The Batsheva Dance Company, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, performed in Chicago for the first time in eight years and presented Artistic Director Ohad Naharin’s “Last Work” (2015) at the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph Dr.) on Jan. 27 and 28. The company brought with them a composition which challenged the traditional norms of dance and a performance which brought the audience to a standing ovation. “Last Work” maintained the artistic, agile and baffling movement of his previous works, while boldly dancing the line between ambiguity and statement in a way unseen in his works before.
With a reputation for sparking protest among those who find his work too political or too complacent, Naharin taunted all of his critics in “Last Work” by creating a piece that’s beautiful and nonsensical, sexual and confrontational and that calls the audience to contemplate what it means to produce work in a politically-charged climate.
The curtain opened Jan. 28 to a man in a blue, long-sleeved polo and brown pants, his black tennis shoes pitter-pattering as he ran on a treadmill at the far end of the stage. This constant pounding of feet would continue during the entire 65-minute performance, providing a constant to the varied sequence of movements, costume changes and prop usage that would ensue.
Dancers made their way onto the stage, and their movements were rich with the influence of Naharin’s Gaga technique, which is a method of dancing that he developed which focuses on free movements that the individual dancer creates from instinct. Shoulders appeared to separate from the body as one man held his knee and swung his leg back and forth — a liquid ripple shooting up the leg and arm. A woman leaned backward, bent 90 degrees at the knee, while her back floating parallel with the floor and her arms undulating past her head without once touching the stage.
Yet, the most captivating parts of the piece were when the dancers came together, in duets, trios and full cast clumps, and shared in a connection so deep it could’ve only been formed through the Gaga technique, which builds a sense of self and surroundings. The marvelous movement of the dancers became an artistic work when the dancers acknowledged each other on stage. A man’s inane frog-legged jumps slipped into a staggered embrace and the woman froze, lifted with her back against his chest, her cheek resting in his neck. The entwined tension between them brought a sense of direction and belonging to the stage.
Later, after an onstage costume change, an ominous trio of cloaked men flanked a series of solos, duets and trios, and their slow movement echoed that of the calculating mythical fates. Despite the incredible ability of the Batsheva dancers to perform movement verging on contortion, the real power of the company lies in the subtle movements.
The closing section of “Last Work” featured booming music to match a man in a white mask jumping and waving a white flag, a man spinning a wooden tool that looked like a medieval weapon and a man with his back to the audience, whose seeming masturbation turned out to be the polishing of a gun. Despite the intensity of these large movements, the true beauty was in the man who, after ferociously building a fort out of packing tape, wrapped the rest of the company (standing still on stage) in tape. He then drew a string of tape that materialized the intangible connection felt between the dancers and tenderly wrapped the tape around the first dancer who was still running on the treadmill an hour later. And then, lights out.
So what to make of a work that escalates from seemingly random choreography to such a climactic finish? I don’t know. Naharin is notorious for denying any significance — political or otherwise — attached to his works, but no piece with such complex, passionate dancing can be meaningless. Given the national and international influence of Naharin and the power of art and the artist to take a stand, I don’t agree with Naharin’s choice tocreatesuchboldworkswithsuch nonchalance. But I also cannot ignore the wide influence that his work and his company have had on dance around the world, and on me as a dancer.
“Last Work” represents the legacy of Batsheva, the real-world implications of the company and the freedom to express oneself without judgment. I admire Naharin’s ability to continue to produce unconventional works in spite of critical protest and acclaim. The ability of his dancers to radiate passion on stage brings this unconventional movement to life and arouses audiences and artists everywhere. Batsheva brought Chicago a dance that will leave audiences contemplating the movement days, weeks and even months later — and that’s rare.