Saturday, July 22, 2006

Dance the night around

Some thoughts on Batsheva Dance Company's Telophaza (seen at the New York State Theater Thursday evening), especially in light of Alex Ross' great piece about Mozart, "The Storm of Style," in The New Yorker.

Telophaza was my third Batsheva show, and with 38 dancers it was closer in scale and spirit to Anaphaza (2003, same venue) than the intimate Mamootot, a piece for nine dancers done in the round last year at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn.

The first impression is that seeing such a large troupe on stage is thrilling, especially since Batsheva choreographer Ohad Naharin knows how to move it. You'd think moving a large group of dancers shouldn't be such a big deal, but anybody who's seen Broadway ensembles clunkily roam about a stage can tell it's not. The comparison with Broadway isn't as far-fetched as it may seem because while Naharin's vocabulary and artistic aim are completely different, a lot of his large-scale work is audience-friendly in a fundamental way; but while it's easy to enjoy on a gut level, it also contains sophisticated layers of possible interpretation ready to be peeled off by audience members keen on analysis.

In a different style, of course, Telophaza captures some of what makes Mozart's greatest achievements so great and so enduring. In a letter to his father quoted in Ross's article, Mozart writes of some of his concertos: "There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why." You could enjoy Telophaza on a purely surface level—it was never less than gorgeous eye candy, again, an achievement not as easy as you'd think—but you could also ponder, for instance, Naharin's use of video closeups (is technology indispensable to draw the viewer in? Does closeness necessarily equate intimacy?).

Another Naharin particularity is his occasional recourse to audience participation. While it's a device I generally dislike (cheap pandering!), somehow I don't mind it in his pieces. In Telophaza, a disembodied voice belonging to "Rachel" gave us instructions, which we were meant to follow from our seats, like:

"Put your hands in front of your face."
"Put a hand on your head and count down to yourself from ten to one."
"Place your hand on your mouth and think of what you ate today."
"Put both hands on your stomach and think about who you miss."
"Put your hands on your thighs and think that you have plenty of time."

People chuckled, but they also did as told. Because nobody was singled out, as tends to be the norm in audience participation, the sense of community was striking.

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