The dance of life

The Batsheva Ensemble is responsible for cultivating the next generation of dancers, choreographers and designers via educational programs which offer young audiences throughout the world the opportunity to be exposed to a new wave of modern dance.A group of 40 …

The Batsheva Ensemble is responsible for cultivating the next generation of dancers, choreographers and designers via educational programs which offer young audiences throughout the world the opportunity to be exposed to a new wave of modern dance.A group of 40 Los Angeles fifth and sixth graders are standing in the center of a room, moving their hands, swaying from side to side, bobbing their heads and “moving their fingers as if they were kneading spaghetti.”

It’s not a new form of therapy; it’s a workshop on modern dance presented to the students by Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company

As part of the UCLA live performing arts program, the highly-acclaimed company not only performed to packed houses during its recent tour, it also worked with LA school students in an effort to bring a greater cultural awareness and understanding of the work that has made it one of the world’s leading dance troupes.

Since taking over the helm of the troupe in 1990, choreographer Ohad Naharin has created a unique style of movement that strives to strengthen human values through creativity, and whose dancers are recognized for their artistic integrity and willingness to push the envelope.

Those values were brought into assembly halls of several of LA’s District 5 area schools, where children between the ages of 8-16 assembled to learn the unique Gaga/Naharin movement as practiced by the Batsheva Dance Troupe. And later that evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall, the troupe performed “Deca Dance” – excerpts from nine of Naharin’s celebrated works from 1985-2001.

The Batsheva Dance Company was founded in 1964 by Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva De Rothschild. They make their home at the Suzanne Dallal Center in Tel Aviv and are supported and funded by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, the Tel-Aviv Municipality, Israel national Lottery-Council for the Arts, the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, as well as several other Israeli companies.

International in nature, the company is made up of dancers from around the world and the company’s mission is “to excel in art and to strengthen common human values through the power of creativity.”

The company’s artistic intrepidity and innovation has earned Batsheva its reputation as one of the most inspirational and sought after companies and is regarded as a leader on the global map of performing arts. Today Batsheva performs over 200 shows per year both in Israel and on the five continents.

In addition to the Batsheva Dance Company is the Batsheva Ensemble – the junior company responsible for cultivating the next generation of dancers, choreographers and designers. A large portion of its schedule is devoted to educational programs, offering young audiences throughout Israel the opportunity to be exposed to a new wave of modern dance.

At one of the LA workshops this month, 40 fourth and fifth graders assembled to learn some of Batsheva’s secrets, under the tutelage of 29-year-old Yoshifumi Iamo. He’s the one who’s urging them to let go, sway, bob, and knead spaghetti.

That Iamo is Japanese and was recently appointed Batsheva’s artistic director in September 2003, may seem at odds with the fact that Batsheva is an Israeli dance troupe. However, what many people don’t know is that almost half of the 17 dancers in the troupe were not born in Israel.

“I think it’s very important that we have dancers from different countries,” says Iamo. “It’s important that people see that Batsheva is really about being honest, open, generous and trying to share our knowledge. This approach is very strong in the company.”

And, given that Batsheva has opened up so many doors abroad, Iamo says, “We want to establish that even more, which is why it’s so important to have dancers in our troupe from different places.”

Indeed this is part of the raison d’etre for holding the workshops – to show that Batsheva’s approach to dance, and indeed the world, is something everyone can learn from.

David Sefton, the 40-year-old director of the UCLA live performing arts program, agrees. This is the first time Batsheva has been brought out to both perform and teach as part of the UCLA program. And as far as Sefton is concerned, it’s not a moment too soon.

“I first saw Batsheva about eight years ago at Sadler’s Wells and I?’ heard of Ohad [Naharin] before,” he says. “I was really blown away [by what I saw] and I’ve been a fan ever since. I think [Naharin] is one of the greatest choreographers in the world. He’s put together a company that’s very strong and they live and breathe his dance. No one can do it like Batsheva can do it. They’re so inside the work.”

UCLA live makes a point of working with both students on campus and children in the school district, and Sefton saw Batsheva as the perfect group to hold workshops.

“It’s very important that we utilize the artists, because for many kids it’s going to be the only exposure they get that isn’t just coming out of an American perspective,” he explains. “This way, they have a different view via the exposure to top-level quality artists, and also the perspective that their work brings.”

That perspective is something that Sefton was keen to imbue in local children.

“I think Batsheva presents a truly enlightened face of cultural Israel,” he says. “It gives us a sense of what else is going on there. We always hear only bad news out of Israel. But culturally, there’s a lot of dynamic and exciting work going on.”

Sefton says it’s not that Batsheva’s work doesn’t talk about the ‘bad news’. Indeed the opening piece in Deca Dance is the controversial ‘Naharin’s Virus’ (2001), in which the dancers all become ‘infected’ with various degrees of pain, violence and torment. The piece was choreographed at the height of the second intifada and an Israeli-Arab, Habib Alla Jamal, scored the music.

“Yet,” says Sefton, “Batsheva’s work talks about the bad news but it isn’t bad news per se. They don’t avoid the political issues, but they do present things from a different perspective.”

That perspective, explains Iamo, comes through Batsheva’s trademark movements. “They can be designed for dancers and non-dancers alike,” he says, as he leads the children through a series of simple, yet highly energetic and off-the-beat jumps and twirls.

“I am working with these children in much the same way we work in the studio,” he explains. “We aim to create art by being open, imaginative and alert.”

Batsheva’s style, he continues, doesn’t represent specific movement or vocabulary. “It has a lot to do with the individual, and we try to present images or basic physicality to allow people to tap into their individuality. To connect with their instinct or animalistic senses.”

The class looks as though it’s succumbing to those animalistic senses as the children shriek, spin and fly off in different directions. But Iamo is rapt.

“When you see the kids so involved that they can let go and be free like that, that gives me great pleasure,” he reveals. “To be able to act spontaneously, that’s very, very important,” he says. “Even for adult dancers.”

And at Batsheva’s show that night, the same crazy movements Iamo taught in the workshop are seen almost step for step in the performance, with the highlight coming in the production of ‘Anaphaze’ in which the troupe drag members of the audience onstage to dance with them, allowing the participants to take flight and become one with the choreography.

Renowned for its open, daring, honest approach to its work and its willingness to push boundaries and communicate with an audience on a highly emotional level, Iamo says that ability comes from within each and every dancer in the troupe. And those qualities, he believes, is part of what makes Batsheva’s work truly go beyond the headlines of the current political conflict in Israel and reach out to the common language of human emotion and experiences.

While that may be a difficult thing to convey to such young children, the workshop certainly brought several of them out of their shells.

Ten year old Lizzie was still jumping up and down at the end of the class. “It was so much fun,” she enthuses. “I just loved all the crazy movements.”

“This is the bomb!” declares 10-year-old Dani, although she’s unable to really explain why.

Even Adina, already a theater hack at the tender age of nine, was impressed. “I’ve done jazz and hip-hop but I’ve never done anything like this,” she says, clearly impressed by Iamo’s improvisational technique. But she’s not quite ready to join Batsheva yet. “I want to be triple threat,” she states simply. “An actress, singer, and dancer.”

And even the boys were willing to get involved.

“It was great,” says 10-year-old Ethan. “I didn’t know dancing could be so much fun.” His classmate Jeremy agreed, saying it wasn’t “too girly” at all, “except when he made us hold hands.”

In Iamo’s book, the workshop was a success.

“We [Batsheva] have so much to share,” he says. “We don’t want to close the doors of communication. If I have touched these children in someway, if they have connected to the joy of movement and learned something about themselves and about other people, then I have done my job.”