Photographer: Gadi Dagon

Of all the places one would least likely expect to see a four-year-old, I imagine a performance of the Batsheva Dance Company would be somewhat high on the list. After all, the company is known for its rather harsh and aggressive physicality, it’s overt and unromantic sexuality, and extreme abstraction of movement. Yet Varda Studio, on a beautiful Saturday morning in Tel Aviv in February, was filled with young families and a gaggle of tykes sitting patiently on all four sides of the performance space, some bouncing on their parent’s lap, others leaning against older brothers and sisters along for the ride.

“Kamuyot” is one of Ohad Naharin’s creations for the Batsheva Ensemble (the second company consisting of mostly younger dancers) that borrows some ideas and phrases from another intimate Batsheva work performed in a studio surrounded by the audience, “Mamootot.” But whereas the latter dance features a cast in identical, flesh-colored costumes with a nude solo in the middle, “Kamuyot” features bright Catholic schoolboy/girl-meets-retro-punk outfits and, well, no nude solo. That would be entirely inappropriate.

But the refreshing thing is how little the two differ from each other conceptually. Both challenge the traditional proscenium presentation of dance by bringing the audience into the game. Spaces are reserved throughout the audience for the dancers to sit during the work, blending the line between spectator and performer. The proximity of the dancers to the audience is utilized and exploited in moments such as when the dancers walk slowly around the perimeter, catching the gaze of audience members, pausing to hold hands and share a moment.

Some adults who attended “Mamootot” when I saw it found those moments uncomfortable. The children at “Kamuyot” seemed to find them thrilling. The sense of involvement and participation allowed the children, most quite young, to remain remarkably engaged and attentive for the hour-long work and they didn’t appear threatened by the invasion of personal space that we adults so carefully cultivate. Perhaps most striking, the children seemed to simply accept everything that was happening before their eyes and just enjoy the pure physical pictures being played out in front of them.

At a performance of Batsheva’s “Three,” a few weeks prior, several of my companions remarked following the show that they “just didn’t get it.” It’s a comment that I would imagine didn’t even cross the minds of the little ones sitting wide-eyed in the studio on Saturday. “What an uninteresting observation!” I imagine the kids would respond. “What is there to get?” It’s about letting go and allowing yourself to be taken on a journey, to simply respond to whatever unexpected image or idea pops up. In the United States, I don’t think we trust children’s ability to make sense of abstract art.

Of course there are presenters who offer student matinees with, for example, the Alvin Ailey or Paul Taylor dance companies, an important part of the process of welcoming young audiences to dance. But the scene that played out in the Varda Studio in Tel Aviv was something else entirely. Not an institution fulfilling an engagement or educational mission but rather a dance company creating innovative, challenging work specifically for children that is conceptually no different from what it gives to adults, crediting them with the ability to “get it”. So why aren’t we seeing similar efforts to reach this young audience, and their families, in the States?

Is it partially that we adults project our discomfort with work that doesn’t conform to a certain style or traditional notion of beauty and assume that children will share our apprehension? Consider that your children, or you as a child yourself, likely attended special matinees of the Nutcracker, or heard Bach at the symphony or toured a Monet exhibition at a fine art museum but likely didn’t have much exposure to, say, Merce Cunningham or John Cage or Mark Rothko. We decide that children won’t be able to make sense of these avant-garde artists or will be turned off by their quirky worldviews. But maybe it’s us that are holding them back.

As adults, we bring expectations into every situation – whether a job, a relationship, or a dance performance. We tend to demand that events unfold in an orderly fashion, that everything connects to something else, that in the end we are given a clear message so we can put it in a box, assign a label, and then evaluate accordingly. But perhaps there is something to learn from a child who accepts what is offered with generous curiosity. Perhaps that acceptance allows for even greater insight and enjoyment. Perhaps we can gain a lot from trusting their sense of wonder and actively seeking their participation. And perhaps that is something we can learn to bring into our lives as well.