Gaga over Naharin

Confronting the Israeli pioneer

SADEH21 choreography by Ohad Naharin. Presented by the Batsheva Dance Company and Luminato at the MacMillan Theatre (80 Queen’s Park). Opens June 14 and runs to June 16, Thursday-Saturday 8 pm. $35-$85. See listing.

The thought of doing a phone interview with Ohad Naharin, choreographer and artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, is, frankly, intimidating.

Naharin has a reputation for being reserved and politely circumspect with the media. A pioneer of contemporary dance, he’s carved out a space for the form in a volatile region of the world that might have more urgent things on its mind than art. His dances, though not overtly political, are not shy about confronting human realities, and are loved and sometimes vilified by audiences and critics around the world.

When Naharin curtly asks me to call back in five the first time I try to connect with him long distance to Tel Aviv, I get even more nervous.

Turns out what I’d heard about him is true, but Naharin is also playful and compassionate, just like some of his best work – Anaphaza (2003) and Hora (2009), for example, which include comic references to everything from Jewish orthodoxy to dance history.

“We take what we do very seriously,” he tells me. “But we do not take ourselves too seriously.”

Humour and pleasure are essential to his process, yet Naharin’s dances can have moments of violence or sorrow as well. His newest Batsheva work, Sadeh21 (Field 21), has already played to rave reviews in Jerusalem and Hamburg it was co-commissioned by Luminato, so Naharin is especially excited about bringing it to Toronto.

By all accounts, its barrage of movement by 18 dancers leaves audiences feeling at once sorrowful and exhilarated. If Sadeh21 achieves the same effect as Naharin’s other masterworks, it will be largely due to those dancers, whom he credits as co-creators of the piece.

“I was free to mix, use them or not,” he says, “but a lot of the ingredients came from the dancers.”

What makes the work very special for Naharin is the degree to which those raw ingredients are blended with his own obsession with coherency in form.

“It’s never one without the other.”

His deep commitment to exploring and playing with movement as a group has also informed Gaga, which has nothing to do with the Lady but is a movement language system he’s been developing with his dancers over many years.

“It has a lot to do with things I discovered about how I wanted to take care of my body,” says the 60-year-old artist.

“It’s demanding, but it’s always done with lots of [attention] to where you hurt. I don’t allow the dancers to work with pain, for example – only the burning-muscle kind. They learn how to listen to the scope of their senses to heal their body, strengthen their body, free their body. There’s a lot of pleasure in that.”

The company leads a workshop in Gaga for non-dancers over the age of 18 on June 16 at the Parkdale library branch. It’s free, but space is limited register at 416-393-7686.

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