Batsheva Dance Company’s Gaga sparks dance revolution 

click to enlarge Modern movement: Batsheva Dance Company presents the provocative hourlong “MAX” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Novellus Theater this week. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Modern movement: Batsheva Dance Company presents the provocative hourlong “MAX” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Novellus Theater this week.

Israel’s acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company, appearing this week in The City in a San Francisco Performances presentation, is one of the world’s most exciting contemporary dance troupes.

Batsheva dancers do more than just dance. They speak a new language, called Gaga, which crackles with electricity.

Choreographer Ohad Naharin, Batsheva’s artistic director, developed Gaga after suffering a dance injury. Through limitation he found innovation, and discovered a new way to generate movement. (The name is coincidental to that of the pop star; Naharin’s creation came years before Lady Gaga hit the stage.)

“Gaga is based on sensations,” says Bobbi Jene Smith, a member of Batsheva and a Gaga instructor. “Gaga connects you to what is going on inside. It is physical and gets you in touch with your passion to move, to dance, to sense. It connects your sense of pleasure to your effort and your weakness to your passion.”

In a typical Gaga method class, participants — in a room without mirrors — take direction from the teacher, but not by imitation.

“Imagine your skin sliding over your bones,” Smith says in one of her Gaga classes. Bodies move independently. Each person interprets the instructions differently. Some use their arms more; others, their legs. Some have their eyes closed.

In an online Gaga demonstration video, Naharin asks dancers to make their bodies “a little bit thick,” and then to “allow soft stuff to travel” in their thick bodies. Dancers respond by generating different movements, but with parallel sensibilities.

In Gaga, verbal cues direct the body inward in order to go outward, with attention focused on nooks and crannies often ignored in traditional ballet and modern dance training. “Flesh,” “bones,” “soft” and “heavy” are words often heard in a Gaga classroom.

While Gaga classes invite improvisational movement, Naharin’s choreography represents a structured, formal use of his Gaga language.

This week’s program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts features Naharin’s 2007 work “MAX,” an hourlong piece with 10 dancers. Merging poetry, physics and the human body, the dance showcases Naharin’s theatrical use of space and light as well as his unique movement technique.

Describing the dance, The New York Times said, “Succinctly and mysteriously, ‘MAX’ zeros in on ... the pleasure and pain of being alive.”

Naharin, at the helm of Batsheva since 1990 and credited for reinvigorating the troupe’s repertory, began dancing with Batsheva in 1974 under the direction of visiting choreographer Martha Graham. The company was established in 1964 by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild.

IF YOU GO

MAX

Presented by San Francisco Performances

Where: Novellus Theater, 700 Howard St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

Tickets: $35 to $60

Contact: (415) 392-2545, sfperformances.org

Note: Batsheva dancers are teaching Gaga classes today through Saturday at the S.F. Conservatory of Dance. Preregistration is required. For details, call (415) 309-9419 or visit www.sfconservatoryofdance.org

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Lauren Gallagher

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