Published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine, Fall issue, 2007

No one who’s witnessed Ohad Naharin’s choreographic genius would blame the former artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company if he coasted on his prodigious talent, one that has rewarded New York audiences since the 1990s. But in Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s mounting of DECADANCE, a 10-year survey of his work playing throughout June 2007 at their home in New York’s Chelsea, a palpable sense of communion pervades the air. It’s clear the mere presentation of dance that looks like no one else’s isn’t enough: beyond Naharin’s explorations of violence, sensuality and ritual lies a desire to meld with those of us in the dark. He wants us involved, pitched so precariously forward in our seats that we might actually fall across the footlight’s divide into the hurricane.

From the opening (the Arab line excerpt from his 2003 Naharin’s Virus) and throughout, connection is forged both subtly and aggressively. A rumble of feet in the dark precedes the moment the lights come up on dancers in nude tights from neck to thigh, a Hieronymus Bosch portrait by way of Weimar Germany. But never mind the simulated flesh: it’s the mutual perusal that stimulates our senses. The dancer’s eyes are glued to ours in the kind of long-held stare that feels like infinity, the shared breath between performers and audience suspended before the dance—small sways, punctuated by the combustible spasms of individual dancers, like spiders on speed—shatters the calm.

Naharin exploits such contrasts all evening. The quiet that allows you to hear the slap of feet on thighs or the exhalations of a soloist, can vanish in the haze of omnipotent voiceovers or peals of Vivaldi; suspension juxtaposes with forceful bodily action that’s heart-stopping for the obvious physical prowess it demands and without exception, receives from a company that Naharin, in a three-month period, made over into one thoroughly at home with his style. It’s a melting brew of ballet, jazz and modern, leavened with supreme athleticism and his signature spinal fluidity: think vertebrae reconstituted as mercury.

Black Milk (1985) is a superb example of such friction: in brightly paneled skirts (the striking costumes by Rakefet Levy deserve a show of their own) four young males converge around a drinking well. Away from the group, a lone male (the magnificent Nickemil Concepcion) keeps his own council. A ceremonial act of mud-smearing triggers a challenge, and the solitary figure is drawn into the world of the others, acting out myriad chapters of male sexuality and brutality through a blaze of leaps, glides and rapid, pulsing steps. It’s a return to the primordial forests of centuries past, where bravado reigns, though occasionally nulled by fear and tenderness, etched notably in the painterly embraces Naharin creates for Concepcion and Riley Watts.

What a contrast to George and Zalman (2006) a dance for the company’s women in which Degas’s ballerinas time travel to a 21st century expunged of Impressionism in favor of one wrought by Margaret Atwood. Swathed in black catholic-schoolgirl uniforms (here, the costumes were conceived by Dahlia Lider), they show a coming of age filtered through inundating societal messages. A robotic female voice intones (“Ignore all possible concepts, the spider, the damnation of the Faust”), crippling the dancers in a perverse standing barre filled with jerks and skewered balances. The weight of those words raining down like daily pressures burrows into the soul—theirs and ours.
I was thrilled to see two of the works from Anaphaza, the remarkable evening helmed by Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company for the Lincoln Center Festival in 2003. An excerpt from Echad opened the second act here (it was the curtain raiser at Lincoln Center); when Naharin created it, the Israeli government thought it incendiary enough to request he change it but what’s shocking isn’t the near nudity, or the choice of music (a Passover song). The word explosion doesn’t do justice to what happens when dancers seated on metal chairs burst into jackknifing patterns of arms and legs that culminate in a fleeting wave as one by one, bodies erupt in fierce backbends from stage right to left; try to imagine 11 human beings literally blowing up before your eyes—then replay that jerk and release over and over, punctuated by another article of flung clothing, and you might surmise the impact of this sequence. On the night I saw the show one dancer hurled backwards with such velocity that he severed his chair, a testament to the kind of no-holds barred commitment such movement demands.
Entreating an audience’s participation is a risky thing, but here Naharin resurrects a sequence where dancers pull patrons on stage for a tango and a waltz. The result was a true collaboration: some of the more game audience members unfurled a few fancy moves of their own to complement their partner’s spins, splits and backbends. We held our collective breath when the company, in a circular run, appeared on the verge of trampling one elderly participant but the dancers—fleet, sure—avoided disaster. Cedar Lake’s intimate space, one that joined audience and performers in the kind of buoyant collusion that made the improvisation feel like a happening, mitigated the moment’s potential gimmickry.
In DECADANCE there’s enough richness to populate a dozen separate evenings. I won’t soon forget the lonely disquieting duet for Jason Kittelberger and Acacia Schachte; the dance’s subtext—Kittelberger’s supplicant sowing seeds (or was he sprinkling holy water?) as Schachte shirks, then dissolves into his ministrations—blossomed into a gliding series of intimate lifts and clutches without losing its air of mystic ritual. Heather Hamilton on glittery stilts was a lip-synching Dietrich from outer space in an excerpt from 1997’s Sabotage Baby and during intermission, puckish Jon Bond held us in thrall, humorously vamping and voguing in slow motion; eyes locked on us, he tossed off hair-raising feats of pointe and balance work with deceptive simplicity.
The show ends with the full company back in their underwear, dancing furiously to Morton Steven’s theme from Hawaii Five-0. Their disco inferno swells to a sequence of leaps before the dancers break into another fast, circular run that conjured a herd of beautiful wild horses. What an apt metaphor for Naharin’s vision of dance, one unbridled by convention, so bounteous in its generosity that the standing ovation at show’s end seemed inadequate thanks.

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Presented by Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, New York, June 7 – July 1, 2007

With:
Jubal Battisti
Jon Bond
Nickemil Concepcion
William Vaughn Credell
Shani Garfinkel
Heather Hamilton
Jessica Lee Keller
Jason Kittelberger
Andrea Miller
Oscar Ramos
Matt Rich
Acacia Schachte
Jessica Coleman Scott
Riley Watts
Kristen Weiser

Choreographer – Ohad Naharin
Stage Manager – Norva Bennett
Original Lighting Design – Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi)
Original Costume Design – Rakefet Levy
Cedar Lake Artistic Director – Benoit-Swan Pouffer
Cedar Lake Executive Director – Gregg Mudd
Founder – Nancy Laurie