One of the most keenly anticipated events of the fall performance season turned out to be less thrilling than expected. The great Israeli dance company Batsheva appeared in Memorial Hall for Carolina Performing Arts on Nov. 21 with a 75-minute work from 2011 by company artistic director Ohad Naharin and the dancers. It included many variations on the extraordinary movement and heady artistic process for which the company is famous – but very little heart. The visual and kinetic spectacle felt, at the end, not meaningless, but hollow.
Sadeh21 comprises innumerable brief scenes bundled into numbered sections: Sadeh1, Sadeh2, etc.. were projected onto a head-high wall cutting across the stage. These ephemeral scenes dissolved into blasé pedestrian departures, as if they were wildflowers plucked up and quickly discarded in the dust. Since one of the meanings of the Hebrew word sadeh is field, perhaps that metaphor is not too far off. But sadeh has other meanings, or variations on that meaning. It can mean country, or countryside; ground, or land – or battleground.
Like the word, the dance was slippery with ambiguities. It seemed like a pastiche, perhaps culled from other dances. But maybe it was meant to be a faceted portrait of Israel, or of Israeli life, or simply an expression of how life is in Tel Aviv for this group of people, who happen to be dance artists with some of the most glorious and well-trained bodies on the planet.
Sadeh21 begins with a jolt of fear and maintains a state of tense anxiety even during its many turns toward the erotic and sexual. We know the show's begun when we're jerked to attention by a loud report. A gunshot? A slammed door? I thought it sounded like a big (amplified) rat trap going off. Even if there had not been the horrifying shooting in Jerusalem a few days before, even if there had not been pro-Palestinian activists outside the theater calling for a boycott of all things Israeli, I think everyone everywhere is wary enough of lurking death that that type of sound signifies danger.
We did see glimpses of movement about danger, but other than the seconds of adrenalin-spiked fear provoked by that sound whenever it came, I did not feel fear. Everything seemed at a remove. The frequent bouts of aggression never culminated in anything, dramatically speaking, and the stalemate quickly became stale. Yet – maybe this is what life is like in Israel. The rest of the sound score was a bizarre mix, including, near the end, a very long segment of a woman, or possibly a rat, screaming.
Two scenes only remain vivid out of the ceaseless flow of dazzling movement by those sixteen powerful dancers. Roughly mid-way in the dance (the sadehs were, blessedly, condensed into one between 6-19), a very tall man walked defiantly downstage with a limp woman slung over his shoulder. She appeared dead. Was this some take on Antigone, I wondered, a coded challenge to the state to do right by the dead? But she got up and walked away.
The final scene took place on top of and behind the wall across the stage (Yitzhak Assulin's strong lighting was particularly good here) when an even taller man appeared on the narrow ledge in an heroic stance, like a warrior king on the ramparts. Joshua? Jericho? But he dove off, out of our sight, and other dancers appeared on the wall and leaped away, much like kids at the swimming pool or trampoline. What is that place beyond the occluding wall, which we can't see or understand, but that hints at freedom and joy for those who conquer the heights?
The only thing perfectly clear in the Batsheva performance of Sadeh21 was the way power, control, and freedom form a dynamic triangle. It was spelled out in the dancers' bodies and drawn with those bodies on the stage as they spun through the permutations of that tripartite dynamic. But whether Batsheva was making any political statement about this balance beyond the personal and social, I cannot say.
The wall never does come tumbling down.