I arrived in a fairly fragile state. Difficulties with family and friends, lack of sleep, work anxiety, hormones... who knows. But encountering protesters outside the theatre was almost more than I could handle. I waited in the will call line while they chanted slogans like “freedom for Palestine” and “dead children can’t dance”, uncertain whether my political leanings were being compromised by attending Israel’s Batsheva Dance. But I have a problem with the idea of boycotting cultural events to make political statements. My cynical self doesn’t believe the right people will get the right message. I moved into the theatre to get away from the racket.
Inside, I was surrounded by an unmistakably dancey crowd. Different from a theatre crowd, these patrons were somehow both sharp and flowing, with long necks, bright eyes, and extra limbs. The house opened very late and the sensory overload intensified as I read my program in the crowded lobby. When I took my seat, I felt overwhelmed, as my neighbour reminded me sadly of both a relative and a friend. Her earnest enjoyment of the lone dancer’s improvised comic curtain raiser brought tears to my eyes. And as I pulled myself together, I was enveloped by an unusual scent I could only identify as vanilla mothballs.
The opening number was electrifying. An androgynous half-circle of dancers crouched on chairs, leapt to their feet, threw off their hats, chanted in a strange language. The movement travelled from one edge to the other, like a sophisticated, mesmerizing version of “the wave”. Each dancer echoed the actions of the one before, with rapid fire precision and passionate commitment. When the movement reached the final dancer at the end of each sequence, he flew forward onto the floor as if he'd been shot, the only one still fully clothed and therefore clearly different. Memories of the protesters filtered my judgement.
Nothing after the first number quite lived up. There were other lovely pieces, like the male duet near the end of the show, but much of the work seemed self-consciously provocative. An extended segment of solo show-and-tell had a playground bravado that was alternately intriguing and irritating, its creativity marred by a need to surprise in a way that was both unsurprising and juvenile.
Batsheva is famous for inventing a style of dance known as GAGA, a sort of experts’ improvisation which requires more uninhibited spontaneity than refined technique. While several of the evening’s pieces had elements of GAGA, the method was most evident when each member of the company brought someone from the audience to the stage to dance as the spirit moved them. With so many dancers in the audience this exercise was less embarrassing than it could have been but the result seemed equal parts dance event and social experiment.
As a daily regimen of movement training, GAGA has much to teach dancers and actors about listening to their bodies. But in a world where everyone thinks they can dance, the professionals distinguish themselves by meticulous choreography and synchronicity of gesture. And for my $70 ticket I expect more than an evening spent watching people follow their impulses.
I’ll never know how much my state of mind coloured my perception of the performance. I do know that I was excited to see the show, eager to be entertained, expecting to be enthralled. And it was an enjoyable performance, one that improved my mood and enriched my understanding of contemporary dance. Maybe I got my money’s worth after all.