Child's play

Kamuyot may be kid-friendly, but don't expect Ohad Naharin to water down his vision.

FOLLOW THE LEADER Batsheva Ensemble performs Kamuyot.

FOLLOW THE LEADER Batsheva Ensemble performs Kamuyot. Photograph: Gadi Dagon

It’s slightly crazy that even though Ohad Naharin lives in Israel, his choreography is shown with greater frequency here than that of most New York artists. (From Telophaza to Three, at least they’re dances you want to see.) Beginning this weekend, Naharin presents Kamuyot, created for his Batsheva Ensemble and staged in the round. While it’s certainly something adults can enjoy, it was also created with children and teenagers in mind; frequently performed in school gymnasiums with natural lighting, the dance is part of the JCC’s Israel Non-Stop Arts Festival 2008. After two intense weeks traveling in Japan and Sweden, Naharin spoke about Kamuyot in a phone interview from Israel. Soon he’ll be on the road again: After New York, he heads north to oversee a triple bill for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. Just in case you’re considering a vacation in April.

How did you dream up a dance for younger audiences?
Well, this work is actually borrowed from two other works, Mamootot and Moshe. Moshe is a piece we haven’t performed out of Israel because it has a lot of text, and I never wanted to translate it; the section we are using is one that doesn’t have any. After I took those ideas, I had a process with the young dancers of the ensemble and something new came out of it. The idea of doing something for young audiences has to do with the fact that our junior company appears in about 100 performances a year for schools. Kamuyot, in the end, is not different in terms of the movement language or the complexity of composition than any other process that I have. But I think somehow knowing that a lot of young people are going to see it, there is—you know how it is when you can relate to young people? That you feel more responsible? And more tenderness and unconditional love? In this process, that mind-set actually helped me. It freed me. But it doesn’t make the piece any less demanding.

Why did you want to make this in the first place?
The relationship I have with the ensemble company is very unique. It’s a group of people who are really talented but with very little experience. You can see in front of your eyes how they will evolve in two years, or even less. And to be able to be with them in this part of their career—I learn a lot. I don’t want it to sound like it’s part of my mission, but I learn the most when I work with people like that.

Is Kamuyot more about the Ensemble or making a dance for kids?
I would say both. It was definitely in the back of my mind that I was doing a piece that a lot of young people were going to see, but it’s not only that. The model of my audience usually and still is, I would say, me. But maybe it is the younger me.

What you would have wanted to see when you were a boy?
It’s not what I wanted to see, but was willing to see.

But you were a dancer too, right? Doesn’t that make your experience a little different?
Yeah, but I didn’t participate in dance training until very late. Actually, when I think of myself as young, it’s not like I see the dancer. I see many other things.

Like what?
It is not so much the activity I imagine, and maybe this still hasn’t changed so much today. Dance is only one of many—I am someone who likes to look at trees grow. Always did. I’m someone who likes to… Anyway. [Laughs] I feel like I’m writing a shopping list about me and I don’t like it. Maybe we shouldn’t speak about me. It would be easier.

Why do you think Kamuyot works for a younger audience?
In the end, young audiences are not any less keen to be challenged than adults. Sometimes even more. The power of imagination is theirs too, and maybe they have not such a big bank of references, but they still have references, and they still have groove and musicality and a sense of humor. So this piece works for them just like it works for an adult audience. And I treat the young audience as I treat the adult audience. Only maybe with more care. [Laughs] That doesn’t mean I don’t care about adults; but when we get older, we become more cynical and maybe we lose something. I think the lack of cynicism is a real advantage when we watch art—any art—or when we read books or listen to music or see a dance. And I think this is something you can feel with young audiences.

What is it about this dance that makes kids laugh?
There is a fine line. Sometimes they get very embarrassed and other times they go past being embarrassed very quickly, and sometimes the embarrassment stays through the whole performance. I never understood what makes it so different from one show to the next. But I think one of the things that makes them laugh is because they see the dancers laughing at themselves. It is not telling jokes. That is never in my pieces. It’s more like they laugh at the result of being tickled.

Batsheva Ensemble is at the JCC in Manhattan Sun 2–Tue 4.