As hostilities in the Middle East reach an intensity not seen in decades, Brooklyn Academy of Music presents the U.S. premiere of "Naharin’s Virus" performed by contemporary dance ensemble, Batsheva Dance Company, in collaboration with Arab-Israeli musician Habib Alla Jamal.
Choreographed by artistic director Ohad Naharin, "Naharin’s Virus" is an adaptation of Austrian-born Peter Handke’s 1966 absurdist play "Offending the Audience."
Batsheva’s general manager and co-artistic director, Naomi Fortis says, "The play was considered very provocative. The actors are on a bare stage and they talk to the audience. There’s a lot of conflict and contradiction. They contradict each other all the time. It’s all about waking up the audience and destroying the boundaries between the actors and the audience."
The piece is performed by nine women and seven men wearing costumes by Rakefet Levy: tight, white bodysuits from their knees up and black tights from their knees down. Large portions of Handke’s text are recited by one of the dancers. But Fortis, who spoke to GO Brooklyn by telephone from Israel, insists the dance is not about philosophy, although it does contain many ideas.
"The text leaves a vacuum that’s filled in by the dance," she said.
"The inspiration is the human body and movement. You can take the text and music off, and it’s still very strong on stage."
"Naharin’s Virus" begins with a set that consists of an empty stage-length chalkboard. As dancers recite their personal narrations and Handke’s text, they perform explosive movements together and in solos, often sprinting back to the chalkboard.
The dance is accompanied by traditional Arabic folk music arranged by Jamal.
Astonishingly, it was during the riots in Israel in December 2000, that Naharin and Jamal decided to work together.
"We had decided to celebrate a decade of Naharin’s artistic direction with a three-week tour and 36 performances all over Israel," Fortis recalls.
"Both our junior and senior companies were going to perform and we decided to go to big cities and little kibbutzes and four to six Arab villages. Then came the Palestinian uprising and the uprising of the Israeli Arabs. So the program to go to the Arab villages collapsed."
Because the company knew the Arab-Israeli in charge of cultural activities in Nazareth, Batsheva was able to go there and perform for an Arab audience.
"We had originally wanted a mixed audience, but after the riots and shootings in Nazareth, we realized we couldn’t have a mixed audience, so we decided to perform for an Arab audience only," Fortis said. "We used a much smaller theater. It was not adequate technically, but we decided we had to do it. We created a special program and performed before 200 people."
After the performance, Naharin conducted an open dialogue with the audience, which Fortis called "political and interesting."
As an homage to Batsheva, their Arab hosts reciprocated by performing their own dances, accompanied by Arab musicians playing traditional folk music.
At that time Naharin was at work on "Naharin’s Virus" and planned to use Klezmer (traditional Jewish) music for the piece. But after hearing this music, he decided to ask Jamal and his group to record their traditional Arab music for Batsheva.
Fortis believes "it’s very sad that this [collaboration] becomes such a big issue. It should be the most usual thing - a part of our lives - unfortunately it’s not done on a regular basis."
Aside from the obvious tensions between the Israelis and the Arab-Israelis, this is also because the mostly religious Arab population does not attend contemporary dance performances, Fortis said.
On the other hand, Batsheva has an enthusiastic audience among Israelis, many of whom are young and anticipate performances as a "cult" event.
Batsheva Dance company was founded in 1964 by Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and Martha Graham.
With the appointment of Ohad Naharin as artistic director in 1990, the company launched into a new era, becoming an international, contemporary dance ensemble renowned for its bold, sensual and artistically intrepid works, sometimes becoming the meeting place for artists of all disciplines - composers, filmmakers and lighting, set and costume designers.
Batsheva’s repertoire focuses on works by Naharin. At the same time, the company hosts guest choreographers ranging from established artists like Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe to young, emerging talent.
"Naharin’s Virus" has been performed internationally - in Israel, Denmark and France - to great acclaim.
"In Israel people sometimes take the play personally. They are nervous," said Fortis. "But in Denmark we saw the Queen smiling." Fortis attributed this edginess in Israel to the political climate. But she also said, "Different people can see [’Naharin’s Virus’] totally differently. One should come with a bare heart and use the imagination."
"Naharin’s Virus" will be performed at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place) on April 30, May 2, 3 and 4 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20, $30 and $45. A BAMdialogue with choreographer Ohad Naharin follows the May 2 performance. Habib Alla Jamal & The Galilee Band will perform May 3 and May 4 at 9 pm at the BAMcafe. ($10 food/drink minimum). For tickets or more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.