By Clare Schweitzer, Mount Holyoke College
The Batsheva Dance Company is a celebrated contemporary dance company based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Under the current direction of Ohad Naharin, the Batsheva Dance Company as well as its youth company the Batsheva Dance Ensemble are fixtures in the international dance scenes. Their stunning physicality and acute sense of expression have done their part in captivating modern audiences and several works in their growing repertory are starting to be celebrated as classics of modern dance. Looking at them today, one would not necessarily think of them as a creation and a promotion of an American dance legend. Indeed, The Batsheva of Martha Graham’s ambitions and the Batsheva of Ohad Naharin’s creations could not be more different. Over the past forty years, the company has made the transition from the role of an international promoter of American choreography to the role of a creator and innovator of modern dance as a whole.
The trajectory of the company reflects trends of globalization in Israel. The country practically lends itself to global influence due to its relatively recent establishment and the subsequent amounts of people seeking residence in Tel Aviv among other cities. The company has reflected these trends as it has attempted to resolve issues of finding a common identity, both in terms of its composition and its technique. The company has also played a role in global proliferation as well. It has toured for the better part of forty years and it’s dancers hail from all around the world.
A Country is Established and a Company Follows.
The nation of Israel came into official being in 1948, three years after the end of World War Two. In the years immediately following, immigrants began to settle in Tel Aviv from many different countries. Here, the word “immigrant” is used merely as a technical term as, from an Israeli perspective, there are no immigrants. Following from nearly two millennia of doctrine, followers of the Jewish faith who immigrate to Israel are said to be returning to the homeland (Benton-Short 302). This effectively allowed those of Jewish ancestry to move to Israel and gain citizenship in the process and acted as a catalyst for immigration to the new nation. Immigrants to Israel hail from worldwide, though Israel acts as a sort of gateway to the Middle East for the United States and the two nations have maintained an amicable and supportive relationship. Therefore, many of the new immigrants came from the United States, bringing lived experiences from an international superpower to a land thousands of miles away.
As a part of this trend of immigration, a slough of New York-trained choreographers began to set up base in Israel. Although these choreographers managed to find passionate, competent dancers during the time, they struggled to find funding and often only had the resources to put on a limited number of performances a year. However, they received a brief reprieve when Martha Graham toured her company in Israel in 1956, giving both Israeli and global audiences a taste of American Modern Dance. By this time, modern dance has already found its place in the American dance scene. Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham had already established themselves and rising stars Paul Taylor and Alwin Nikolais were making important contributions to the field.
In 1964, Martha Graham and Baroness Bethsabée de Rothschild combined to form a company that was designed to be essentially an American company with Israeli dancers. In a brochure released during the second year of the Batsheva Dance Company, a quote attributed to de Rothschild states that before the company, there were “Israeli Choreographers searching for dancers. Dancers waiting for choreographers” (Gluck 45)”. At this point, the existence of the official state of Israel had not yet reached two decades and many of the dancers de Rothschild references had barely been in the country for half that time. However, the strong ties to the area and the need for a reestablishment of Israeli identity led to demand for these artists to create something in the image of a true Israeli form.
While globalization affects the way dance is distributed and promoted, it also affects the way it is practiced. In terms of globalization, dance forms inevitably change when they practiced in countries far from their origins and Graham technique is no exception. The Batsheva Dance Company holds a notable place in Graham lore as it earned the distinction of being the first company outside of Graham’s own to have the permission to perform her work. When founding Batsheva member Rena Gluck first arrived as a prospective choreographer in Israel, she arrived with a background in the Graham tradition. She had noticed that it after years of traveling worldwide that
“ It was fascinating to see how different teachers who had studied in Graham’s New York studio conveyed her technique in a manner unique to them, how subtle changes in technique took place all over the world, and how the dancers’ response is influenced by the indigenous realities of the country in which they have lived” (37).
Gluck notes an inevitable facet of technique in the midst of globalization in that it is subject to local interpretation. The words used to describe movement translate differently in language and occasionally in body when the movement is transplanted in another environment. Different words also resonate with different people depending on the language, leading to an emphasis on different movement than what were originally intended.
Although Graham technique was affected by globalization as it was practiced around the world, it managed to elude some of the stigma associated with such practice Although the normally reluctant Graham had shipped her work abroad, she was still able to tolerate it in a different setting. When Graham saw her own technique in practice, she noted that there were changes made to accommodate “Israeli” energy; changes that she noted were acceptable (Gluck 37). One of the common problems of globalization is the attempt to determine the authenticity of a dance form. However, the use of the word authenticity presupposed the form is rooted in the past and negates its status as a style of dance that evolved with time. In Graham’s case, she acknowledges that her technique is an evolving form and that it is up to the dancer to discover how it resonates, thus removing many of the negatives usually associated with the proliferation of such forms.
