes of breath from the audience, smack in the middle of the movement.

“A lot of what I do is to find a playground,” choreographer Ohad Naharin says in an interview at a cafe across the street from his Batsheva Dance Company building. “I create rules and codes for the games, and I take the games very, very seriously. Much more seriously than I take myself.”

“In all my work there is overlap,” says Naharin, taking a sip of tea -- hot water with lemon and ginger with honey on the side. “It is just something that comes to me and has to do with discoveries we experience and how I mix form and content.”

His latest piece “The Hole” follows “Sadeh21,” which opens with what sounds like an explosion or thunder. He produced the score under the pseudonym Maxim Waratt: As a child he studied music and often is involved in the dance soundtracks.

Naharin, 60, began dancing professionally in 1974 with Batsheva, after completing mandatory military service in Israel. He was spotted by modern dance’s Martha Graham, who invited him to join her company in New York.

Juilliard Doctorate

He studied at Juilliard for a year, danced with different companies, and started his own before being appointed artistic director of Batsheva in 1990. He received an honorary doctorate from Juilliard last month.

“I feel like I’ve always just continued to dance,” Naharin says.

In “Sadeh21,” the set is a blank wall and the dancers improvise props. Naharin says he spoiled himself creating “The Hole,” which requires an elaborate set. It has a ceiling grid from which company members release tiny firecrackers onstage while a couple dances a duet. The piece ends as dancers swing -- high above the stage and audience.

The company itself struggles financially. A wall in one of the studios threatens to collapse, the rooms lack a sound system and pay rates are low, Naharin says. Israel invests a minuscule amount of its annual budget in arts and culture, and the funds are distributed among hundreds of companies and musicians.

Air Guitar

In Naharin’s recent works, serious dancing is broken by moments of humor, where dancers take muscle-building poses, or play air-guitar to dance music.

Naharin says he learned to laugh at himself from American choreographer Gina Buntz. His choreography stems from the Gaga movement language he developed over years.

“If we listen to the flow of information in our body, we can become very efficient, explosive and clear,” says Naharin.

The company also trains teachers in the movement and offers classes in Gaga to the public and professional dancers.

“Gaga is a growing force in the larger field of movement,” Juilliard says on its website.

“Juilliard helped me gain perspective,” Naharin replies.

He has won numerous awards at home and abroad, including the Israel Prize for Dance, two New York Bessies and the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival award for lifetime achievement.

“It is just something that comes out of me,” he says. “It is only as good as the dancers are. There is the choreographer but what I love is being moved by the dancers.”

(Gwen Ackerman writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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