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Ohad Naharin’s Last Work Is His Best

February 17, 2017

San Francisco Performances

Last Work, Ohad Naharin’s hour-long Gaga primer for his Batsheva Dance Company, isn’t his last work at all. It may, however, be his lasting work. Illustrative of all the principles of the technique, or rather the mindset, known as Gaga, invented by the 56-year-old Israeli choreographer, Last Work is flat and then knotty, plain and then lyrical, strange and then even stranger — sort of like life.

Naharin’s show is wedged into the San Francisco Performances schedule for but three nights, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater is sold out for the whole run, which rarely happens. At Tuesday night’s opening, the audience crammed into the black-box theater watched in silence, then gave the company a standing ovation. Hard for the 18 utterly amazing dancers to stand to return the applause, since at the end of Last Work they’re sitting on the floor, wrapped in brown sticky packing tape. But we’ll get to that later.

The dance is accompanied throughout by a dancer running briskly on a treadmill placed upstage. She’s a heartbeat in sneakers, dressed in blue, long hair streaming. Spoiler alert: She’ll run for the whole dance, but we’ll continue to wonder if she will. Her persistence sets the tone for the cast and the hour to come.

Note that your reviewer didn’t say anything about persistent artistry. These dancers don’t do art, thank you very much. In that regard, they’re a lot like Merce Cunningham’s company. The movement isn’t there to please an audience. The movement simply exists. Naharin’s dancers go right up to the stage apron, dance, and never acknowledge the eyeballs a foot away.

Naharin’s studio has no mirrors. Naharin tells his dancers: “Never perform my dances.” The movement that is Gaga, and the investigations of the movement come from the dancers in all their extravagantly gifted capabilities. The dances come from Naharin. Who knew arms and legs could move so moltenly, in so many different directions, at the same time? Knee, hip, and elbow joints themselves are often hyperextended or rotated beyond their standard compass, periodically at high speed, without caution. What keeps the dancers from getting hurt? Of course we could ask the same question of any dance form; there always seem to exist a million ways things could go — well — sideways. Practice and experience help, but watching the Batshevas, one senses other forces at work. Gaga juju? Naharin only knows.

(No, your scribe doesn’t know any of this has anything to do with Lady Gaga, although her shows are definitely performed with the audience in mind. On the other hand, Lady Gaga is also exploring her own capabilities with a certain weird integrity that makes her shows compulsively watchable. So there you gogo.)

An Israeli born on a kibbutz, Naharin joined Batsheva at 22 and was invited by Martha Graham to join her company in New York. He had his own eponymous New York-based troupe from 1980 to 1990, when he became Batsheva’s artistic director. Gaga movement, the story goes, was developed by Naharin after he injured his back. Unable to put his dancing forward, he turned inward.

How does Last Work go? Like a dream into a few nightmares and back. It begins with appearances by a few of the dancers, in unisex dark tops and shorts. They feed onto the stage through narrow slots at the sides. (Zohar Shoef’s set is lit by Avi Yona Bueno.) At first the dancers move dance singly; later, they engage with partners, then with larger groups.

The accompaniment, with original music by Grischa Lichtenberger and a soundtrack designed and edited by Maxim Waratt, is the feet on the treadmill, a mild mechanical humming undertone, and fragments of electronica, giving way to snatches of a poetic-sounding tune by Sagat.

The dancers walk upstage with their backs to us, take off their clothes and quickly change into white casual wear. The costumes are by dancer Eri Nakamura. The men add dark long brown gowns, giving them a mien reminiscent of Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais statues, and their trios, duos and solo moments come with deep plies and long extensions.

Once the men are done with their brown clothes, the whole company is in white. One woman has a fluffy little tutu over her white shorts for an ironic little pas de deux in which she gives as good as she gets. The movement and the deployment of the 18 are never less than completely watchable, and it changes all the time. The poignant Sagat tune cuts in more frequently.

And then, about 10 minutes before the end of the piece, everything changes. The dancers become more excitedly engaged with each other, even frenzied, and the sounds become louder, more mechanized, more factory-like. A fast-talking, slick emcee figure with a mike stands upstage and starts wrapping it and everything else in brown sticky tape; someone else starts waving a plain white flag, manically; a man, seated with his back to us, is holding something and pounding it repetitively. When he turns, we see that it’s an Uzi. Another man is playing with a gigantic noisemaker. In the story of Purim, it’s used to drive away Haman, the villain who’s trying to exterminate the Jews. We may be in the center of a war machine. But then the company runs in a happy, hora-like circle, a party favor pops, and dozens of brightly colored discs fly out.

Was it a mere distraction? The dancers arrange themselves across the floor, and the tape man returns. We hear the tape make that sound it makes when it comes off the roll, zoooop, wrapping everyone to everyone in brown sticky stuff, holding them immobile to the stage. If we can’t quite capture what Gaga is, this will have to do. 

Janice Berman, SFCV’s senior dance critic, has been a dance writer and reviewer since 1978, beginning at Newsday and New York Newsday. She has written on dance for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Ballet Review, and Dance Magazine, where she was editor-in-chief.