It would be daunting to argue that Graham’s association with the company didn’t play a role in their success, but it was their performance that gave them attention on a global scale. The company had its first international tour in 1966 and toured consistently over the next decade in Europe and America. Boosted by these tours as well as Martha Graham’s stamp of approval, the “Israeli children of American dance.” became acknowledged for their intensity and respected for its interpretation of the repertory set on them. The Batsheva Company had already established itself as a force in the international dance scene by the late 1960’s and had earned the respect of many companies, so much so that they jumped to Batsheva’s defense in times of crisis. In the early 1970’s finances became a problem and a merger between Batseheva and a rival company Bat Dor was proposed in the early 1970’s. An international uproar with companies and dance figures from around of the world prevented the merger, suggesting that the dance world would lose a presence should it happen. The company’s touring not only solidified its legitimacy within an international context, but also implied that their existence was necessary for the benefit of modern dance as a whole. This suggests that modern dance was thought of as a global form, with international components essential to its survival and advancement.
Authenticity plays a significant role when it comes to dance and globalization, particularly when determining what constitutes as an authentic form of a particular country. . Although the company had found an audience abroad, it was still determining how to construct its identity in Israel. Both the artistic and general public wanted exclusively Israeli creations and among them, an Israeli dance company. The members of the Bathsheba dance company echoed this sentiment and from the company’s inception searched for an Israeli artistic director to manage the company. Over the course of two decades, Bathsheba rotated through a series of directors, many of who were foreign born. Though some were admired by company members, all of them felt out of place in a budding dance venture located in what was still a new nation. Facing pressure a company who would not cooperate with anyone who was not Israeli, many directors would not stay with the company for more than two or three years at a time. (Gluck 75, 296-298) This tumult in the company reflects issues facing Tel Aviv with immigration as well as numerous debates surrounding people who lay claim to an Israeli identity. As mentioned previously, being a follower of the Jewish faith is a fundamental component of Israeli identity. In Israel’s early years, immigrants to the land who were not Jewish were considered foreign, even if their country of origin was closer to Israel than many coming from other countries.
However, a wave of non-Jewish immigration in the 1990’s caused many in Israel to rethink composed a native identity. The sheer amount of foreign workers arriving in Israel during the time, particularly in the capital city of Tel Aviv caused special situations where foreign workers were granted rights of Israeli citizens. As a result, the city was able lay claim to a multicultural identity, though the embrace of it still remains tepid. As Israel has become more accommodating to newer citizens, so has Batsheva. The company today boasts dancers hailing from all over the world from at least nine different countries. As a result, it has been elevated from a niche company into a force in the international dance scene. This change may be partially the result of Ohad Naharin’s takeover of the company as he likely brought followers from a global scale of experience. Nevertheless, the new attitude of Israel during this time likely facilitated the introduction of more dancers to the company.
A New Identity for Israel and Batsheva.
Indeed, the catalyst for the growth of the company came with the appointment of Ohad Naharin as artistic director in 1990 (Galili 25). Ohad’s training and dance experience can be described as global as he is not only a product of the training of many countries, but the forms he has trained in have been practiced in countries far from their origin. He trained in the Graham tradition both at Batsheva and at the Graham school in New York. He also trained in New York at a time when it had been well established as a global city. He subsequently collaborated with many North American and European choreographers such as Jiri Kylian with the Netherlands Dans Theater. By the time he assumed the leadership position at Batsheva, he had already made a name for himself as a dancer and choreographer on no fewer than three continents.
Naharin’s takeover was the effective beginning of a new identity for the Batsheva Company. First of all, it marked the end of the company’s repertory model, meaning that the American influence would no longer be permeating the company to the extent it had been. Second, it marked the beginning of Batsheva as a springboard for new choreography as well as a new technique in the form of Gaga. Described as Naharin’s movement language, Gaga is designed as a method help dancers reconnect to the way they move as opposed to a codified technique. In a Gaga class, the instructor leads the participants through a series of images which dancers recreate in their own bodies. The class is intended to recreate the sensation of the movement rather than the look of it. Because of this, mirrors are covered or nonexistent in the class and observers are usually not allowed into the class. With this external pressure out of the way, dancers are free to explore not only their sources of power, but also the areas of their technique that may be weak, potentially creating venues for new movement. The technique is also not exclusive to dancers as actors have been known to use it as well as new movers who aim to connect with their bodies (Galili 25).
Given the nature of the image-based technique, everyone participating in a particular class must understand the instruction language, usually English or Hebrew. Although it allows for consistency within the class setting, it could potentially lead to problems with its global proliferation. Considering Batsheva’s international composition, different company members speak different languages and the impact of the words or images used will change with each language it is taught in. The specify of the words used as well as the amount of the times they are used could potentially lead itself to a form of codification as it has with other global dance forms which would completely defeat the purpose of the technique.
