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Entertainment & Arts

Review: The steps are repeated, but are they remembered? Batsheva’s dance question at UCLA

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Batsheva Dance Company performs “Venezuela” at Royce Hall. The program called for the same choreography to be staged twice, to different effect.
(Reed Hutchinson / CAP UCLA)

Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin uses a body language stripped of inhibitions. His dancers incarnate fear, despair, hysteria, joy and every feeling in between. He won’t explain what’s causing the rawness enacted before your eyes, but you’ll feel the emotions, all right.

In “Venezuela,” seen Friday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Naharin engaged in an emotional experiment that he apparently had wanted to conduct for decades. This full-length 2017 work for the devoted Batsheva Dance Company consists of one 40-minute choreographic whole that is performed two times, one immediately after the other. The steps in both parts are the same. It’s the principal performers, recorded music (soundtrack designed by Maxim Waratt) and lighting (by Avi Yona Bueno) that differ from the first half to the second.

The burning question, of course, is do the two halves look different? The answer is a contradictory yes and no. Naharin makes memory a character, because being able to recognize what you saw the first go-around — and, more important, noting the sensual permutations — is pivotal. The shifts tend to be subtle, propelled by the musical selections, which include Gregorian chants in the first part and sometimes assaultive contemporary music from all over the world in the second half.

What you bring to “Venezuela” determines its impact on you and the degree of your reaction and understanding. A display of colored banners, some of them with the shapes and colors (black, white, green and red) of the Palestinian flag, call up different reactions than when the dancers unfurl plain white banners. But the response also depends on recognition of those symbols.

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Notorious B.I.G.’s hit “Dead Wrong” is performed twice; the first time the dancers performed the rap themselves, and the second time they rapped along with the recording. Minus that context, the first time I didn’t recognize the song and felt some embarrassment at the profane lyrics.

Naharin is not just presenting his own ideas but holding up a mirror for us to look into, deeply.

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Batsheva Dance Company at Royce Hall.
(Reed Hutchinson / CAP UCLA)

Like his other works, “Venezuela” proceeds in mini-chapters, which here are easy to follow. The opening segment, of four couples with their backs to us walking slowly upstage, gives way to a boisterous tango, which then transforms into a miraculous episode of carefully constructed skipping about the stage, through at least a dozen sections. Each cast emphasizes specific physical gestures, again, tending toward smaller accents. Two men exaggerate the action of taking each other’s hands, for example. The skipping in the second half is urgent and forceful, while it was more melodic and childlike in the first.

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At the end, the dancers explode into virtuosic solos, reminiscent of a jazz jam, and it was hard to tell if these individual phrases were repetitions or new. The skill and power of the Batsheva men and women are inspiring to watch. All 16, dressed similarly in black, were outstanding, with Hani Sirkis and Erez Zohar making especially strong impressions.

Naharin has crafted a first-class company through his search for a dance form born out of chaos, that turns up the “volume on the scope of sensations,” as he says in the program notes. He has stepped down as Batsheva artistic director, and the company will inevitably move in new directions. We were lucky to be along for this singular ride.

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