Batsheva Dance Company celebrates 50th birthday


Los Angeles may be known as one of the world’s entertainment capitals, but when it comes to dance, the city has lagged behind the likes of New York, San Francisco, Paris, Moscow — and even Tel Aviv.

That’s slowly starting to change, thanks to Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, BodyTraffic and the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, all founded within the last seven years. In the meantime, L.A. can only dream of having the vibrant dance culture that Israel does.

The Jewish state’s oldest dance company, Inbal Dance Theater, was founded in 1949, just one year after Israel gained its independence. The troupe blends ancient, biblical dance movements with more modern fare. 

The second-oldest is Batsheva Dance Company. It dates back to 1964, when it was started by American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, and philanthropist and banking heiress, Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild.

Batsheva has become one of the world’s pre-eminent contemporary dance groups, and now, as it marks five decades of groundbreaking work, it will present its production of “Sadeh21” at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Nov. 1 and 2. The dance troupe’s weeklong visit to L.A. also includes workshops, classes and panel discussions that are open to the public.

What makes Batsheva unique, according to Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, is vision — “an abiding vision for not creating the art that people feel is familiar, but the art that is most necessary to contribute into the world.” 

“They train extensively. It’s mind-boggling how they move their bodies,” she said. “It’s very dynamic. It’s very sophisticated. It’s ebullient, yet it has a feeling of lament and heaviness as well. It’s like some of the greatest abstract painters of human history.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Batsheva to Israel’s dance scene. The group has stretched the boundaries of contemporary dance, not just for Israel but for the entire dance world. Founded primarily to perform American repertoire, it was revitalized with the arrival of choreographer Ohad Naharin, who became its artistic director in 1990. Since then, his fearless, independent spirit has brought the company into the international spotlight.

Watching the troupe’s technique for the first time is a bit shocking. Dancers leap and stumble, writhe and twist, employing every part of their bodies. The motions seem spastic at times, or just strange, with dancers crawling, jumping or running in circles. The formalized structures of ballet and other classical forms are discarded. 

“Batsheva, at this point, in the last 20-something years, is Ohad, and his ideas and what he believes in,” said Danielle Agami, a Batsheva alumna, adding that Naharin’s teaching has inspired a generation of young dancers and choreographers. 

Agami was a dancer and choreographer with Batsheva from 2002 to 2010. She’s now 29 and based here in L.A., where she runs her own company, Ate9. She also heads Gaga USA, which teaches the techniques Naharin developed and used at Batsheva to open up the possibilities for movement.

“It flipped my skin completely, and my mind, and it changed the angle of my brain,” Agami said of Gaga. “It connected me to pleasure and made me believe in my body, and to understand that my body is a tool to be proud of and enjoy, and not to criticize.”

In 2008, Naharin wrote about Gaga, “We learn to love our sweat, we discover our passion to move and connect it to effort, we discover both the animal in us and the power of our imagination.” 

Naharin covers the mirrors in the Batsheva dance studio, so dancers feel freer to express themselves.

“It taught me that movement is everywhere, and I can use it in any way I want,” Agami said. “It’s very easy for me to create movement, and it would probably not be like that if I didn’t practice Gaga for 11, 12 years now.”

There are no narrative threads evident in a Batsheva performance. The dancers eschew story in favor of emotion. There’s no video projection or stage design. There is atmospheric music and sometimes spoken word, but the focus is mainly on the dancers and their movements.

In many ways, Israel is an ideal laboratory for innovation in dance. As a country located at the crossroads of continents and made up of many immigrant groups, it’s influenced by a wide array of cultures. At the same time, its relative newness allows for a strong degree of freedom and emancipation.

“There’s an inventiveness and a chutzpah to it that’s a result of not having these oppressive dance histories, which train children from a very young age what is right and what is wrong,” said Barak Marshall, an L.A. native who was Batsheva’s first house choreographer, from 1999 to 2001. He’s currently the artistic director of Inbal Dance Theater, which is housed along with Batsheva in the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre in Tel Aviv.

“Batsheva is really reflective of the hunger to engage the world,” Marshall said. “It’s very Israeli to me in terms of its emotion, its insistence, and the voice is an Israeli voice.”

How L.A. audiences react to that voice could be interesting. At a recent performance of Ate9’s “Mouth to Mouth,” which Agami choreographed, a few people squirmed uncomfortably as a row of female dancers wagged their tongues and scrunched up their faces in distorted grimaces. For Agami, bringing her style of dance to L.A. is a gamble.

“Dance here is still looking for how to be honest,” she said. “In Israel, very often, you feel the honesty on stage. Whatever the person brings, it’s about him and the naked feeling of it. I don’t see it often here — yet.”

That’s part of the reason for bringing Batsheva to Los Angeles, UCLA’s Edmunds said. “Desire usually comes from repeated exposure. And more of that exposure breeds a certain interest and discovery. But if it’s so intermittent, you kind of barely remember the last time you saw live dance work, you know. It doesn’t build much literacy; it just builds disconnected experiences.”

Part of the problem is public funding, and Israel far surpasses the United States in terms of government support for the arts. Still, Marshall said, he has hope for the future of dance in Los Angeles. 

“An understanding of the importance and the beauty of dance is definitely growing at a really exponential rate,” he said.

 

Batsheva Dance Company performs on Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 2 at 4 p.m. at UCLA’s Royce Hall. For tickets and information about the dance company, visit cap.ucla.edu.

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