Ohad Naharin on Batsheva Dance Company: 'It’s about doing more with less'

Gaga inventor Ohad Naharin talks about breaking the rules in Sadeh21
Batsheva Dance Company, in Sadeh21
Photograph: Gadi Dagon Batsheva Dance Company, in Sadeh21
By Gia Kourlas |

Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, shook up the international dance world with the advent of his movement form Gaga. Now more mainstay than trend, Gaga has informed the works of countless dancers and choreographers. Before his Sadeh21 plays at BAM, Naharin talks about how this new work is not a break from the past, but rather an opportunity to continue exploring.

During the choreographic process of Sadeh21, Ohad Naharin created a list of rules or, as he calls them, “codes.” No unison, no music with rhythm, no improvisation during the choreographic process. It should come as little surprise that the Israeli choreographer has broken some of his decrees along the way; just as Gaga, the movement language he created, encourages, he likes to remain open. As Naharin, who took over Batsheva Dance Company in 1990, has said, listening to the body is more meaningful than telling it what to do. His dances—full of sensuality, humor, absurdity and darkness—are in a class of their own.

You started this piece with restraints or rules. What did you tell your dancers?
Well, it could feel restraining, but in restraint there is a little bit of negative connotation. I think they’re more like codes that can open up possibilities. Yet when I think of one of them, it came out of a negating; I told them not to do something, so, yes, I guess it is a restraint. I told my dancers never to move in unison. Eventually, we broke this rule, but for a long time it was something that was guiding us.

Why did you choose to not include unison in the first place?
I think unison has a different responsibility on the dancer and on me. Unison is also easy to make. Unison creates a different kind of listening to yourself and to the people that are in the room with you, and not having to be occupied at all with this frees the dancers, who have responsibility in the process, and me, in the movement-making. That became very personal and unique for each dancer. I didn’t have to think of a movement for more than one person and more than that person.

Why did you eventually put unison into the work?
Because in the end it’s about form connecting to a lot of things. It can connect to the dynamic or the tension or the volume or the energy or the spacing, and the organization also sometimes connects to people moving together. Since the form and the content of the work really mix together, I felt the content somehow called for unison.

What were some of your other codes? Wasn’t one “no improvisation during the choreographic process”?  
Yeah. Many times we improvise to find movement. I improvise a lot to find movement, and the dancers are very good improvisers. Again, it’s about a different state of mind. In the beginning of the process, we created a very little amount of movement. But already with this little amount, we did very long sessions where dancers were allowed to use only choreographed material that was done in only one or two days. That brought a sense of being in the moment and what you do with very little means to create a moment.

What did that teach you or show you about your work?
It’s about doing more with less. There was something that was very clear about [using] little means to express something that was, at times, very panoramic or very wide. In this process, we talked about pictures—we created actual pictures with very little movement in them.

What do you mean by pictures? Scenes?
Yes, it was a little bit like creating scenes. We kind of had a file of scenes that we could then pull into a moment or into what I called “the session.” We did a lot of sessions. For a whole month, it wasn’t about creating a piece in the right order or even committing that what we’re doing is in the piece. We were committing ourselves to these long sessions with the idea of trying to create a coherent moment. And we did it with the use of what we called pictures; we numbered them. People could almost punch a button to pull out a picture and then how did they use it, where did they use it and in what order, how many people could be in the picture? The picture could be done with one person or with many. We shared this information. Three people would make something and then share it with the rest. Everybody would learn it, everybody would use it. Everybody could learn other people’s material. And also it’s a lot about failing. It’s a lot about allowing long moments where nothing happens and not to feel you’re doing something wrong; in those long sessions of 50 minutes, nobody thought, It’s 50 minutes of excellent work. We didn’t care to be excellent, we just cared to create maybe five seconds here, 10 seconds there that were very meaningful for us, and through these long sessions, we slowly discovered the work.

Had you worked that way before?
A little bit, but not as much as in this kind of system.

Is it related to Gaga?

I think Gaga is more the toolbox. It’s where dancers can really be so tuned into their bodies. I think this is more related to the kind of playground that I wanted to create that would be different from ones I’ve done in the past. I think it has a lot to do with really wanting to be in a place I’ve never been before.

What about the title?
I don’t want people to take too much meaning from the title, in terms of how they see the work, but it’s part of the game, it’s part of how I play with elements in the work, so the name becomes part of it. But I could call it My Last Work though now it’s the one before the last. [Laughs] I think sadeh, in Hebrew especially, has a little bit of a romantic feel. It has a green feeling, an open feeling, a sky feeling. I added the number 21 to it to make it colder and less sentimental. I don’t negate the idea of people wanting to look into the name and connect it to the work, but it may be that, like Gia or Ohad, it’s just our names. Sadeh is just a name.

