The mav­er­ick lord of Is­raeli dance

Ahead of the hotly an­tic­i­pated UK per­for­mances by Is­rael’s Bat­sheva Dance­Com­pany,its renowned­di­rec­tor OhadNa­harin talks to Nick­John­stone

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

WH E N Ohad Na­har­in­was a c h i l d grow­ing u p o n K i b b ut z Mizra in the sub­urbs of Haifa, his dancer mother and psy­chol­o­gist fa­ther in­stilled a love of dance in him. “At home,” he says, “we’d al­ways dance.”

They took him to the the­atre, en­cour­aged his in­ter­est in folk danc­ing. Later, he loved gym­nas­tics and mu­sic. Re­gard­less of what he was do­ing while grow­ing up, there was al­ways a fas­ci­na­tion with move­ment at the fore­front of his mind.

“It was al­ways some­thing that I was at­tracted to,” he says. “The plea­sure of move­ment and watch­ing other things move. It wasn’t even just peo­ple, but ma­chines, build­ings, some­thing about struc­ture, form, geo­met­rics, di­men­sions — I was al­ways in awe watch­ing things that move or cre­ate a move­ment.”

At first, Na­harin, who at 56 is one of the world’s lead­ing chore­og­ra­phers, stud­ied mu­sic. Then, in 1974, fol­low­ing mil­i­tary ser­vice in the Is­raeli army, he took a two-week dance course with the Bat­sheva Dance Com­pany in Tel Aviv, which was founded in 1964 by dance pa­troness/bank­ing heiress Baroness Bat­sheva de Roth­schild. Daz­zling his teach­ers, Na­harin was in­vited to join the com­pany. De­spite his age — he was 22; ad­vanced f o r d a n c e — he s a i d yes without hes­i­ta­tion. “ I s t a r t e d f o r m a l l y t r a i n i n g very late,” he says. “But in mysoulIwas al­ways danc­ing. And I had a very easy body for a dancer.”

Months later, his gam­ble paid off as he re­hearsed a piece chore­ographed by dance leg­end Martha Gra­ham (Bat­sheva’s first artis­tic di­rec­tor, on ac­count of a close friend­ship with Roth­schild). While vis­it­ing the stu­dio, Gra­ham was struck by Na­harin.

“We had a very spe­cial re­la­tion­ship,” he re­calls. “I re­minded her of some­one that she re­ally loved, an amaz­ing dancer. She saw him in me. That was what at­tracted her to me.”

What did he learn from her? “She taught me the con­nec­tion be­tween ef­fort and pas­sion,” he says.

Gra­ham in­vited the young dancer to NewYork­top­er­formin­her­work, Ja­cob’s Dream. Once there, he stud­ied at The Juil­liard School in New York. In 1976, he left the Martha Gra­ham Com­pany and went to dance first for Mau­rice Be­jart’s bal­let com­pany in Brus­sels and then for the Bat-Dor dance com­pany in Is­rael (also founded by Roth­schild).

His stel­lar ap­pren­tice­ship com­plete, he re­turned to New York and launched him­self as a free­lance chore­og­ra­pher in 1980. Four years later, he formed the Ohad Na­harin Dance Com­pany, in part­ner­ship with his wife Mari Ka­ji­wara, also a renowned dancer.

In 1987, he be­came guest chore­og­ra­pher for the Ned­er­lands Dans The­ater, cre­at­ing many sem­i­nal works, all of which pushed the bound­aries of mod­ern dance.

And then in 1990, his work hav­ing by then been per­formed world­wide, Na­harin was ap­pointed artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Bat­sheva Dance Com­pany. He has since led Bat­sheva to be­come one of the most revered and soughtafter com­pa­nies in the world. It is the dream of many an as­pir­ing dancer to be ac­cepted into the Ju­nior Bat­sheva en­sem­ble (which Na­harin founded in 1992 to groom young dancers for the se­nior com­pany) and then step up to dance with the se­nior group. So what kind of per­son makes it as a Bat­sheva dancer?

“Peo­ple that are con­nected to their sen­su­al­ity, to their demons,” says Na­harin. “Peo­ple that love to dance without looking at them­selves in the mir­ror — we have no mir­rors in our stu­dio, I don’t al­low them. Peo­ple that look at dance not as some­thing that is dif­fi­cult, but some­thing that is chal­leng­ing be­cause it is very in­tense work and de­mand­ing. Peo­ple that are ca­pa­ble of laugh­ing at them­selves, a sense of hu­mour is im­por­tant. Mu­si­cal­ity, groove — I’m at­tracted to peo­ple with groove. Gen­eros­ity is very im­por­tant for me in the peo­ple I work with. Some­times, I feel that I’m at­tracted to re­bel­lion, to rebels. A lot of my dancers have that.”

