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Beauty From Brutality


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at the Civic Opera House, March 11, 13, and 14

I've gotten into arguments with everyone I've talked to about Batsheva Dance Company, which appeared at the Civic last month as part of the "Festival of Israeli Dance." Dancers loved the performance, but nondancers couldn't find words strong enough to vilify it, possibly because it defied the audience's expectations. Batsheva, sponsored by Israel's Ministry of Education, was founded by Martha Graham, and Graham technique was its teaching method for many years. The audience had every right to expect a set of pretty dances with old-fashioned technique and a faintly patriotic air. The concert's single dance was anything but--Mabul is a series of brutal and disturbing scenes, imbued with a punk sensibility and made from state-of-the-art modern-dance movement.

Punk images--the shaven heads of men and women, the funereal black clothing, the tattoos and leather jackets, the nose rings and multiply pierced ears--present brutality through a rainbow of references: to concentration camps, motorcycle gangs, primitive tribes. Obsessed with self-mutilation and death, punks are preoccupied with enduring pain and with making the act of endurance beautiful. Some people have even revived primitive endurance rituals, such as the Plains Indians' practice of setting sharp hooks into a man's chest and hanging him from them for hours. The punk message seems to be: "I have been brutalized, but by enduring and making my pain beautiful I will survive."

It's not difficult to locate the political roots of these images. Punk was born in Thatcher's England, flourished in America in the Reagan-Bush era, and seems to have been adopted by Israeli youth during the Likud party's tenure under Begin and Shamir: liberal young people could see no end to the worldwide conservative reign, and no hope of joining or influencing the majority. In such a politically isolated situation, their only choice was to endure, and punks communicated their alienation through lacerating visual images.

Because dance is visual images without explanation, it's a natural home for the punk sensibility. Choreographer Ohad Naharin exploits this affinity well in Mabul, a Hebrew word meaning "flood" or "confusion." The dance starts with three women dressed in black Lycra shorts and tank tops dancing fluidly in place to the faintly heard sound of dripping water. A man in the shadows upstage is strapped to a board reminiscent of a medieval torture device. The man (Naharin) sings in a falsetto voice perhaps intended to recall the countertenor parts often sung in the Middle Ages by castrati. The torture device and Naharin's falsetto--heard throughout the dance--are eloquent suggestions of the mutilation people undergo to conform to a social ideal.

A later image of social conformity is as direct as any in Martha Graham's Heretic: the company's 15 dancers walk single file in two circles, and every few moments a dancer steps out of line and goes crazy, flinging arms and legs in every direction. After an outburst, the dancer steps back into line.

The next sections show the consequences of not conforming, which can create an anxiety that's turned against oneself. A bare-chested man beats himself with his hands and fists, then throws himself to the ground in front of a chorus of dancers; while he continues to beat himself, they sing a motet. Another possible response to the pressure to conform is carefully wrought self-humiliation. In one section a series of female dancers sit briefly in a man's lap and tell sections of a dream in Hebrew (a voice-over translates the dream into English). The story involves a woman vomiting on a stranger, an important man who takes her to a white room and tries to vomit on her; when he cannot, he urinates on her instead. She takes comfort in the warmth of the piss and is glad he doesn't rape her.

Naharin pays a lot of attention to bodily functions: vomiting, urinating, having sex. Sexually explicit images include a woman squatting over a man's face and a menage a trois that segues into a lesbian embrace. These images are less developed than others, and Naharin may have intended them only to shock.

A more persuasive demonstration of natural acts occurs in the dance's only lighthearted scene--a man allows a hamster to crawl on his shaven head. At first the barely moving hamster looks like a lumpy fur hat; then it slowly crawls onto the man's shoulders. The scene has its dark undertones--for a while the hamster appears to be a rat--but Naharin also seems to admire the hamster's movement and to offer it as an ideal.

The dancers certainly show an animal pleasure in their movement, which is relaxed and swinging, based on the way our skeletons move rather than on the poses our muscles can create. A phrase may start with an elbow swinging, but the impetus suddenly switches to the pelvis, which turns in a circle, and as the hip circle slows down the impetus drops to the knees. Naharin was trained in this style at Juilliard, and the dancers are exquisitely skilled at it; it's a way of moving that has also been seen in recent Chicago performances by Trisha Brown's and Ralph Lemon's companies.

In Mabul's ironic ending, the full company dances to a version of "Que Sera, Sera" that both preserves the optimistic lyrics (made famous by Doris Day) and undercuts them with an industrial rhythm. The dancing is Hubbard Street style, with a balletic line and jazzy beat; but the dancers' punk look undercuts it. The ending seems to express a punk fatalism that nothing will change--that Doris Day will go on singing forever.

One of the faults of Mabul is that it's a series of individual scenes without much of a thread connecting them; basically Naharin presents a sequence of outrages without the possibility of change. The hope he offers is in the dancing itself: if we can become like animals, absorbed in the moment and in movement, we can escape the machine of society and live free lives. Such a desperate stance is more a symptom than a solution; the real solution will come only when liberal young people rejoin the society they despise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Godi Dagon.

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