In November, I dragged my parents to see the Batsheva Dance Company perform “Three” at Royce Hall, presented by UCLA Live. I enjoyed the piece but my father, who insists that good dance must accompany music and must also look pretty, was unimpressed. Despite this experience, I once again dragged my parents to see Batsheva perform their newest work, MAX, when we were in Israel. The results were nearly identical: my father walked out of the theater infuriated at the self-indulgent work that didn’t have the courtesy to play a nice instrumental soundtrack, and my brother was pissed that Ohad Naharin, the artistic director and choreographer of Batsheva, had the chutzpah to repeat a recorded phrase of counting about twenty times. It must be noted: my brother did not applaud at the conclusion of the performance. My mom was more moderate – she appreciated the movement but didn’t find anything emotional to latch onto. Me? I thought it was brilliant.
I have only seen these two works from the company so I can’t speak from a broader perspective. But “Three” and “MAX” did share a similar aesthetic – simple empty stage with a white wall in the back, dancers in comfortable, casual clothing. Both used minimal music – more soundscape than soundtrack, though there were sections with more instrumentation. In this sense, the two felt related, not necessarily as siblings, but like cousins who share similar features. “MAX”, however, was a more successful and satisfying experience in the way that it flowed from one section to the next and the way it built tension throughout the hour-long work.
The work alternated between small groups and full ensemble sections. Whereas the solos, duets, trios, and quartets were more loose in their movements, the ensemble sections were harsh and strict, featuring sharp, quick movements that were impressively synchronized. Naharin seemed to be suggesting that one loses her or his individuality in large groups. Personalities emerge in private and disappear in public when the force of a group is overpowering. Naharin’s choreography did seem to overpower the dancers and by that I don’t mean the dancers couldn’t handle it – Batsheva is in fact one of the tightest, most cohesive ensembles I’ve ever seen – but rather they seemed to be consumed by it, allowing it to whip their bodies and throw them down. They appeared out of control and the effect was mesmerizing.
Another theme that Naharin played with was the idea of the human as a machine. He addressed this thought quite explicitly with accompanying sounds of mechanical parts, which the dancers matched expertly as if making the sounds themselves. The movements were disjointed, almost like robots, and when the ensemble performed a unison phrase, it was indeed reminiscent of a machine. The Batsheva dancers didn’t get emotionally involved in most of the work, instead preferring to remain detached. They simply performed their tasks, the way most of us tend to move through our days – accepting what is presented and dealing with it.
The section of repetitive counting that nearly drove my brother crazy in a way highlighted this idea of the constant repetition in life. It suggested both familiarity and predictability (in that each phrase started with a movement, repeated the first to then add a second, went back to the beginning to repeat the first two then add a third, and so forth to ten) but also an element of unpredictability and surprise (each new count to ten was entirely different with unique movement and a different group configuration of varying size). The effect was a complex balance between a structured routine and the constantly changing nature of that routine.
The movement and music continued to get harsher and louder, with breaks of calm and solitude throughout, and the piece seemed to be racing to self-destruction. The work concluded with the company’s ten performers facing the audience like a choir screaming words in a language I did not understand. Regardless of what they were saying, they had broken the blank stairs and calm acceptance that pervaded most of the work and were now fighting against the silent efficiency of the machine, as if trying to reclaim their humanity.
“MAX” is not an easy piece to watch, and Batsheva doesn’t let the audience get away with tuning out. By that I mean they don’t allow the audience to just sit back and be entertained. The work is engaging, it requires attention and flexibility, and it challenges the audience to both focus in on details while keeping track of the larger picture. In the realm of abstract contemporary dance, there are few who do it better.