Photographer: Gadi Dagon

Last year at International Exposure, the five-day festival of Israeli contemporary dance for arts presenters, writers, and creators from around the world, in a Q&A with choreographer Ohad Naharin following the performance of “Hora” by the Batsheva Dance Company, someone asked the inevitable question – “Why the name?”  To which Mr. Naharin, in typical cheeky manner, replied that it doesn’t necessarily reference the traditional Israeli folk dance that first comes to mind.  After all, he pointed out, “Hora means ‘hour’ in Spanish.”  The name, like the work itself, is supposed to challenge your automatic associations.

Fine.  But come on, when you’re the main Israeli dance company, performing in Israel, and you call something “Hora,” you know exactly what people will default to.  And when you give them the complete opposite of expectations created by the mind, the experience can be a disorienting one.  Not necessarily a bad thing.

Naharin does wink at the traditional folk dance implied in the title, a main ingredient of Jewish weddings and B’nei Mitzvot.  Following a dramatic opening image of the eleven dancers sitting on a long bench, illuminated in bright green (both floor and three surrounding walls are painted in a rich foliage tone), they stand and walk slowly forward, reach the lip of the stage, and do a gentle pas de bouree, which also looks like a half “grapevine” step, which is a staple of Rikudei Am (Hebrew for “Dance of the People” or folk dance).  So within the first minute or so, he checks the box, gives you want you came for, and then proceeds for the next hour to smash it and whip it and break it down until it – or you – cries for mercy.

One should be wary about assigning any one idea or meaning to any piece that Naharin creates.  They are far too abstract and atmospheric to extract something like a theme or specific commentary.  But in “Hora,” both in title and in the use of some of the world’s most recognizable music (Strauss’ overture best known from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valyries”) he explicitly employs popular elements – can we call them clichés? – with the express purpose of forcing you to overcome your previous knowledge and associations by re-contextualizing them and stripping them of their grand, universal meanings.

Photographer: Gadi Dagon

To which he’s only partially successful.  Second time around, I still can’t overcome the gnawing familiarity of the music.  This may indeed be the point – that cultural reference points once firmly engrained and globally accepted are impossible to purge – but that understanding doesn’t really serve his work.  It’s a realization that’s removed from the choreography rather than a revelation that comes from it.

Thankfully, that idea doesn’t dominate the entire work.  In the last ten minutes or so, the lights on stage dip to about 30% intensity and the dancers revisit some of the initial phrases and imagery.  Yet what once felt bold and rebellious in broad light now gives a feeling of isolation and apprehension when draped in shadow.

Naharin has never seemed to hold tradition in high esteem – which is why his company is always so unexpected – but when “Hora” begins illuminated and ends under a cloud with a single dancer walking forward slowly but steadily while the rest look on, distant and indifferent, it does seem to mourn the loss of something intangible, something that at one point might have held people together, something that once was but is no longer and that without it, we are forced to make sense of this world alone.