In 2002, Batsheva Dance Company brought Naharin’s Virus to New York. Last July, the dancers of Batsheva’s Young Ensemble — every bit as gutsy and virtuosic as their main company counterparts — reprised it at the Joyce Theater. The choreography by artistic director Ohad Naharin is timeless, but the accompanying verbal diatribe, taken from a 1966 anti-theatrical manifesto by Austrian enfant terrible Peter Handke and woven throughout the hour-long dance, has not aged well.

Offending the Audience is the English title of Handke’s play. In Virus, his words are delivered by a male dancer standing at a microphone on a platform high above the stage. He opened with a litany of things that the evening would not be (“You will see no spectacle,” Your curiosity will not be satisfied,” and so on) and ended with a stream of insults aimed at the audience, whom he denounced as chicken shits, traitors to your country, defeatists, catatonics, abortionists, educated gas bags, congressmen, tax evaders, pussy grabbers, architects of the future and much, much more. Some of these labels sounded suspiciously current, but they failed to provoke an audience long hardened by the rants of politicos who would rather mud-wrestle on Twitter than tend to the business of running a country.

The speaker appeared in a business suit and tie, which turned out to be stiffened by a concealed frame from which he would periodically slip out to join the ensemble onstage, leaving the costume to stand on its own. Perhaps the empty, petrified suit looming above the dancers was meant to signify the inhuman forces of capitalism.

In contrast, the ensemble was outfitted in possibly the drabbest costume ever created for the stage. This consisted of a camel-coloured shorty unitard, with sleeves that encased the dancers’ hands like gloves, and baggy black wool tights. From mid-thigh, the dancers’ legs seemed to disappear against the slate black walls of the set — the effect was that of creatures with long, undulating torsos and arms, bobbing around in a dark sea.

In this sackcloth, the Young Ensemble looked nothing less than radiant. Naharin has always celebrated the diverse gifts of his dancers, and their individuality shone in his nervy, often explosive, yet strangely tender movement vocabulary.

The early movement was executed in a slow motion that together with an eerie soundscape called to mind the hypnotic space-walking scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A woman drew a chalk line along the slate wall, tracing the outline of her head and arms as she serpentined languorously. A man approached and seemed to spark an erotic interest — but what she really wanted was to manoeuvre him against the wall so she could trace his body lines, too. The gentle wit of this interaction could not mask a sense of unease: were these dancers intent on leaving a two-dimensional trace of their existence in case they suddenly perished?

All the dancers eventually took turns drawing and scribbling on the wall in a frenzy. Against a backdrop of squiggles, they inscribed the word PLASTELINA in giant lettering — perhaps a deliberate mangling of the word Palestine.

Naharin has made known his sympathy for Palestinian causes — even as the Tel Aviv-based company itself has come under fire from anti-Israel organizations for accepting funding from the Israeli government and for touring the world as official cultural ambassadors. But if there’s a political intention underlying Virus, it feels secondary to the exploration of otherness in a monolithic society.

Written fragments visible amid the graffiti included “Arabic is legitimate,” “Fix me” and other intriguing messages in various languages. Coupled with the dancers’ voices — sometimes heard on tape in poignant or chilling musings, sometimes live in aggressive, warlike chants — these morsels of language collectively packed a far greater punch than Handke’s tedious verbal hammering.

A highlight was the stark, dispassionate female solo that accompanied a troubling recorded confession, which opened with “My mother she wanted a boy”; this was underscored by Samuel
Barber’s pensive Adagio for Strings and the faint but insistent rhythm made by another dancer jabbing the wall with chalk.

When they tired of scribbling, the dancers took running leaps in an attempt to scale the wall, but only succeeded in dangling off the edge. Gathered in a chorus line, they stomped and shook their fists in a pounding unison, then froze as one after another broke into a frenzied convulsion. The intensity of the movement verged on flagellation, the dancers kicking up chalk dust.

Habib Alla Jamal’s bracing arrangements of Arab folk music provided more welcome respite from Handke, as the dancers barrelled in and out of momentary encounters, both comic and disquieting. Their faces remained largely impassive yet through their movement we sensed exhilaration, angst, exhaustion.

In the end, the agitations subsided, and the dancers swiveled sedately in echoes of folk dance, their streaks of individuality stifled. It was an anti-theatrical moment — as if Naharin, channelling Handke, had robbed us of a denouement. But the audience was wise to Handke’s game and showered the performers with proper theatrical acclamation.

— CARLA ESCODA

DI WINTER 2018

Batsheva — The Young Ensemble in Ohad Naharin’s Naharin’s Virus
Photo: Ascaf