Revealing the 'uncanny': a review of Ohad Naharin's new work, Venezuela

The familiar meets the unfamiliar as the Batsheva Company performs Mr. Gaga's sublime piece

© Askaf
By Jennifer Greenberg |

If I were to use one term to describe Venezuela, it would have to be 'uncanny.' Not simply in the strangely mysterious, unsettling manner, but more so in Freud's understanding: the 'familiar, yet unfamiliar.' The work is divided into two distinct 40-minute acts; each of which draw on the same sequence of movements (the familiar), yet the dancers, music, overall atmosphere, time feel, and energy level in the second half veer far from the first (the unfamiliar).

"As anything that contains aspects of uncertainty, [Venezuela] is exuberating and exciting," says 24-year-old Batsheva Company dancer, Nitzan Ressler. Not only does this sense of unfamiliarity empower the dancers, it keeps audience members on their toes from that very first slow, swaying group movement cast against an eerie backdrop of Gregorian chant through to the final explosive scream from veteran dancer Bobby Jene Smith, as she lets out the communal anxieties and frustrations of all 17 dancers.  

In the first 40-minute act, the slow monophonic drones of Gregorian chant set a very solemn tone; paired with the stark black costumes, the dancers appear to be in mourning. As with many Naharin creations, the audience is not meant to necessarily understand the dancers' world, but rather empathize with it.

As the group reaches upstage, two dancers break off, striking a ballroom pose. Suddenly, the familiar Gaga style ascribed to Batsheva is thrown out the window, replaced by elements of Argentine tango – perhaps a hint into Venezuela's elusive title.

From there, they run through a series of numbers, from a harsh rap section set to The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Dead Wrong" to a very spiritual camel-riding scene. The only constant: that sacred chant, becoming a communal heartbeat that fuels each dancer.

© Askaf

As the first 40 minutes comes to a close, there is no pause, no fade to black, no intermission; the dancers move straight into the second half, repeating the familiar slow swaying group number that began the show, only this time, the music is upbeat, the dancers' roles have switched, and the lighting is altered.

As the second act unfolds, the familiar comes face-to-face with the unfamiliar. While the physical movements are the same, there are striking subtle changes, which grab the audience's undivided attention as they grapple with these uncanny feelings and notice what may have slipped by the first time around. Did that dancer create the same erratic movement last time? Was he always wearing heels? Were those flags painted the colors of Palestine before?

While he only shifted Venezuela into high gear a few months ago, Naharin admits that he had been thinking about this work for 60 years. It could be a result of buildup from the gap between his last work – allowing for a longer period to generate new ideas – but there were certain points where Naharin's ambitions may have gotten the best of him.

Both times around, the ballroom elements appeared awkward for the dancers, exposing their gap in knowledge in this controlled genre, an extreme contrast to the free-style Gaga they know so well. While Naharin encourages each dancer to shine in their own unique way, there are moments where the group numbers could be tighter.

Nonetheless, the concepts, raw talent, and complex stories are all beautiful in their own one-of-a-kind ways – not even replicable from one act to the next.

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