For hope­fuls, the odds of winning a place are slim, with the se­nior com­pany em­ploy­ing only 22 dancers, of whom only 17 make the cut for the tour­ing com­pany.

The cur­rent lucky 17 ar­rive here next week (se­cu­rity team in tow — the com­pany has long been a tar­get for ter­ror­ist threats) to per­form two of Na­harin’s lat­est works, Three (a tril­ogy set to mu­sic by Bach, Brian Eno and The Beach Boys) and Mamootot (his first work af­ter an 18month sab­bat­i­cal fol­low­ing his wife’s death from can­cer in 2001). Both prom- ise daz­zling chore­og­ra­phy, ever-eclec­tic mu­si­cal sound­tracks and im­pres­sively tal­ented dancers im­prob­a­bly ca­pa­ble of re­al­is­ing Na­harin’s ever-wilder prob­ings of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of dance.

In con­ceiv­ing a piece such as Three, Na­harins says he fol­lows “many rules”. “A vast num­ber of rules. But ev­ery work starts when I lay out for my­self some lim­i­ta­tions. For Three, I said, I am go­ing to make a work that will be com­posed of three works — an evening of ful­l­length work made out of three sep­a­rate works, each of which can be per­formed on its own. So this was one of the ma­jor lim­i­ta­tions at the beginning.”

From there, he be­gins to col­lect ideas, gath­er­ing mu­sic and im­pro­vis­ing in the stu­dio with his dancers (who draw heav­ily on his ac­claimed “Gaga” strate­gies, a med­i­ta­tive dance prac­tice he con­ceived while re­cov­er­ing from a se­ri­ous back in­jury). Even­tu­ally, the var­i­ous paths con­verge and a work be­gins to as­sume an iden­tity.

“At the heart of it is a sense of what I call the soul of the work. Once I feel con­nected to the soul of a work, I feel like I’m some kind of a medium, chan­nelling ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in the stu­dio, ev­ery­thing that hap­pened to me, the sug­ges­tions of the dancers.

“A lot of it has to do with the mo­ment I am at in terms of the move­ment re­search — what turns me on. It’s a lot about the love of struc­ture and or­gan­i­sa­tion. It’s a lot about what I find in move­ment that has to do with un­der­state­ment and over­state­ment.

It’s a lot about try­ing to use lit­tle means to ex­press big feel­ings. And it’s a lot about the sen­sa­tions, how we the dancers, me, the au­di­ence, be­come our sen­sa­tions. In an ideal state, we are only our sen­sa­tions, which is al­most im­pos­si­ble, but I’m aim­ing for it.”

His wild­card artis­tic di­rec­tion — in­tu­itive, idio­syn­cratic and charis­matic — is famed in dance cir­cles. It is some­thing that did not come nat­u­rally to him.

“It took me a long time to learn but di­rect­ing and lead­ing have to do with the power of con­vinc­ing. If you can con­vince in what you do, then things are very easy.”

Is it hard to con­trol so many rebel spir­ited dancers? “I learned that you can turn al­most any con­flict into di­a­logue,” he says, al­lud­ing also to the pol­i­tics of his home­land, a sub­ject he dis­likes to talk about in in­ter­views, pre­fer­ring in­stead to dis­cuss it through dance works such as Na­harin’s Virus.

“It’s a choice — you can recog­nise peo­ple who are at­tracted to con­flict and you can iden­tify peo­ple who pre­fer a di­a­logue. If you show some­one that what­ever you think is a di­a­logue can ac­tu­ally be­come a di­a­logue, then it be­comes in­ter­est­ing.”

Af­ter 18 years of lead­ing Bat­sheva, it must by now feel like a large fam­ily.

“I like to call it a tribe,” he laughs. “It’s more than a fam­ily.” The Bat­sheva Dance Com­pany per­forms Three at Sadler’s Wells, Lon­don EC1 (www. sadler­ on Oc­to­ber 20-21 and Mamootot at the River­side Stu­dios, Lon­don W6 (www.river­sidestu­ on Oc­to­ber 22-25

Mem­bers of the Bat­sheva Dance Com­pany in Ohad Na­harin’s piece, Three. The dancers have de­fied ter­ror­ist threats to per­form in Lon­don

Ohad Na­harin: his dancers are close-knit — like a tribe, he says

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