With Batsheva, Politics Inside and Outside the Joyce Theater

Posted July 11, 2018 5:15 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Human rights protesters were demonstrating outside the Joyce Theater on Tuesday night. The company appearing was from Israel — Batsheva’s junior troupe, the Young Ensemble. The topics of protest were Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people and Batsheva’s role, as an Israeli cultural ambassador, as a front for that repression.

Nonetheless, audience members could enter the Joyce simply enough. (The main delay was the doorway security checks, but these have been strict for months.). The performance began a few minutes later than usual, to ensure there would be no problems. And sure enough, there were no interruptions.

The work being danced, “Naharin’s Virus” (2002), by no means expresses Israeli politics. Choreographed by Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of Batsheva since 1990 (he will step down this September), it is an essay in modern theater: It adapts Peter Handke’s plotless play “Offering the Audience” (1966). One dancer (Evyatar Omessy), wearing a suit and standing on a level above the main stage, recites a monologue. “You” are addressed a great deal, until, in an accelerating climax, he says “you overworked gravediggers,” “you perfect sons of bitches,” “you wrong numbers” and more, until finally he concludes: “You are welcome here. Good night.”

Earlier, he speaks about the possibility of giving us “a play within a play,” but really he himself is playing a role. It turns out that his suit is just an outer shell like armor: He steps out of it at times (it remains vertical, in place), showing that he is wearing the same black-and-white dancewear as the other performers, whom he joins on the lower part of the stage.

Not all that happens there is dancing. Letters, words and patterns are drawn in chalk on a blackboard. Some of this action is highly choreographed; some is done more naturalistically. At other times, dancers talk or scream.

The climate onstage, however, is never one of freedom. There is always a sense that Big Brother is watching. The company performs Gaga, a movement style developed by Naharin to heighten sensation and imagination and to go beyond familiar limits. But even when the 16 dancers are at their wildest, they look driven rather than driving.

Near the end, all the dancers do unison movement routines that evoke various folk forms of the Near East: here a slow turning step with one arm raised, suggesting the movement of dervishes; there a two-step number with arms outstretched, reminiscent of the dabke, an Arab folk dance. Yet the look is always one that deprives them of freedom rather than liberating them. Even when earlier on three or more subgroups are doing entirely different, often intense things, the mood is controlled, involuntary, dragooned.

To me, they look like citizens of a totalitarian state. Or rather, as in other Naharin works, they look like pawns in this choreographer’s game. There are dance works in which this can add up to powerful drama. In Bronislava Nijinska’s “Les Noces,” for example, the society of a Russian village is made to look like a huge machine, with the wedding’s bride and groom the most passive participants. But there the overall effect is one of cumulative pathos. Naharin’s works abound in theater games and exercises: Despite the fullness of the movement, the drama is an intellectual one. In some works, performers deliver effects; Naharin’s dancers become effects.

To many in the audience, this is exciting: “Naharin’s Virus” wins immediate whoops and cheers, while the “Offending the Audience” monologue is treated as a form of amusingly provocative entertainment. It leaves me cold and annoyed.

Event Information:

Batsheva, the Young Ensemble

Through July 22 at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org.