Ohad Naharin: The maverick lord of Israeli dance

We talk to the renowned director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company ahead of their hotly anticipated UK performances.


By Nick Johnstone, October 17, 2008
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When Ohad Naharin was a child growing up on Kibbutz Mizra in the suburbs of Haifa, his dancer mother and psychologist father instilled a love of dance in him. "At home," he says, "we'd always dance."

They took him to the theatre, encouraged his interest in folk dancing. Later, he loved gymnastics and music. Regardless of what he was doing while growing up, there was always a fascination with movement at the forefront of his mind.

"It was always something that I was attracted to," he says. "The pleasure of movement and watching other things move. It wasn't even just people, but machines, buildings, something about structure, form, geometrics, dimensions - I was always in awe watching things that move or create a movement."

At first, Naharin, who at 56 is one of the world's leading choreographers, studied music. Then, in 1974, following military service in the Israeli army, he took a two-week dance course with the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, which was founded in 1964 by dance patroness/banking heiress Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild. Dazzling his teachers, Naharin was invited to join the company. Despite his age - he was 22; advanced for dance - he said yes without hesitation. "I started formally training very late," he says. "But in my soul I was always dancing. And I had a very easy body for a dancer."

Months later, his gamble paid off as he rehearsed a piece choreographed by dance legend Martha Graham (Batsheva's first artistic director, on account of a close friendship with Rothschild). While visiting the studio, Graham was struck by Naharin.

"We had a very special relationship," he recalls. "I reminded her of someone that she really loved, an amazing dancer. She saw him in me. That was what attracted her to me."

What did he learn from her? "She taught me the connection between effort and passion," he says.

Graham invited the young dancer to New York to perform in her work, Jacob's Dream. Once there, he studied at The Juilliard School in New York. In 1976, he left the Martha Graham Company and went to dance first for Maurice Bejart's ballet company in Brussels and then for the Bat-Dor dance company in Israel (also founded by Rothschild).

His stellar apprenticeship complete, he returned to New York and launched himself as a freelance choreographer in 1980. Four years later, he formed the Ohad Naharin Dance Company, in partnership with his wife Mari Kajiwara, also a renowned dancer.

In 1987, he became guest choreographer for the Nederlands Dans Theater, creating many seminal works, all of which pushed the boundaries of modern dance.

And then in 1990, his work having by then been performed worldwide, Naharin was appointed artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. He has since led Batsheva to become one of the most revered and sought-after companies in the world. It is the dream of many an aspiring dancer to be accepted into the Junior Batsheva ensemble (which Naharin founded in 1992 to groom young dancers for the senior company) and then step up to dance with the senior group. So what kind of person makes it as a Batsheva dancer?

"People that are connected to their sensuality, to their demons," says Naharin. "People that love to dance without looking at themselves in the mirror - we have no mirrors in our studio, I don't allow them. People that look at dance not as something that is difficult, but something that is challenging because it is very intense work and demanding. People that are capable of laughing at themselves, a sense of humour is important. Musicality, groove - I'm attracted to people with groove. Generosity is very important for me in the people I work with. Sometimes, I feel that I'm attracted to rebellion, to rebels. A lot of my dancers have that."

For hopefuls, the odds of winning a place are slim, with the senior company employing only 22 dancers, of whom only 17 make the cut for the touring company.

The current lucky 17 arrive here next week (security team in tow - the company has long been a target for terrorist threats) to perform two of Naharin's latest works, Three (a trilogy set to music by Bach, Brian Eno and The Beach Boys) and Mamootot (his first work after an 18-month sabbatical following his wife's death from cancer in 2001). Both promise dazzling choreography, ever-eclectic musical soundtracks and impressively talented dancers improbably capable of realising Naharin's ever-wilder probings of the possibilities of dance.

In conceiving a piece such as Three, Naharins says he follows "many rules". "A vast number of rules. But every work starts when I lay out for myself some limitations. For Three, I said, I am going to make a work that will be composed of three works - an evening of full-length work made out of three separate works, each of which can be performed on its own. So this was one of the major limitations at the beginning."

From there, he begins to collect ideas, gathering music and improvising in the studio with his dancers (who draw heavily on his acclaimed "Gaga" strategies, a meditative dance practice he conceived while recovering from a serious back injury). Eventually, the various paths converge and a work begins to assume an identity.

"At the heart of it is a sense of what I call the soul of the work. Once I feel connected to the soul of a work, I feel like I'm some kind of a medium, channelling everything that happens in the studio, everything that happened to me, the suggestions of the dancers.

"A lot of it has to do with the moment I am at in terms of the movement research - what turns me on. It's a lot about the love of structure and organisation. It's a lot about what I find in movement that has to do with understatement and overstatement.

It's a lot about trying to use little means to express big feelings. And it's a lot about the sensations, how we the dancers, me, the audience, become our sensations. In an ideal state, we are only our sensations, which is almost impossible, but I'm aiming for it."

His wildcard artistic direction - intuitive, idiosyncratic and charismatic - is famed in dance circles. It is something that did not come naturally to him.

"It took me a long time to learn but directing and leading have to do with the power of convincing. If you can convince in what you do, then things are very easy."

Is it hard to control so many rebel spirited dancers? "I learned that you can turn almost any conflict into dialogue," he says, alluding also to the politics of his homeland, a subject he dislikes to talk about in interviews, preferring instead to discuss it through dance works such as Naharin's Virus.

"It's a choice - you can recognise people who are attracted to conflict and you can identify people who prefer a dialogue. If you show someone that whatever you think is a dialogue can actually become a dialogue, then it becomes interesting."

After 18 years of leading Batsheva, it must by now feel like a large family.

"I like to call it a tribe," he laughs. "It's more than a family."

The Batsheva Dance Company performs Three at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (www.sadlerswells.com) on October 20-21 and Mamootot at the Riverside Studios, London W6 (www.riversidestudios.co.uk) on October 22-25

    Last updated: 3:01pm, February 18 2011