(l to r) Shir Levy, Ohad Mazor and Nicolas Ventura in ‘Naharin’s Virus.’ (Photo: Christopher Duggan)
I’ve entered a sweat lodge where choreographer Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva – Young Ensemble is my peyote medicine. The oppressive temperature within the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow encompasses and swallows me whole, intersecting with the internationally acclaimed company through a barrier-breaking performance of Naharin’s Virus. I am both within and outside of myself. The heat. The bodies—at once primal and asexual. This is not for the faint of heart.
A lone dancer hugs the rear wall with her body as a moth flickers in the stage light. The undulating torso, clad only in a flesh-colored bodysuit with black leggings, traces itself with chalk as if preparing for her demise. How do we fill that outline throughout our lives? It is a gift and curse of our limited time on earth.
Such theatricality permeates Naharin’s choreography in infinite variations. His signature movement language, Gaga, was born out of a response to a back injury, and over the years has developed into an emotionally charged, highly physical vocabulary, used to create works with the fifty-four-year-old dance company as well as workshops for non-dancers. It is ultimately a return to play and physical, unabandoned freedom.
Naharin’s Virus draws inspiration from Austrian playwright Peter Handke’s play Offending the Audience using text to create tension between the dancers and the audience:
“We are breathing the same air / We are all in the same room.”
It’s a sentence that embodies the company’s ethos, exhibited by an international ensemble that forgoes preconceived notions of body shape. They are joyously diverse, and in the case of this piece, intoxicatingly androgynous. I watch from the dark as lithe bodies move through the sticky heat, sweat beginning to accumulate under the breast or in the small of the back. The movements vary in an unsettling manner, juxtaposing ecstasy with rage, intimacy with ambivalence.
This gift of the unexpected is, perhaps, a novelty on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow. Nestled in the Berkshires’ bucolic hills, this is a safe space to feel, well, unsafe. But the Israeli-based Batsheva exists in the eye of the storm. Naharin’s Virus was born out of a connection the choreographer made while his company was performing in Nazareth—a gutsy move in the wake of the Second Intifada Palestinian uprising. It was here he met Arab-Israeli composer Habib Alla Jamal and the collaboration has resulted in musical movements filled with pulsating electricity.
Naharin’s fearlessness is as evident in the piece’s more lyrical passages, which incorporate haunting string melodies that resonate in my gut with reverberating cello, or a delicately restrained waltz that transports me to a public square in Hangzhou, where I once stumbled upon a group of seniors in an early morning dance class. I’m in the rabbit hole, my mind present and fading, a blur of heavy air cut with accusatory precision.
A final stream of consciousness manifesto reels me in. They are tension-filled sound bites. Some are highly charged one-word political rants. I hear them, but I don’t listen. Maybe that’s not what they’re saying at all, but a rotten umbilical cord pulling at me. I don’t want to go back to that world. I don’t want to leave the sweat lodge.
“You will move / You will make preparations.
We will offend you.
We will contrast ourselves.”
A slow descent begins as the company’s synchronized, archetypal rhythms fade into darkness. The moth reappears, its wings fluttering toward the dimming amber light.
“You are welcome here. Goodnight.”
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at www.wexlerwrites.com.