Reviews: Batsheva Dance Co. & LA Dance Project

There is much to love, and some to hate about Ohad Naharin’s “Sadeh21,” a remarkable and stunning piece created several years ago. Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company gave it its U.S. premiere Saturday (Nov. 1) at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Despite these opposing forces, “Sadeh21” is unforgettable. Give thanks for that to the astounding physicality and emotional fearlessness of the men and women in Batsheva.

They are the reasons for loving this piece–and pretty much anything Batsheva does. I don’t think there’s another group that dances at the level and to the extremes that this ensemble does. But it’s not simply their superior technical ability that is so inspiring; in truth, choreography and performance are inseparable in Naharin’s works. This is dancing of a gorgeous clarity and purpose, such that the eye sees all the movement as though it were being done in slow motion, when in fact its often being executed at the velocity and momentum of a grace note. Your knees, your back, your mouth, even, every body part aches in sympathy with the dancers’–as when one uses his fingers to stretch his grin as though it were on a rack. Yet they make the unbelievable look effortless, and fill it with meaning.

The “hating” part is a little more difficult to explain. It’s not that I so profoundly disliked sections of this 75-minute piece, although I found the slew of diverse recordings used as a score uninspiring as accompaniment. Rather, “Sadeh21” is tough–its individual scenes, without explicit narrative, still added up–for me, at least–to a poetic snapshot of human exertion and suffering. There is humor, whimsy and then, an enormous feeling of loss–of the Sisyphean toil of human existence. Couples embrace, but it becomes a duel of pushing, like rams butting one another with their horns. A man faces us and earnestly speaks in a high-pitched voice, but it’s all gibberish. It’s not just that we cannot understand him, but one can feel how misunderstandings occur, how wars start. The women beat their feet against the stage in harsh rhythmic jolts, while the men, changed into black dresses, flail about behind them in frantic explosions. This viewer’s discomfort grew as the dance progressed, peaking with a solo nearly at the end, performed entirely to a woman’s recorded screams of suffering.

“Sadeh21” was frustrating, too. Each scene was numbered, until we got to 7, when 7-18 were lumped altogether. I could not see the purpose. And this stitching together of disparate scenes makes for a choppy work, one lessened by the inability (or refusal?) to make it flow as a whole.

For the finale, the dancers scaled the white wall upstage–which was less than halfway to the proscenium, creating a claustrophobic environment onstage (by Avi Yona Bueno)–and fell off behind it, out of our sight. Then they started cavorting, doing swan dives, and so on, as credits scrolled on the backdrop. Talk about a mood-breaker! I wish Naharin had let everyone come out and take conventional bows, because a standing O was called for here, for once.

A few quick thoughts on L.A. Dance Project, which performed at the theater at the Ace Hotel, Oct. 24-26. This was the fourth time that I’ve seen the company in the two years since it debuted (and that’s not counting artistic director Benjamin Millepied’s duet at MOCA in the summer 2012). That’s a high rate of shows in a home city for any company, and especially one that has such a busy touring schedule.

I understand why they’ve made the Ace their home in newly “hip” downtown L.A., but it’s a less than ideal place to see dance. Sight lines are horrible, and it’s hard to see the dancers feet and lower bodies when sitting in the orchestra level. That made it very hard to appreciate Emanuel Gat’s “Morgan’s Last Chug.” This “study on layered temporality” was a rather ordinary abstraction of theme and variations to Bach, Purcell and other music, as well as a selection from Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

More rewarding was Millepied’s latest, “Untitled,” to Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 3. Millepied’s work continues to grow in emotional feeling and complexity. The choreographer used the arpeggio chord progressions of the Glass’ piece and repeatedly strung his dancers like beads into circular chains, from which different soloists popped out. Costume designer Janie Taylor, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, created bouncy black and white skirts for the women, and shorts for the men in a window-pane design. The program ended with William Forsythe’s “Quintett,” a work from which L.A. Dance Project seems to find its heart and the stylistic inspiration for the rest of its repertory. A little more diversity, though, would be a good thing.

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