Mr. Gaga’s (not quite) Last Work
Seeing the Batsheva Dance Company, under the leadership of the iconic Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, always feels like a treat. Not surprisingly, I find the troupe in excellent form on the occasion of the New York premiere of their 2015 production, Last Work, presented at BAM in early February.
February 1 – 4, 2017
Naharin is globally known within dance communities for Gaga, the singular approach to training and creating movement from the inside out, which seems to have simmered in his cauldron over many years, like a lovingly crafted recipe. Yet what is invariably refreshing about seeing the work he sets on his company is the strong individuality that emanates from each of the company members, in spite of the distinct training they have in common. Indeed, I believe it is Naharin’s willingness to encourage his dancers’ idiosyncrasies that endows his works with a powerfully humanistic affect. Indeed, in the documentary film Mr. Gaga—released simultaneously with BAM’s première—in which the director Tomer Heymann traced the choreographer’s steps over an eight-year period, Naharin knowingly ruminates: “I don’t separate the act of choreography from the dancer’s interpretation of the work.”
In Last Work, Naharin presents the spectators with a montage of choreographic vignettes developed in collaboration with his dancers during an intensive ten-week rehearsal period. Working within an extremely sparse setup—there isn’t much to the décor other than a large room with a few entrances on either side and a woman in a blue dress running on a treadmill for the duration of the hour-long piece—the stage operates as a blank canvas on which various images are thrown, transformed, and dismantled. Some images dwell in abstraction and are rather wide open for interpretation, not really concerned with interaction but rather with kinesthetic relationships between bodies on the stage. Others are rooted in recognizable behavioral moments: a sexually charged duet, an army drill, or a party gone wild. Often, multiple narratives (or events) unfold simultaneously, under Avi-Yona Bueno’s evocative lighting, which effectively transforms the stage from a mundane room to a poetic space where anything seems possible.
I would be hard-pressed to say Naharin’s production is overtly concerned with a narrative. And yet, these expressive bodies have stories trapped inside their flesh. The dancers have the uncanny ability to deliver a physicality that is as playful as it is tormented, creating a tension on-stage that compels one to lean in and engage with what is unfolding on the boards. Unlike most of Naharin’s viscerally kinetic work I have seen over the years, Last Work—for well over two-thirds of its duration—is uncharacteristically subdued, tingeing the proceedings with a quietly somber mood. While the choreographic imagery is enigmatic for the most part, fragments of narrative occasionally pierce through the abstraction, often to an unsettling effect. In one particularly evocative section, the performers change out of their contemporary dance clothes on-stage: all the men don black robes reminiscent of an imam’s garb, while women are dressed in white balletic outfits. As various pairings are explored in the ensuing duets, the attendant tension between the religious and the secular becomes palpable. Elsewhere in the piece, some dancers embody movement reminiscent of a military drill, while others seem to be bizarrely commingled in a yoga class. The section ultimately resolves itself with all the dancers laying on the stage for an extended period of time. Subjected to a protracted viewing, this seemingly playful image begins to take on a much more sinister feel, reminiscent of lifeless bodies strewn on the ground after an air strike.
While intentionally eschewing obviousness and easy interpretations, the personal and the political elements nonetheless continuously conflate to create a sense of disquiet. Personally, I find it impossible to escape viewing this work as an ongoing reflection on the tenuous political terrain that the human race is traversing at the present moment. Naharin’s (and the company’s) complicated history with their homeland and the ongoing tensions surrounding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are palpable within this work. Within the apparent chaos, fragments of stories emerge—of conflict, tenderness, togetherness, loss, and the stage box becomes a metaphorical aquarium: a microcosmic rendition of the world, in which the spectators become endowed with a god-like ability to see entire lives unfolding in time lapse. It’s a mighty difficult feat to accomplish—but once again, the Batsheva company pulls it off, and fearlessly so.
As for the work’s ominous title (spoiler alert?), I have the director of the Mr. Gaga documentary to thank for allaying my fears. In one of the interviews, Naharin speaks of the sense of urgency that comes from living and creating work in Israel, a country that is perennially marked by political tensions—making it so that one never knows whether one’s current work might indeed be its last. But fear not: it seems quite evident that the inventive choreographer is in it for a long haul. I can’t wait to see what he, and the Batsheva Dance Company, cook up next.