Batsheva Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
March 1, 2023
Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s largest and foremost dance company, returned to the Joyce Theater on February 28 for a two-week engagement. I saw the “for press” program the next night. The single dance that the company brought with it is its current incarnation of Hora, created by former Artistic Director and now House Choreographer Ohad Naharin.
Hora premiered in 2009, purportedly was modestly revised in 2012 (and presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that year), and the iteration here may be a further revision, with or without additional interim tinkering. Regardless, this was my first exposure to it, and, ultimately, it is what it now is.
In brief, Hora at first seemed a piece I was destined to dislike. From one moment to another it appeared somewhat amorphous and opaque, with movement qualities that might best be described as twitchy, slinky, and angular, including choreographic exclamations that seemingly come and go for no rhyme or reason. But what it turned out to be is one of the finest examples of such dances that I’ve seen – and I don’t mean that as a backhand compliment. Nihilism, anomie, and fury at the state of the world are not its subjects; some type of communal experience is. Hora may be difficult to engage with because being entertaining is not one of its objectives, but it’s unusual, tight as a fist, and intriguing, and deserving of the accolades it’s received over time.
A preliminary step back. Make that two steps.
Although I don’t recall seeing any dance that incorporates or utilizes in full Gaga, Naharin’s vaunted technique, as its choreographic language, I have seen two Naharin pieces, one commonly referred to as the “Chair Dance” (Echad Mi Yodea) on several different occasions, and an incarnation of Decadance (Decadance / Chicago) presented at the Joyce a few years ago by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, so logically I’ve seen Gaga previously without recognizing it. To a somewhat inside outsider, Gaga seems to be more a process that results in different types and degrees of movement rather than a particular style or collections of steps. But although some specific choreographic moments or more extended phrases may appear strange or exaggerated (or both), at bottom its manner of communication is human, not insect-like or designed to shock.
The other preliminary aside relates to its title.
To the extent that there’s a national dance of the Jewish Diaspora as a whole and/or Israel in particular, it’s the hora (also spelled “horah”). Essentially, the dancers assemble in a circle, hold hands, and collectively move their feet in and out and sideways one foot behind the other such that the entire circle moves, usually counter-clockwise (though contrarians – which by definition might mean everyone but me – might argue otherwise), until the music stops. If you’ve been to a Jewish wedding or Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah, or seen it on film, you know what it looks like.
It’s said by some to have originated with Zionist immigrants. That’s one variation of it, but its genesis is far deeper and broader than that. The word is derived from the Greek word for “circle” (evolving into, or cognitively related to, “dance”). Circle dances are a genre of national folk dance (usually seen at a wedding or other similar celebratory occasion) common to many ethnic groups and have variations, major or minor, from one ethnic group to another. They’re said to have had their origin in the Balkans – a region in southeastern Europe with historically fluid boundaries and component countries and nationalities, including but not limited to, and at one time or another: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia and at various times maybe parts of Ukraine, what is now Greece, Moravia, and even far northeastern Italy and northwestern Turkey – but I suspect the commonality is even broader than that. However, most descriptions I’ve seen link the hora specifically to Romania, sections of Moldova, and Jewish communities in the Balkans, but even with national variations, they’re all in one form or another circle dances, or horas.
Complicating matters is that the word “hora” also has Latin roots (possibly derived from Greek), and means hour, or period of time. But one meaning is not absolutely distinct from the other: time can be considered circular as well as linear; a continuing return rather than just a progression from point A to point B.
Muddling things even further is that Hora, the piece presented here by Batsheva, with one reasonably clear but relatively brief exception, does not include circular dancing (unless it’s very camouflaged). But it does include a sense of the passage of time, and it lasts … an hour, with no intermission. Overthinking a little, maybe?
It may well be that Naharin has co-opted the word from whatever specific meaning it has, and uses it here simply to mean “dance” – with no meaning beyond being “a dance.” But one can also conflate both root meanings into some “Circle of Life” or “Circle of Time,” which might be closer to what Naharin’s dance is intended to “mean” (to the extent it’s supposed to “mean” anything). But even given that analysis, the piece is somewhat of a square peg trying to fit into a round whole.
Aside from its choreography and its highly talented dancers, Hora is enhanced by its lighting and set, and its score.
Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi), the lighting and stage designer, has created a simple stage space, but one that’s also dramatic in a passive way. The stage perimeter, occupying roughly half the height of the theater walls, along with the stage floor, is girded and alit in a somewhat neon green. [The sections of the perimeter above the green areas are unadorned walls.] But rather than being garish, this “green” is something of an oasis; a sort of clearing in some forest (primeval or futuristic) that at once is menacing, with a sense of imminent danger, and calming, a respite from life’s slings and arrows. The only “set” object per se is a simple upstage bench of light-toned wood (or wood substitute), credited to Amir Raveh, that spans the width of the stage, on which the dancers sit or stand adjacent to at various times.
The set dovetails nicely with the curated score, allowing it (as well as the choreography) to breathe. Naharin has assembled a variety of pieces by late Japanese-born electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita, all of which are a reimaginings of ten familiar classics (modern as well as classical) as fed through a synthesizer, including Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” Strauss’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (the theme for 2001: A Space Odyssey), John Barry’s “Born Free,” (credited to Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song” from Peer Gynt), and John Williams’s Main Title from Star Wars. The vague musical familiarity, as synthesized, adds to the haunting, other-worldly but at the same time somewhat familiar sensation provided by the set.
I can describe Hora choreographically in only the broadest of terms (and not necessarily in performance order).
Initially, the dancers are seen sitting on that rear bench. Ever so slowly they walk downstage, as a group or individually, with their hands folded at their sides and with their arms and elbows protruding like triangles from their torsos, stopping to pose at various points and peering across the proscenium, occasionally in shadow, looking outward, somewhat contemptuously, perhaps toward a greater society that they dislike but are obligated to endure. [Almost as if, in a fit of overthinking, they and the bench represent Israel and offstage are its neighbors.]
To the best of my recollection they return to the bench, and first singly, then in pairs and small groupings, peel off and do their own angular, slithery, twisty and/or twitchy things, sometimes in tandem, sometimes floor-based, sometimes touching another as if in body exploration or seemingly instant angry reaction, but most in which one dancer moves independently from the other. At times it’s as if individuals are in unarmed combat against each other – after which, and together with others who may have separated themselves from those remaining on the bench, they return to the bench and are replaced by others. [Again, in that same line of overthinking, perhaps representing conflicting expectations or symbolizing deep divisions within the population.]
Together with this seemingly random movement are ballet-inspired poses (most of Batsheva’s dancers have significant ballet training and experience): primarily arabesques, coupled with a sense of reaching out toward something to connect with. And in one or two of the interactions one can sense emotional gloss, fleeting though that may be.
Nevertheless, and despite the fact that at times it all looks like a jumble, it’s not at all random (though some of the movement may have had “random” sources). On the contrary, this individuality and movement variety fits neatly into some undeniable pattern. Motifs are repeated at various unexpected points in time, and just when you think the group is splintering out of control, it all coalesces again. There’s a sense of unity within the appearance of disunity, order within apparent chaos, and an understanding that the movement alone (all components of it) isn’t the message (if there is one), whatever that message may be. It’s a sort of percolating formalism – all cold, methodical, and at times cruel: mechanisms for describing or coping with a cold, methodical, and at times cruel world. In the end, the dancers – the area’s inhabitants – all return back to that bench.
And perhaps that imagery is the most significant takeaway from Hora: they may not like it, but the dancers, the area’s inhabitants, keep returning to the home base; the resting / origin point from which they periodically venture forth, interact (or not), and then return. A continuing process; a circle of time.
Because there’s some point to Hora, albeit one that’s difficult to decipher (and maybe one that I inflated beyond reason), there’s a sense that there’s a there there: that Hora has something substantive to say, whatever that may be, rather than being an assemblage of movement that may or may not be interesting to a viewer even absent some meaningful context.
The dancers are distinguishable from each other, but by physical characteristics that overall are unimportant. Unfortunately, identifying them, even limited to doing so by name, isn’t possible (although some are identified in certain photos above), since the company for this engagement includes 18 dancers, and the 11 dancers in the piece at this performance were not specifically recognized. Regardless, they’re a very proficient group.
Batsheva, now under the leadership of Artistic Director Dr. Lior Avizoor, continues its Joyce engagement through March 12. My understanding is that all performances are sold out or close to it, although scattered seats may be available.