Dancing the human condition

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday November 12, 2014
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"Crazy!" is the first thing every dancer said about Batsheva, the Israeli dance troupe that San Francisco Performances presented at Yerba Buena last weekend. The things those dancers can do outdo the weird and wonderful moves of every contemporary dance company in the known world. They've got spines like snakes, legs like octopus tentacles, and they can jump like frogs. And yet, these moves are not just weird, they're expressive. They actually mean something.

Batsheva Dance Company in Sadeh 21 choreographed by Ohad Naharin. Photo: Gadi Dagon

This is true even if the dancer is sitting on her butt cheeks, shaped like a hairpin, with her legs in the air six inches in front of her shoulders �" i.e., she's got a hair-pin curve at her butt, and she's like a jackknife with her legs in the air and her back upright, and she's scuffling forwards on her butt cheeks an inch at a time as if her life depended on it. You believe that she's got to make contact with the sweet idiot she's moving towards �" yes, he's speaking in gibberish, he's the idea of Babel, but she's got to attach her clitoris to his ankle, and she accomplishes this, and we're �" in spite of ourselves �" glad she made it, and she wraps her legs around him like a seventh-grader, and makes him drag her offstage.

Batsheva are true to their expressionist forebears, Martha Graham from the USA, and Mary Wigman from central Europe. The company, which was founded in Tel Aviv 50 years ago by Graham's patroness the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, with Graham as artistic advisor, gave me a visceral response to the truth of their expression, for the first time in a long time. I felt the moves the dancers were making actually corresponded to aspects of the human condition, and that they were killing themselves to realize a vision that really corresponds to the way human beings live now. I kept feeling that I had to imagine myself as an Israeli, where both men and women are subject to military service as 21-year-olds, which no American has to do nowadays. At the end of the piece, which was called Sadeh 21 [21 Fields], when the dancers began to fall backwards over the low rampart that hemmed in the stage, I heard myself think, "They're not coming back," and I lost it completely, doubled over in my chair, put my head in my hands, and felt my body wracked with weeping.