Review: Batsheva Ensemble - Deca Dance - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 19 - 21 November 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 21 November 2012

Batsheva Ensemble 'Deca Dance' 
Photo: Gadi Dagon

Performance reviewed: 19 November

I went to Sadler’s Wells intent upon writing a review about the performance without reference to the controversy that has clung so doggedly to this Dance Consortium tour over recent weeks but it was an aspiration to be kicked into touch from the moment I arrived. In years to come, it will not be the dance on the stage for which this ensemble of talented young dancers will be remembered but the enveloping “performance” within which their efforts were staged.

The right of peaceful demonstration is an essential way of life in Britain and heaven knows in my youth I did enough of it not to be hypocritical now; but I draw the line at loudly interrupting a performance. By definition, this has ceased to be peaceable, if not peaceful.

The Batsheva Ensemble is the youth end of the Batsheva Dance Company, comprising 16 dancers (11 of whom are Israeli) aged 23 or under. I came to watch some young people dance. They are no more responsible for Israeli policy in Gaza than a Russian ballet company is for the imprisonment of Pussy Riot; or Alvin Ailey’s youth company is for an American soldier shooting innocent citizens in Afghanistan. Where do you draw the line? Well, I draw it at being able to choose to watch young people dance, whatever their nationality.

The majority of the audience was quick to drown out the sounds of protest when a few people shouted slogans of protest from up in the circle, with spontaneous rounds of applause for the stoical dancers whose efforts were being interrupted. These young people had won their places in the Ensemble against serious competition (300 applicants a year for half-a-dozen places) and this elite talent showed. They gave a fast-paced programme of dance capsules: beginning with a 40 minute relay of solo freestyle dancing from the male dancers to fill in for the delay it took to get the audience through the airport-style security; through to the energetic group dance that closed the evening – performed like a mexican wave on permanent playback – on and around a semi-circle of chairs. Deca Dance is an ever-evolving showcase of greatest hits from Ohad Naharin’s extensive catalogue of choreography stretching back to when he became Batsheva Dance Company’s artistic director in 1990 (the same year in which he established this youth extension).

Naharin’s choreography is infused by a unique discipline known as gaga that among many idiosyncrasies, includes a regime of never rehearsing in front of mirrors. The style is inventive and absorbing, often electrifying and sometimes poignant. The dancers move in close unison when required to do so and although this group dynamic is strong, their individual characters shine through. The spell cast by a passionate, clinging duet was not disrupted by an early intervention (shouts of “Terrorist Israel”). But the biggest crowd-pleaser was a funny, yet profound, sequence where the dancers ignored the tension to come down into the audience, choose a partner (wearing two particular colours seemed to help) and then perform a tango with them until one-by-one the spectator-come-performers returned to their seats, leaving 15 partner-less dancers and one couple bound together in a serious clinch, as if the last drunken pair to leave the disco dancefloor. Her partner and the other 15 slide to lie on the ground leaving this one bemused lady standing alone and in the spotlight to take her curtain call. This planned breach of the fourth wall was just the antidote for the earlier attempts to violate it from the other direction.

I came to watch some talented young people dance and I was not disappointed. Naharin has expressed concern for his government’s policies towards Palestine. Watching his excellent dancers, performing this peculiar, dynamic style of dance has made me no more, nor less, supportive of either side in the dreadful never-ending conflict in the Middle-East. I cannot imagine that it would impact on anyone in this way.

If left alone, Batsheva Ensemble would have been just part of the circus of world-class dance companies that come to Sadler’s Wells week in-week out and the caravan would have moved on without much fuss; the irony is that the protestors who have alleged that the company is in some way a propaganda exercise for something they describe as ‘Brand Israel’ have considerably emphasised the publicity impact of this tour.

Tonight at Sadler’s Wells and touring ends on 24 November in Plymouth

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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