No art is automatically relevant. I’ve said before that good dances are about bodies, but never meant that all dances about bodies are good. The artist—in this case, the choreographer—has a responsibility to make that art relevant.
This can be done in any number of ways. How do we feel our own bodies while we’re watching—does the dance make us heavier or lighter, longer, or longing to be longer? Do we think about love or genocide, and do we want to hold the person sitting near us closely, sharing a quiet sob? Do our eyes pop and our mouths hang open, like dumb dogs on hot days, while our insides overflow with rapture? Some want art that makes them think, but I want art that makes me feel. Thinking is grand, but it’s our feelings that make thought relevant.
Ohad Naharin, Artistic Director of the Israeli Batsheva Dance Company and Choreographer of the new work Max knows this. At an artist talk the night before Max opened at BAM this March, explaining his artistic process, Naharin made two key points. First, he explained that he doesn’t divorce one part of dance-making from another—movement, music, staging are inseparably intertwined. More radically, though, he said that he never starts with a concept alone: “You can only talk about it, but you cannot make art about it.”
At these talks, Naharin usually brings a few dancers to demonstrate Gaga, a movement language he is developing. Gaga uses a deep physical thinking to access movement through the interconnected nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems. In a Gaga warm-up, a dancer might feel and follow circles moving in different directions in all parts of her body. She might stretch every part of her body away from her sit-bones. She might make certain movements as if they are generated by explosive forces within her, and make other movements as if they are caused by forces external—like being punched in the stomach. The movement is completely spontaneous, improvisational, and highly internal, but watching a dancer practicing Gaga, one feels a sensation slowly uncurling in one’s own self—that sensation inspired by art. Somehow, a dancer practicing Gaga manages to be fully in her body—she is knees, fingers, hips; her skin veritably hums with the fact of being alive. Yet she somehow transcends the body, is so big that she’s bigger than herself, her soul percolating up out of her pores. Our eyelids peel back, our lips part, and we are an audience of dumb dogs on a hot day, panting with life.
But Gaga is not performative; it’s a personal practice dancers use to explore their bodies and become better performers. Max, conversely, is a carefully constructed piece, a series of short suites in which ten dancers—five men and five women, with surprisingly similar bodies (medium height, medium build) dressed in simple colored shirts and short pants, lit now by red lights, now by yellow, now by green—move in and out of ensembles demonstrating Naharin’s fascination with systems. (Naharin once danced with Martha Graham, but his interests seem to be more aligned with Cunningham’s.)
Max is not only apolitical (perhaps unexpectedly, given the Israel factor), but it is almost unemotional—the dancers pop around like rubber bands in outer space, legs extending on endless trajectories through a vacuum. The music—a collage of intimate, wet, mouth sounds composed by Maxim Waratt (Naharin’s compositional pseudonym—dare I say “alter-ego”)* provides a pattern, a low voice counting in Hebrew: “One. One two. One two three. One two three four,” and so on, through ten, beginning again and again as dancers match each number with a movement. In another section, their bodies illustrate sounds—one dancer reacts with a stylized crumple to the starling clank of gunshots, another makes slightly longer movements in time with metallic scraping, a third matches reverberating contractions to a hollow, bouncing sound. Then the sounds begin to interact in rhythmic concert, and the dancers do the same. This is one of the few moments during Max when we begin to widen our eyes, but it’s over too soon, and the lights fall as the dancers walk offstage for the next section.
Art that requires duration—music, literature, film, dance—necessitates attention to trajectory. An attentive choreographer creates work that brings the audience through an experience. The stilted, episodic structure of Max keeps us from going anywhere; instead, we find ourselves subjected to a kind of dunking tank—we are immersed in dance when the lights go off and we shake back into our blinking, breathing selves. This repeats every few minutes for an hour, and then the show is done. Twenty astounding moments have occurred, but because they were unconnected, we feel nothing. Given the choice, who prefers the hiccups to an orgasm?
* At his artist’s talk, Naharin described Waratt as a homeless composer who had moved in with him for three months to collaborate on the project, and who usually works from prison, intentionally committing crimes in front of law-enforcers to aid in his arrest.