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Batsheva Dance Company, "MAX" (photo by Gadi Dagon)

About five minutes into Ohad Naharin’s MAX, the hour-long piece Batsheva Dance Company brought to Tulsa on March 15, I realized that taking notes on this performance was getting me nowhere. Usually I have little trouble describing what I see in a dance, because most choreography expresses emotions or states of being that are communicable in language. Batsheva works on a very different level. Brain stem level.

I’m not sure I would have had as rich an experience as I had at the show had I not taken the gaga masterclass Batsheva dancer Rachael Osborne gave earlier in the week. There I found that moving presentationally — making interesting shapes, putting some feeling into action — was far less interesting than exploring what was happening literally inside my body (the cells, the skin, the bones and joints) and in my sensorial experience. This was my first time working with gaga, and an hour of it gave me more information about how to move — about how I move — than any dance experience I have ever had.

The results of a constant diet of gaga were in thrilling evidence at the performance. This technique produces dancers who are famously articulate — that is, their bodies do precisely, not approximately, what they want them to do. (As local artist Michael Christopher noted after the show, this technique gets “straight into the limbic system.”) There was no moment during Batsheva’s performance when I was not entranced (really, in a trance that left me buzzing) by the deeply genuine, fully present physical commitment of the dancers. They have inspired in my own dancing a new commitment to detail and truthfulness.

The movement itself I responded to at a visceral level, watching in awe and gratitude; it was like seeing an enlightened person do life. The piece as a whole, however — as well as the short duet, Bolero, which preceded it — has left me at a loss. Much has been made of Naharin’s playfulness, his theatrical games and rules and meta-games. I saw many game-like tools used in MAX: repetition, unison, numeration (literally, counting from one to 10 again and again, with individual movements accumulating into a 10-beat phrase). These sometimes went on for so long in the same pattern that they verged on the hilarious, the ridiculous, even the uncomfortable (“how long, in God’s name, can they keep doing this??”). The piece’s finale — all 10 dancers shout-singing what sounded like a children’s song or folk tune at the top of their lungs, facing straight at the audience — was riotous and absurd, a fitting discharge of the energy that had been built up, and built up, and built up, over the previous hour.

I suppose I was anticipating development, but it wasn’t just that. A movement event would begin — it would go, and keep going, and keep going some more — and then it would disappear. Creation and collapse. And all the while, the most amazing, gorgeous, courageous dancing (especially from the astonishing Iyar Elezra, with her sternum that moves as if it’s jointed). I have been getting this odd feeling more and more as I see the newest work from the likes of Naharin and Wayne McGregor and other star choreographers — the feeling of watching the scintillating life inside an aquarium from the outside, or, as Deborah Jowitt wrote in her review of Naharin’s latest work, Hora:

It’s like watching with intense curiosity the handsome human equivalent of an ant farm. What are these inhabitants’ jobs? Their inter-relationships? What results from what they’re doing? Perhaps Naharin’s point is that in this enclosed society, the whole-hearted doing is the point—both cause and result.

“The whole-hearted doing.” Yes, this is what I saw, and what I was captivated by — what I loved in the performance. I was interested in the tunnels and wheels and Pavlovian buzzers Naharin set up for his dancers to navigate, but I did not love them, because they felt like a set-up, a maze made by the choreographer into which his living, breathing dancers had been dropped. At moments, particularly a unison section in which the unison gradually particularized until some dancers were literally falling out of it, I felt the tension of a community struggling to hold together. Are mind-games and routines and temporarily shared pathways all that bind us? Are they enough? The preternaturally subtle, fascinating, make-your-heart-race human beings within the system are quite enough in their singular individuality — and at the same time awfully alone. As was I, at the end of the show, despite the sympathy I felt with the dancers at the level of bones and blood.

I had an interesting discussion with a respected New York choreographer about feeling “on the outside” when viewing some current dance work, and her closing comment was this: “Whatever the performance, installation, etc., I want my senses sharpened, provoked.” Batsheva certainly did that for me, by virtue of its dancers’ physical honesty. But I felt alienated by the work. Maybe this is why it’s been so difficult to process this performance: how can a movement language that is so richly, essentially human be reconciled with a choreography that, while not hostile or mocking, seems to care so little for the humans doing it? But I suspect that is the point — a political point, or so I feel, expressed through Naharin’s devastatingly “playful” artistic one.

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