Yerba Buena Theater, San Francisco, CA; November 6, 2014
San Francisco is home to dozens of avant-garde dance companies, and we see our fair share of experimental, unusual, mind-bending dance. But we haven’t seen the likes of Batsheva Dance Company since the troupe’s last visit, in 2008. On its jubilee-year tour, the Tel Aviv–based company danced “Sadeh21” at the Yerba Buena Theater in three performances starting Thursday, November 6. The experience won’t soon be forgotten.
Sadeh means ‘field’ in Hebrew, and “Sadeh21” is composed of 21 sections, or fields of movement study, set to diverse music ranging from harsh electronic clanging from Autechre & The Hafler, to compositions by David Darling, Brian Eno and Jun Miyake, a plaintive violin variation on Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major” and selections from Angelo Badalamenti’s “Mulholland Drive”.
But itemized details can’t possibly approximate “Sadeh21.” In fact, there may be no words equal to the task of describing it. Some things simply must be experienced, and “Sadeh21” is one of them. Beyond visual and aural, it raises questions but answers none, and leaves one wondering if the whole thing was a dream. An ecstatic, hallucinatory, thrilling dream that suggests meanings yet demands to be met by equal and opposite intellect, seems impelled by an inner logic yet defies reasoned analysis.
The magic is made by Batsheva’s dancers, trained in the Gaga movement style developed by artistic director and choreographer Ohad Naharin, who created the piece in 2010–11 with their collaboration. Gaga’s emphasis on individuality frees dancers to move authentically and explore the full range of their bodies and their emotional motivation. Each dancer has a contortionist’s flexibility and a gymnast’s strength, and together they create an overwhelming, unsettling physicality that upends expectations.
The first sadeh begins with soloists in velvet shorts and tank tops entering and exiting, maniacally crouching in deep pliés à la seconde, shimmying upward to inverted postures, raising their arms like archers and echoing the Sprinkler, rebalancing in perfectly extended arabesques, lunging side to side mere inches above the stage floor. It looks for all the world like fast-forward yoga. This is not the opening of a show, it is the throwing down of a gauntlet.
Projections on the low wall that comprises the set indicate when one sadeh transitions into another, but the dancing neither stops nor starts on cue, and the inscrutable boundaries only add a layer of mystery. From the second sadeh, one’s mind is grasping for clues to the structure and meaning of what is unfolding. Is there intention? Does it matter? Naharin gives no clues; one either submits or resists.
Men in velvet trunks form a slow-motion kick line, raising and lowering bent legs, shifting into new formations and regrouping, building momentum toward a dervish of stomping, loud exhalations and sweat. All the while, a woman in velvet leggings lies on the floor behind them, creating a counter-rhythm by bending and slapping her legs on the floor as though riding a perpendicular bicycle. Like all of the company’s dancers, she possesses a focus and an ability to maintain a rapid, metronomic beat that subvert conventional pacing. We just go deeper into the rabbit hole.
Duets, solos and ensembles fill and empty the stage with frozen slow-motion and electric speed. An eight-ring circus forms, with vignettes unfolding at all parts of the stage that force one to choose what to watch. There is no time to notice that the music has transitioned to trance funk; while a woman in a red swimsuit slithers and splits across the floor, a group of women in bright tops and trunks groove in unison under the music’s seductive rhythm. A frenzy of men flies out from the wings in strapless black gowns, hurling themselves at the floor, each other, the wall.
At some point (to give oneself to “Sadeh21” is to release attachment to linear time), erotic undertones become mouth-to-mouth and mouth-to-crotch overtones. By this point one can’t be blamed for wondering if the ushers dosed everyone with Molly and we are now peaking. Eventually one dancer pantses another, yanking down her velvet leggings to reveal orange-stripe briefs, and laughter breaks the levee of emotional tension.
The end comes when a lone dancer climbs onto the wall, stands for a bit and falls off backward, stiff as a board. A reference to the tormented politics of the West Bank? (Naharin speaks openly about the situation in the press.) Seems plausible…until the rest of the dancers climb up and gleefully cannonball, swan dive and half-nelson off the back over and over, like tireless children flinging themselves into the deep end of a swimming pool. Projected credits roll. The audience rises into an ovation. The dancers leave and don’t come back. There will be no curtain call.