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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Israel's Batsheva Dance Co. Is Unpredictably Severe -- Protesters Call for Boycott

Posted By on Wed, Feb 29, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Some protesters protesting Max, a dance piece by Ohad Naharin, were asked whether they'd seen the work. They hadn't. - GADI DAGON
  • Gadi Dagon
  • Some protesters protesting Max, a dance piece by Ohad Naharin, were asked whether they'd seen the work. They hadn't.

Anytime you see the Batsheva Dance Company in performance, you can pretty fairly expect a gut-wrencher, a blasphemy without words. It's a trademark of the Tel Aviv troupe's leader, Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. But last Saturday, audience members entering YBCA's Novellus Theater encountered a few surprises.

Among them, we found Naharin's work Max to be as low-key as anything in his repertory. My gut nearly went unwrenched. But even before we entered the theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts -- no kidding -- we got protesters! Protesting a dance show!

I was handed a leaflet advocating the boycott of Batsheva, citing the group's failure to condemn the persecution of Palestinians as complicity in "Israeli apartheid." As "Israel's best known ambassador of global Israeli culture," quoth the leaflet, Batsheva is a marquee name for the Brand Israel campaign, active since 2005 or so. Apparently Israel has an image problem! The Israeli foreign ministry wants us look beyond its occupation (and worse) of the Palestinian territories. (Really though, "Brand Israel"? As propaganda goes ... wow.)

Naturally, I asked four of the 10 or so protesters if they knew of Naharin's work, which is pretty clearly pro-human rights. Nada. God bless 'em, these folks turned out to be one hell of a way to kick off the night. Because Max needed a little social context to really pop. And because I can't deny that the protesters made some valid points. Though not about Naharin.

More from Max - GADI DAGON
  • Gadi Dagon
  • More from Max

His work is gaudy and severe. Every time I see a piece of his, I think of a battleground. To quote the protesters' leaflet quoting Naharin in a 2005 interview, "I continue to do my work, while 20 kilometers from me people are participating in war crimes ... the ability to detach oneself from the situation -- that is what allows one to go on."

A statement of ignorant complicity? Or battle-weary self-protection? Max offers an answer. Somehow subtly, detachedly, the dancers pummeled each other, shuddered from the trauma, collapsed in raw nervous heaps. From the loudspeakers came bone-crunching sounds and gooshy, open-mouth-chewing. I thought of guts spilling out. Naharin's dancers, trained in his ultra-sensitive movement technique Gaga (which you can learn in San Francisco), seemed to float above the ground while also carving it up with prehensile feet. The dance works its way toward a physical and musical resolution that's something like unity. Watching stuff like this, it's impossible to ignore the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Symmetrical severity. - GADI DAGON
  • Gadi Dagon
  • Symmetrical severity.

If Naharin is ignoring it too, his ignorance has found a productive outlet. In a 2002 Dance Magazine interview, he said, "What we have created here at Batsheva is a real oasis." He called the group "totally opposite from what is going on in Israel. We have a society in Batsheva of people who respect human rights. People who work here are generous, intelligent, and willing to listen to each other -- everything that I see outside in my country right now is quite opposite."

So the truth is a little more complicated than what fits on a sign. Naharin needs shekels to keep Batsheva thriving in his homeland. The government needs Batsheva to "pinkwash" its vile aggression and wraps marketing's cold dead arm over Naharin's shoulder. And these protesters need an artist who takes a sign-holder's approach to the horrors just across the border. Watching Max, I knew that an artist had upheld his role. Maybe the protesters should check out Batsheva on YouTube.

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