Live performance always happens within some sort of context, so our response to it can vary depending on such things as where the performance takes place, who is sitting in front of us, what we ate or drank for dinner, or the price of a ticket.
In the case of the Batsheva Dance Company’s recent Chicago appearance, the venue could not have been better. The spectacular Auditorium Theatre is as ornate and gorgeous as any concert hall. Just to enter the lobby is to experience time and gravity through its effect on the wavy uneven mosaic marble floor. (As one usher told me, “I’d hesitate to drop a marble on this floor—there’s no telling where it would end up!”) Since 1889, the building has settled considerably, and this floor has been walked on by many.
Taking in the grandeur of the theatre from a plush wide velvet seat is worth arriving a bit early. But when the show begins 30 minutes later than scheduled, ones perspective is already colored. The mind goes away from the anticipation of the concert to other thoughts---This had better be good since I've been sitting here waiting for a long time. Wow, I paid for 30 minutes of parking that I didn't need. Did they intend for the show to really start at 8pm instead of the 7:30 as advertised and printed on my ticket?
After much shuffling, rhythmic clapping from the audience, latecomer seatings, and much discussion among patrons, the show began. On display were two dances, a total of 66 minutes worth of choreography.
If one is not familiar with the distinct style of Ohad Naharin's movement invention, the angular detailed precise poses of the dancers at first appears refreshing and unique. Female duet, B/olereo which Naharin made in 2008 and set to a synthesized interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero, seems more about movement exploration and gesture than anything emotionally meaningful. Intriguing circling of the arms from the elbows while melting into grand plié, and slick shifting from balletic arabesque to stock still parallel legs, were performed with mesmerizing effect. But this piece lacked a sense of theatrical tension, development of movement and sense of relationship between the two women. They simply existed together on the blank stage. The repetition and structural build in intensity of Ravel’s famous music far outweighed its visual dance counterpart.
Max, a 2007 work, danced by all ten exceptionally strong company members—five male, five female—stayed with Naharin's trademark of angular detailed poses. Throughout the 55-minute work, athletic dancers shifted again quickly from shape to shape like other-worldy mannequins. Set to a score composed and performed by Naharin (listed in the program as Maxim Waratt) the soundscape of Max is a collage of recorded breathing, manipulated raindrops, and deep-voiced repeated reciting the alphabet and numbers 1-10 in Hebrew.
Tight black trunks and dark colored tight-fitting tank tops emphasized the dancers physical detail and articulation. Harsh pink lighting that dominated the piece, only occasionally broken up by white or green. The bold pink gave the dancers legs a fake, candy look, sometimes drawing focus away from the facial and hand expressions.
Naharin is not afraid to use unison and Max is loaded with it. The dancers propelled themselves through a series of brief sections, one in which they repeatedly ran and painfully flopped down on the floor, got up, ran again, fell again, over and over and over with growing determination. In another, suddenly a lone woman downstage performed a series of fluid leg extension interspersed with finger and hip isolations like an exotic ostrich with fingers for wings. And briefly the group assembled facing upstage as if listening to one of their favorite bands in concert, striking a "rock on" hand gesture and head bopping which drew chuckles from the audience.
Solos, duets, trios and small groups emerged through simple walking transitions, and in a lengthy accumulation section, Naharin chose a range of spatial locations and varied the number of dancers performing, most always in unison. The accumulation became predictable, despite its humorous pelvic thrusts, unique shapes, and athletic level changes.
Much of the unison movement lost its power by the end of the piece. The whole felt like an hour-long run-on sentence, yet Max was saved by a tiny bit of repetition. An opening pose (men balanced in low squat, holding the standing women in a ballroom dance grip) returned near the end, and a recurring wedge of dancers grouped downstage performed a series of quick repetitive hand gestures. (Borrowing from Mark Morris’ Falling Down Stairs, perhaps?) It was in this wedge the dancers finally assembled and, in near assault, harshly chanted a Hebrew song glaring out at the audience. This confrontational ending strangely left the piece feeling unfinished, as if this dance continues to go on somewhere, perhaps constantly, well after the curtain has come down.
Note: If this concert had begun on time, and cost less than a dollar a minute (my own balcony seat cost $75), the concert may have been more satisfying. A different context would no doubt would have evoked a different response. Before leaving, I checked with an usher to be sure that indeed the concert was over. "Yes," he said. "An hour and six minutes." Too much money for too little dance.