Ohad Naharin's Minus One caught Montreal by surprise at its world premiere at Place des Arts in May 2002. The show began like no other dance performance and ended like all dance shows ideally should end but do not. Its seven separate scenes had powerful visual drama and symbolism and unusual emotional impact. One and the same sequence could draw a smile and a tear, a giggle and a nod of sympathy. Minus One took the audience around the unconventional world of Ohad Naharin in 80 minutes.
And the dancers. Were those balls of energy really members of one of Canada' s three major classical dance companies? Gone was ballet's fixation on refined lines and airiness. These were high-energy contemporary dancers who dug their feet into the stage floor, who sang and who spoke. Dance conventions shattered like boards under a karate chop.
In retrospect, Minus One was a fireworks calling card announcing that a new generation had entered Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal under Gradimir Pankov, who was appointed artistic director in 2000. With Pankov, LGBC moved boldly on to the cutting edge. His choice of Naharin's Minus One was shrewdly calculated.
Formerly a star dancer in his native Yugoslavia, Pankov later became artistic director of leading European dance companies, including the innovative Netherlands Dance Theater II. He worked among the finest contemporary European choreographers, most notably the great Czech choreographer Jirì Kylián. With an eye for talent, Pankov in 1989 commissioned a 12-minute work, Passomezzo, by Naharin, at the time a 37-year-old Israeli choreographer. Naharin had made a splash in 1986 with Tabula Rasa for the Pittsburgh Ballet, his first major commission. The 1980s were a period when Naharin, living in New York, "learned to choreograph by choreographing."
In 1992, when Pankov was directing the Geneva Ballet, he commissioned another Naharin work, the 40-minute Perpetuum. Now also in LGBC's repertory, Perpetuum was off the wall both figuratively and literally (in a protracted sequence, dancers leapt on to a wall backdrop and, in a dramatic optical illusion, stuck there). By then, Naharin was artistic director of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company, where in the 1990s he created major works that spread his reputation as an innovator and iconoclast throughout Europe. Although Naharin had studied with Martha Graham and danced in her company, he began leaving her stylistic influence far behind.
"Fifteen years ago, I was choreographing, but I didn't have what I could call a movement language," said Oharin earlier this year in Montreal, where LGBC was learning two more works from his repertory. "For the past three years, we (at Batsheva) don't train in ballet any more but in the movement language I developed. Two years ago, I named it Gaga."
One of the unusual aspects of Gaga is that dancers train in a studio without mirrors. Oharin believes that a dancer should learn about the body through feeling rather than by looking at a reflection.
Minus One is a sequence of pieces drawn from his earlier works‹-Zachacha, Sabotage Baby, Black Milk, Passomezzo, Anaphaza, Queens of Golub and Mabul. The works were created separately over a 12-year period, but their integration is seamless, making the sum far larger than the parts. Captivated audiences typically withhold their applause until the final curtain.
Naharin might have renounced his debt to Graham and others, but in his own way he's retained and refined two Graham characteristics. Like Graham, he uses gestures in symbolic or ritualistic ways (clearly seen in the smearing of men's bodies in Black Milk, Naharin's first choreography dating from 1985). Like her, he creates striking visual arrangements for dramatic effect (as in the highly unusual handling of the dancers' clothes and shoes in Anaphasa, a scene that outraged Israel's Orthodox Jewish leaders enough to raise their objections in parliament).
Anaphasa was created in 1998 in connection with Israel's fiftieth anniversary, and some have seen political messages in it. Outside the theater, Naharin is an outspoken critic of his government's policies toward Palestinians (his views did not prevent him, however, from receiving his country's highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize, last May).
"Part of my work ends up using elements whose political climate you can recognize. But at the heart of what I do is not what I think about politics. The heart of it is really to show the complex of composition and the research of movement."
That sounds too dry for richly layered choreography that creates strong bonds with audiences. Naharin seems to have particular success in reaching a public that normally doesn't attend contemporary dance shows. He'll put extraordinary effort into creating an unusual atmosphere for his audience, even going so far as to construct a temporary outdoor stadium in the Israeli desert.
"The amazing acoustics created a beautiful relation between stage and audience."
On November 11 and 12, 2005, Houston Ballet presents Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal as part of the 2005 Cullen Series. The company will perform Ohad Naharin's
Victor Swoboda is dance critic for The Montreal Gazette and a contributor to Dance International magazine.