What was your approach to the music?
I knew that I wanted music that almost entirely didn’t have a rhythm. In the beginning—this was one of the codes too—I thought none of the music would have groove. No beat. I almost obeyed it in the process and then broke that rule just because I really liked one piece of music and I felt it belonged there—not because I felt I needed a groove. It also has a lot to do with music that creates atmosphere. It’s a little bit like what music for a film would be. You will see that I use projection. I don’t project images; during the piece, there is a projection of numbers: Sadeh1, Sadeh2, Sadeh3 and so forth, and it divides the piece into sections, and this division was done at the very end of the piece. It was done in the creation of another element that is more about provoking thoughts and possibilities—a little bit like what a movie will do when you have a cut, but not necessarily that the cut will go to another scene. The cut can happen in the same scene. So the cut in a movie doesn’t commit to make a change in the drama or the story; it’s just a matter of composition sometimes. Or camerawork. So it’s the same approach for me. Then at the end of the piece, the last projection, which is the last—Sadeh21—it follows up with credits. Like when you give credits in a movie, I give credits to the dancers, the collaborators, and I thank a lot of people. In movies, you have thousands of people making [a film], you have long credits. In dance, you have very few people, but I wanted to have long credits so I gave the dancers a task: Each of them has to thank 20 people. So we have about 400 names. Again, it’s not because it was important—it’s nice that they thank a lot of people—but my point was not that I needed to thank those people; my point was that I wanted to make a long list. It’s a by-product of this decision of how I wanted to end the piece and while this happens something else is going on. It’s part of the composition.

In terms of the tone of the dance, will it seem different from works of yours we’ve seen in the past?
For me, it’s challenging to think about differences because it’s a lot about why I choreograph, why I dance and why I work with dancers, which is the same philosophy in all the works. Also, I’m not trying to create something that is different. I’m trying to maybe be in a different place I haven’t been before—that’s why the playground is a little bit different. The codes are different, but in the end it’s a lot about an obsession to do something that has a very common source in all my works. It’s a little bit like trying to uncover something that I never will uncover. So it’s this kind of digging: going into it from different angles, looking for new solutions and new ideas in order to dig for the same thing.
There are 18 dancers in this piece. Why do you like to work with so many dancers? Don’t you often?
Well, when I think of the last four or five works, they divide between nine, 10, 11 and 18. Hora was for 11 people; Max was for 10; Mamootot was for nine. When I created Sadeh, the company was 20 or 21 people, and I decided to do the work for the whole company. I think the number of people in the work doesn’t affect the intimacy, the importance of the individual, my relationship with each of the dancers in a personal way. Sometimes there are scenes that use 18 dancers, but you very seldom see all of the dancers onstage. It’s not like Hora or Mamootot when all were there all the time. The piece starts with a series of solos; all the dancers, one by one, do a solo. It’s kind of nice to tell you everything that is in the piece and then you will watch it without the need to discover the [action]. When I tell you all this information, for me, I feel like I’m gossiping about the work. So in a way, I’m not really telling you important things. [Laughs] So it’s okay. And I really like to meet my audience when they come to see the work for the second or third time. It’s the first time that I’m most insecure about, so I feel like I will already meet you, maybe not the second time, but not as fresh as the first.

Why are you insecure about the first viewing?
It has to do with the way you look at the work. When you look at the work and you’re busy with the information that I refer to as gossiping, you let this information make noise and disturb the experience of the work as you would watch it the second time.

You have a young daughter. This may be a stupid question, but has being a father affected anything about your dance-making process?
It’s not stupid at all. I ask myself this question, and I’m aware of my work being affected by it, but it’s hard for me to say what it is. Anyway, I learned to choreograph by choreographing and it’s a process of the time I spend with dancers and developing my movement language, but at the same time something so huge happened to me and so amazingly beautiful and positive. What’s beautiful about [my daughter] is that it’s not how much changed, but how it made a lot that came from before Noga better. That’s so clear. I think one of the things that I always appreciate, and it wasn’t always easy for me but it’s become easier and easier, is the ability to laugh at myself. To connect to lightness as a virtue. Not just to say it but to really be in that zone, and I think this is something that you learn with a child. Something that I also recognized in the past five years is that while I always wanted to be loved—we all want to be loved—since Noga, it’s so clear that to love is a lot bigger and so much more satisfying. That’s something that affects how I relate to people I work with, to life, and how much, maybe, less needy I am and more giving I can be just because of this realization. I think it affects how I communicate and collaborate, and my relationship with my dancers is really gaining from it.

You mentioned that there was a piece of music in Sadeh that has a beat. Who is it by?
It’s music by Jun Miyake, a Japanese guy living in Paris, and it’s very special. Jun Miyake doesn’t really have a particular style, he collaborates with different musicians, so his music can really change. This particular track uses some French vocalists and a couple of jazz musicians; it doesn’t really feel like jazz.

Do you listen to music constantly?
Yeah. I collect so much music. It’s so easy now. Ridiculously easy. I have so much music that I haven’t even been able to listen to yet—I’m waiting for longer flights.

I had a fantasy that you had a record player.
Actually, I have a record player, and I had been listening to records until six months ago. I think it just has to do with being lazy. It’s so much more work, and I have a good friend who is a fanatic about records and record players, and I just gave it all to him. It was so nice to give it to him, because I know he’s going to use it, and I haven’t been using it much.

They take up a lot of room.
Yes, but it’s so incredibly easy to download, to listen, to buy and then to buy somebody who writes music in the same feel of somebody that you like and then you discover somebody new. I just discovered a wonderful German guy—I might collaborate with him, but he doesn’t even know it. [Laughs] I listened to him just last week by listening to somebody else and then reading a blog about him, and it mentioned this other guy and I just listened to him and all of a sudden I discovered this universe of this young German composer.

You’ve made another dance since Sadeh21 called The Hole.
Yeah, but you need to come to Israel to come and see it, I don’t know when we will tour it because it’s very site-specific. We do it in our studio, we build a whole room inside our studio. It has things that only connect to the way our studio is constructed, and we will probably tour it, but it will be complicated. I’m also kind of thinking, Okay, this is a piece that people have to come see.

Batsheva Dance Company is at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Nov 12–15.

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