Artistic Freedom and Political Protest: Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company

Note: This review marks the beginning of a new series dedicated to showcasing the best student writing from the Dance History class I teach at The Juilliard School.

By Eve Jacobs

Batsheva Dance Company’s March 7 performance of Hora started with a bang. Lots of them—on cans, drums, and the pavement outside of BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House. Created in 2009 by Batsheva’s artistic director Ohad Naharin, Hora included sounds and ideas beyond the choreographer’s control. Adalah-NY protestors paraded signs: “BOYCOTT ISRAEL!” “DON’T DANCE AROUND APARTEID!” The anti-Israel activists distributed mock programs that read, “Batsheva Dance Company: Cultural Ambassadors for Israel.”  The slogan refers to former Minister of Affairs Arye Mekel’s “Brand Israel,” campaign, which, according to Adalah-NY, uses art to “show Israel’s prettier face.” Adalah-NY wants Israel to be thought of in the context of war, not art.

Despite the protests and the politics, Naharin’s Hora reflects neither. Nor does it draw on the same-named Israeli folk dance—a celebratory grapevine danced at weddings. This Hora is secular. The curtain rises on men and women in black outfits that expose their limbs. An extra-terrestrial neon green set encloses them on three sides. Ten dancers sit on a bench while one female’s movement becomes beautiful in its asymmetry. Other dancers join her gradually, yet there is no distinguishable pattern, and no basis for predicting their next actions. With this improvisatory quality, unison moments come as a surprise. The experience is like listening in on a conversation of eleven people who aren’t lying to each other. Hora rambles in a good way. It is at times poignant, silly, sexual, and nebulous—because that’s how life is. Naharin presents no code to unlock and no riddle to deconstruct. He presents irony, oddity, and incongruous events, giving the audience a chance to laugh, think, track patterns, and enjoy.

During the performance of Hora, the protesters outside the theater infiltrated the intended silences of the one-hour work. Poetry was interrupted by politics. Adalah-NY wants artistic containment of Israel, and Batsheva is a perfect target because of its widespread acclaim. The protesters hope to raise human rights concerns, but Naharin and his company aren’t warmongers. They are doing some of the most interesting work in the contemporary dance scene. In addition to Batsheva’s international tours, companies such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Nederlands Dans Theater perform Naharin’s repertoire. Institutions like The Juilliard School and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival offer classes in Gaga, Naharin’s sensation-based movement technique. Naharin’s influence on dance is immense. A group of protestors outside BAM cannot reverse that.

When you see Batsheva Dance Company, you’re supporting artistic freedom. Next time the company is in town, bypass the protestors and experience their kinesthetic wonderland.

Eve Jacobs is a second year student in The Juilliard School Dance Division.

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