The Attraction Of Opposites


‘Anaphase" refers to the stage in human cell division when the chromosomes break in half and are pulled in opposite directions.

The Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin chose the name "Anaphaza" for a large-scale dance piece first performed a decade ago by the Batsheva Dance Company, the Tel Aviv-based troupe he’s directed since 1990. Today Naharin, 51, says that while the piece is about "changes, development and evolution," he picked the title simply because he liked the word.

But in 1998 "Anaphaza" took on a more literal meaning. A planned performance at Israel’s official 50th anniversary festivities sparked just the kind of division the title suggests.

Religious parties in Israel objected to a segment of "Anaphaza" in which dancers strip from dark suits to white underwear to the accompaniment of the traditional Passover song "Who Knows One?"

Pressure by then-President Ezer Weizmann, Naharin agreed under protest to have the dancers pare down to "gatkes," or long underwear. He then resigned from the state-subsidized company. In solidarity with Naharin, Batsheva’s dancers refused to perform.

Naharin later returned to his post, and "Anaphaza" continues to be performed. Nigel Redden, the director of the annual Lincoln Center Festival, traveled to Israel last fall to see a performance of the complete 90-minute athletic and percussive work, which includes taped and live accompaniment with Naharin on electric guitar.

Redden decided it was time for a New York debut. Twenty-four dancers will perform "Anaphaza" for four nights beginning July 23 at the New York State Theater.

Batsheva was founded in 1965 by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild under the direction of renowned modern dancer Martha Graham. Naharin began his career there in the mid-1970s. After she returned to New York, Graham invited Naharin to join her here. He accepted, dancing with her company for a year before moving on.

In 1980, Naharin choreographed his first work and shortly after started the Ohad Naharin Dance Company. He left New York in the midst of his company’s success to take over the reins at Batsheva. He was homesick, he said.

As artistic director, Naharin broadened Batsheva’s repertoire and steered it away from the Graham tradition while developing a strong international reputation for edgy, inventive work.

The Lincoln Center Festival brings the acclaimed company back to New York for the second time in two years, after an absence of nearly a dozen. Last spring, Batsheva performed "Naharin’s Virus" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For that work, Naharin chose traditional Arab folk music over klezmer, but said that the work was not meant as a political experience.

In a midnight phone call from his home in Tel Aviv, Naharin suggested that despite the historical hubbub, "Anaphaza" is still good fun.

Jewish Week: Lincoln Center Festival is one stop in Batsheva’s 20-city international tour, but it’s the only venue where you’re performing "Anaphaza." Why is that?

Ohad Naharin: Well, I think Anaphaza was chosen particularly for the Manhattan summer festival because of the festive character of it.

Is it true that the piece calls for (voluntary) audience participation?

The participation of the audience comes from … the ability of us dancers to laugh at ourselves and to actually engage the audience in a main theme,
which I think is important: to laugh at ourselves and be silly. To have the license to be silly.

You were born on Kibbutz Mirza [near Haifa] in 1952. Do you think your roots are evident in your work?

I think the fact that I was born on a kibbutz and the fact that I’m Israeli have very little to do with the essence of my work. My work is about the development of composition, and it’s about how I deal with my limitations and how I deal with what I like and what I don’t and the power of imagination and my sense of humor, my love for mathematics and things like this.

One thing I really like (not just in my work, but in any work) is the ability to be ambivalent about things. The lack of clarity of what the source is. The lack of clarity of what the school is. So for me the important thing is the coherency of the work and not the coherency of the background of the work.

There is somewhere the fact that I’m Israeli, but it’s not the engine of my work.

You’ve said your work is not intended to be political, but certainly it has had political repercussions. What does that say about the social impact of art?

It just shows the power of self-expression and the fact that there’s always opposition and forces that resist, sometimes, new ideas or the freedom of expression. … I don’t create my work to antagonize or to protest. But [opposition] is sometimes there as a byproduct.

Critics have praised your ability to range from fun and joyous works to more difficult ones. Where do you get your ideas?

Ideas are easy. They just float and come from almost everything. It’s much more the development of my composition that is intriguing to me. And many times out of that comes the ability to look at something old from a new angle … the ability to take something, even a clichÈ, and create with it a fresh moment.

In 1998, France named you a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Last year you won a New York Dance and Performance Award (a "Bessie") and the Aviv Award from the America-Israel Friendship League. Do any of these honors have particular meaning for you?

Receiving the Bessie was really pleasing. In my heart I’m very much attached to New York, and to my life in New York and to the people who touched my life in New York. It was nice to be recognized by [the dance community that] I consider home.

Is it true that you cover the mirrors wherever you rehearse or direct?
It’s very clear to me that mirrors spoil it all. And not just for dance. Mirrors spoil it all.

I find that for my dancers, and everywhere else I go to teach my work, when I cover the mirror the result is much better. And the dancers enjoy the dancing more. They connect to the space. In a way, the mirror is limiting them from connecting to the world.

Last year, you told Dance Magazine that the Batsheva company had created a "real oasis" of respect for human rights and a willingness to listen that is "structurally amazing and totally opposite from what is going on in Israel." Does that still hold true for you?

I probably did say that, and I think it’s a little exaggerated. There are many oases in Israel. But somehow you need an oasis in order to feel that it can be different.

Because you do feel the force of the opposite of tolerance, you feel the force of the opposite of patience, and you feel the force of the opposite of being able to be creative and to come up with new solutions.

So when I think of it, it’s not something really only unique to Israel. You see it in America too. Look at the forces acting right now in America.

As an American citizen [since 1991] I feel I have the right to speak about this. There is an illusion of power right now that is kind of running in the country and is overwhelming. Where we are coming from in Batsheva is very opposite.

You just got back from Brazil. What were you doing there?

A company in Sao Paolo is doing an evening with three of my works, so I went to rehearse. … And it was really nice not to have a newspaper and radio for a while.

The Batsheva Dance Company performs July 23-26, at 8 p.m., at the New York State Theater (64th Street and Broadway) as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. $25-$65. Lincoln Center box office: (212) 875-5456, Ticketmaster: (212) 307-4100.