Going to see the Israeli dance troupe Batsheva is an interesting experience; audience members must first cut a path through the protesters and there are recurrent interruptions to the show. It’s testament to the energy, passion and wit of the Batsheva Ensemble, the junior wing of Batsheva Dance Company, that they are able to maintain their magnetic pull over the crowd while protester after protester is ejected from the auditorium.
While staging a peaceful demonstration outside the theatre can help to raise awareness of the issues affecting Palestinians, attempting to sabotage the show only alienates an audience who have chosen to engage with Batsheva’s creativity and welcome their expression of the many things they want to express; things that state-funded companies from other parts of the world, including the UK, are allowed to express without the insinuation that they are representing their government; things that go beyond politics and, in the way art does, probe the common behaviours and essences that unite and are unique to humanity.
Some protesters would likely argue, as poet Tom Leonard did, speaking to the Sunday Herald, that Palestinians are not able to express themselves with the same freedom as Batsheva. But does the ‘eye for an eye’ argument make interrupting their show right? Batsheva’s Artistic Director Ohad Naharin has said publicly that if the protests outside ‘can help to create a dialogue instead of a conflict then it is a good thing.’ However he makes it clear in the post-show Q&A that disrupting the show is a different matter. ‘If I thought it could help the Palestinian cause I would encourage people to disturb the show…But we have to build, not to destroy.’
What matters here, in the auditorium, during the two hours of the performance, is that Batsheva Ensemble are building dance that is exciting, unpredictable, textured, raw and original. Deca Dance is a whirlwind tour through some of Naharin’s choreographic repertoire, and its surprises never stop until the last note.
The ensemble pulses with a rough muscularity and a sensuousness that cuts across gender divides. In one of the show’s many highlights, a piece called Black Milk, five men in billowing trousers – alternately faun-like and monastic – smear mud all over their faces and chests, create patterns and angles like ancient rock runes evolving, and cover each other in delicate embraces. The women, in their ensemble piece, challenge notions of femininity with frenzied quivering hips and military marches, a reminder perhaps of the fact that in Israel teenagers of both sexes undertake mandatory military service.
There are baroque moments – a gorgeous duet to Vivaldi, offset by the opulent Renaissance lace of the duo’s costumes, underscored by fluid changes of tempo in the dance and the juxtaposition of movement that is one minute robotic, the next intensely human. A joyous segment sees brave audience members brought up on stage – although perhaps the dancers are even braver given the number of hidden protesters in the crowd – to be serenaded in a wacky-but-tender mass partner-dance. These kitschy touches recur in many of the pieces and are characteristic of Naharin’s ‘gaga’ dance language, a twitch of the hips here, a shoulder shimmy there.
The pace never lets up for a second and if the youthful cast lack anything in terms of experience they more than compensate for it with sheer energy. They know when to control each fragment of movement and when to let go, particularly in the final piece, a proud and powerful group dance set to a Passover song that accumulates verses as it progresses. Positioned in a semi-circle, they plunge backwards, one by one, leap into shapes and end by flinging off shoes, shirts and trousers until they are exhausted and exhilarated. It’s a whopping great showstopper of a finale and so memorable I dreamt about it.
It’s a shame that wherever Batsheva perform, unlike other world-class state-funded dance companies, their art can’t be separated from the political associations of their country of origin. But perhaps more sad is the fact that when given the chance to engage in dialogue rather than disruption, the protesters don’t seem to want to respond. Last night in the post-show Q&A Naharin answered a question from a woman in the audience about his acceptance of funding from Israel’s government. Unhappy with his response she tried to interject again. He offered to speak to her more after the show. She ignored him and stormed out.