Twenty dancers form a semicircle as Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s recorded voice speaks the first words of the traditional Passover song “Echad Mi Yodea” (Who Knows One), marking the beginning of his work by that name.
They sit down, lean forward and bow toward the floor. The Israeli rock group Tractor’s Revenge pumps up the tempo with its version of the song. Thrusting out their chests, the dancers tilt backward in their chairs and spread their arms wide, wildly shaking their heads as if possessed. By the end, they are shouting out the lyrics and flinging off most of their clothes in an ecstatic celebration of movement and freedom.
Thrilling on video, the work’s effect only multiplies in real life.
On Friday and Saturday, students in California Institute of the Arts’ Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance will perform Naharin’s “Echad Mi Yodea” and “Humus” at REDCAT as part of CalArts Winter Dance. Both Naharin works are excerpted from longer pieces, “Echad Mi Yodea” from “Kyr” (1990) and “Humus” -- set to music by Brian Eno -- from “Three” (2005).
Stephan Koplowitz, dean of the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance, knew students at the school would relish learning Naharin’s dances.
“I wanted them to experience Ohad’s combination of physical intensity and restraint,” he says. “He gets maximum theatrical effect with a refreshing sense of economy. There’s always a sense of surprise. They threw themselves into his work.”
Naharin only gives permission to perform his dances to troupes to that are up to their challenging demands. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Paris Opera Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater belong in that group. So now do the CalArts dance students, whom he observed on a visit to the campus last summer.
“I completely trust them,” he says on the phone from Israel. “They are beautiful.”
A dancer’s ‘toolbox’
The choreographer has devoted his life to dance. A performer first, who came to the United States from Israel to train at the School of American Ballet and later danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Naharin became artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company in 1990 after running his own company for 10 years. (Graham co-founded the Batsheva Company in 1964 with the Baroness de Rothschild.) Naharin’s fresh perspective on contemporary dance has earned him commissions all over the world and his company wide acclaim.
Explaining his methods, Naharin says, “I give dancers a toolbox so they can better interpret and reflect the dances. It’s not so much about how to perform them specifically; it’s the idea of dancing freely. ... I want them to get caught up in an intensity of sensation.”
He asked Danielle Agami, the rehearsal director and a former member of his troupe, to teach the CalArts students his works. Over several weeks this fall, she worked with them, starting them off with his movement language, which goes by the name Gaga. He invented it more than 20 years ago as a way to get himself back in dancing shape after an injury that left him with constant back pain. The goal is for dancers to feel from within rather than relying on mirrors in the studios. By breaking down physical barriers, they should then reach a greater comprehension and control of instinctive movement. Every morning, Agami ran them through Gaga’s exercises, trying to get them to that place.
“I feel I am Ohad’s messenger, a branch of his tree,” she says. “I basically had to teach them to throw off a lot of layers and break the wall of years of education. I had to get them to expose their natural, instinctive feelings. You have to use raw feeling in Ohad’s works. They’re very intimate. Performing them changes your point of view about so many things. It’s a very deep process. They didn’t resist. They just let go.”
Dancers Jordon Waters and Stephanie Zalatel, both in their last year at the school, loved the experience. “The Gaga classes transformed my dancing,” Waters says. “I can be more expressive now. Danielle teaches with imagery, and those images help you connect with your creativity. She taught us bodily sensations by asking us to imagine things like tiny ants crawling all over our bodies and ice-cold water rushing off our limbs. You become so much more physically sensitive. Ohad’s pieces can be extremely physical and very difficult -- it’s a challenge to get through them. But through Gaga, we developed a group dynamic that helped us sustain the work.”
Zalatel adds, “You become more confident and mature and OK with your body, which isn’t so common with dancers. I now feel completely comfortable in my own skin. We’ve never been challenged in this way.” Waters breaks in. “It’s just so great to do this for the winter dance concert. It’s something so much bigger than ourselves.” She describes “Humus,” which is for nine women and very different from “Echad Mi Yodea,” as making her “feel more like a woman.” Zalatel says, “It’s the most honest dancing that I’ve ever done.”
CalArts Winter Dance
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Information: (213) 237-2800 or at www.redcat.org