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Ohad Naharin, and the Art of Provocation

Ohad Naharin, and the Art of Provocation

Ohad Naharin, the Israeli choreographer, is so synonymous with his home country that I often forget he did much of his formal training in the United States. In New York, in fact, at both the School of American Ballet and Juilliard. I get a vivid reminder of that this weekend, when Juilliard’s remarkable ensemble of student dancers performed his work “Secus,” from 2005.

The piece shared the bill with wildly different fare, including a 1975 worked called “The Waldstein Sonata,” by Jose Limon, and a North African-inspired piece by Spain’s Nacho Duato, called “Gnawa.” The programmers perhaps thought the Duato-Naharin pairing would remind us of a past when Jews and Muslims once easily occupied by the same stage. But you wouldn’t get that impression seeing their works side-by-side.

Where Duato’s “Gnawa” draws heavily on North African and Spanish Muslim visual cues—dancers carry intricately patterned lamps on stage, while others strike the occasional hieroglyphic pose—Naharin’s work looks like a mash-up between sci-films like “The Matrix” and “Aliens,” set to a schizophrenic electronica score.

I don’t mean that as an insult of Naharin’s work. In fact, “Secus” is a strikingly good example of the dance language Naharin has done so much to create—Gaga—which he’s popularized through his two-decade long leadership of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Ensmeble.

In “Secus,” dancers jerk and burst as shocked by an electronic pulse. Naharin’s gift is for turning difficult dance music—in this case electronica—into something looking human. Though the music pulses with digital beats, and is cut and rewound so many times it verges on aural chaos, Naharin deftly uses his dancers to punctuate the music’s rapid-fire changes.

They slow down the staccato score by standing put at times, then rapidly exiting the stage at others. They cup their hands in front of their faces, as if afraid to be seen, imbuing the music with a bit of tenderness it would otherwise be near impossible to hear. And then—in an act that could come off as cheap or clichéd—Naharin has a line of dancers flash the audience their full genitalia—women and men both. It happens so naturally, though, that it seems as if it was as insouciant as a leaping jete.

Provocation comes easily to Naharin, and it is no small compliment to say it comes equally so to Juilliard’s remarkable dancers.

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