Gaga has become popular in Israel with as many as 900 people coming to a class at a time. Considering the origins of the form as well as the free-based movement, it is sometimes referred to as an Israeli dance form. Referring to the form in such precise geographical terms presents a few issues. First of all, not everyone in the company who created the form is Israeli. Naharin created the technique at a time when dancers from around the world were beginning to enter the company and he encouraged his dancers to bring a bit of themselves and their origins in creating this technique. Considering its middle-eastern origins and perceptions of other middle forms as they go global, reference to the technique as an Israeli form brings potential risks of exoticism. Its contrast in practice against the codified techniques of western dance forms could potentially further this stereotype. Time will tell whether the form faces the same threat of exoticism like many dance forms hailing from the middle-east, but for the moment its internal connection has found a place with practitioners around the world.
The incorporation of a local culture with a global form has its positives and negatives. Even as the reach and composition of the company becomes more global, the influence of Israeli society and Jewish culture is still palpable. Early Batsheva choreographers often found inspiration from religious scripture and were encouraged to choreograph to Israeli music (Gluck 76). Batsheva at present has not strayed too far from this model. While Naharin’s work does not necessarily contain a cultural or religious agenda, it shows some influence of Israeli culture through the music used as well as a few instances where he apparently challenges it head on. For example, his work Seder (2007) could be read as a satirical comment on the paradox of rigid order and gleeful celebration of Passover traditions with dancers compressing a multitude of emotions in their faces and bodies in a somewhat regimental fashion.
Although these tributes to Israeli culture can be endearing, they can also be sources of conflict. Even as the mass immigration to Israel is done in part to fulfill a religious obligation, the immigrants bring ideas of Western culture that can lead to conflict. Considering the cosmopolitan nature of Tel Aviv, compromise is inevitable in the way Israeli identity is constructed. The use of religious motif in art in the context of globalization runs the risk of accusations of appropriation and blasphemy. This is especially pertinent in Israel considering how much of Israeli identity has been constructed around religion. In particular, the use of religious music such as holiday songs and Klezmer music in dance works has been contentious and subject to debate within artistic community of Tel Aviv. However, few of these controversies matched the one Batsheva faced during a performance of Minus 16 at a government-sanctioned celebration.
A signature work for the company and a prime example of visceral nature of the company’s performance, Minus 16 features dancers in suits sitting in chairs in a half-circle skimming the boundaries of the stage. Set to a rock version of the Passover song “Echad mi Yodea,” the dancers accumulate movement as the song accumulates verses. Towards the end of the work with all of the movement they have accumulated, the dancers begin taking off pieces of their constrictive suits, showing revealing leotards underneath. The work has found appeal with audiences worldwide, and is the most frequently set and performed work of the company with performances of it by school dance troupes as well as professional companies.
Thought the work has found its place as the company’s trademark, it caused uproar when it was to be performed at an anniversary celebration of the state of Israel. When it was announced as part of celebration festivities, several members of the Israeli artistic community accused the company of blasphemy as the work features dancers essentially stripping to a traditional Passover song. This led to an ongoing issue within the Israeli artistic community who fervently debated the outrageousness of the dance versus the overblown uproar that followed. Heated negotiations escalated to the point where they reached the prime ministers office and by the time the dancers were to finally perform the work, they walked out in defiance. This event reflects the fine line dance artists walk when it comes to globalization. It reflects ongoing debates in globalization as to what constitutes as appropriation as well as debates regarding the rightful practitioners of a traditional form.
Even as the company faces issues in Israel regarding the content of the work, it has still found a solid place within the international dance community. The company performs half of its shows abroad, with its 2012 schedule taking them from Edinburgh to Toronto to Japan. With so much international exposure, many creators of dance from around the world are adopting (or at least, attempting to adopt) the visceral movement quality of the company (e.g. Gallim, Cedar Lake). Major dance centers around the world now offer gaga in tandem with ballet and modern dance. The form has become globalized in the sense people that it is reaching a global audience and people are beginning to pick up on its influence. Once at the receiving end of this global influence, the company has essentially turned the effects of globalization on its head, perpetuated it’s own global form
The trends of the Batsheva Dance Company and ensemble reflect the global trends that are prominent in Tel Aviv. The company has alternately held the role of global recipient and global force, one that simultaneously interests the world and gets the world in return. Time will tell whether its products become subject to casualties of globalization that have affected other dance forms, but for now, we can observe that it has pushed the art of modern dance beyond its boundaries. The worldwide composition of the company has given Batsheva its own voice and an identity that both the artistic and general public of Israel can claim as their own.
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