Ohad Naharin

We are waiting to interview Ohad Naharin upstairs at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre ahead of the Batsheva Ensemble UK Tour. It’s a fitting venue for the interview: The Ensemble open their tour here on October 30th.


Catherine Bell

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Photo: Ilya Melnikov

Naharin is in Edinbugh to see Batsheva Dance Company perform their piece Hora tomorrow evening. It is pouring with rain, and we’ve just been told he is tired from the long flight here. This could have become a cause for concern, but then he suddenly appears at the bottom of the stairs: perfectly timely, the words LOVELY emblazoned across his T Shirt, he looks a little sleepy, but he is smiling when I greet him.

Naharin has been the Artistic Director of Batsheva for 22 years. I ask him what keeps him there? ‘I love the people, this is where I can be at my best, it is my school, it is where I learn and choreograph, and where I teach what I learn…. And, what is fresh and exciting about it, is still weighing down what is less’.

Born on a Kibbutz in 1952 to a psychologist father and a dance teacher mother, Naharin began his dance career at Batsheva in 1974, and in his first year was singled out by a visiting Martha Graham to join her in New York. After a period as a dancer and a sojourn studying music at the Juilliard School he formed the Ohad Naharin Dance Company with his wife Mari Kajiwara, who died of cancer in 2001. He returned to Batsheva in 1990.

Batsheva now comprises 2 parts: the Batsheva Dance Company and the Batsheva Ensemble. The Ensemble (he tells me) is a repertory company composed mostly of Naharin’s work, however they do perform other work as well, including a Hofesh Shechter piece which is in the pipeline for this year. (Shechter, another product of Batsheva, is now UK based with his company).

The Ensemble holds yearly auditions which attract hundreds of applicants. What does he look for in an Ensemble dancer? ‘I can fall in love with somebody in the very early stage of his career, and recognise big potential. I don’t have a type, but some things I look for are: generosity, intelligence, highly coordinated, groovy, a big imagination, someone connected to their passion’ But they need to have skills as well? ‘I like skills sure, but they can develop skills in the Ensemble. And get a tool box.’

The Ensemble was founded in 1990 on Naharin’s appointment as Artistic Director. The company currently includes dancers from: Israel, Spain, Russia, Japan, and the USA, all between the ages of 18-24.

It’s a big responsibility looking after such young things I suggest. ‘Young age is a fact but does not reflect on their ability to produce something magnificent, clever, emotional, delicate, exact, explosive, efficient. We give them keys to open up their own treasures, and let them flow out’.

Was he given any memorable advice at the beginning of his career? ‘When I was 24 and leaving for New York: a choreographer told me: ‘Don’t be too ambitious.’ It took me a long time to understand. In career decisions you need to recognise what you love, what has to do with the moment, has to do with the relationship you have with other people and the consequence of what you are doing, not to do with goal-orientated ambition. Then you discover a larger scope of possibility and ability’.

Naharin’s extraordinary career has seen him choreograph around the world for an impressive spectrum of companies. A very small snap-shot includes: Nederlands Dans Theater, Rambert Dance Company, Sydney Dance Company, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera, Cullberg Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago: the diversity of his choices perhaps reflective of his seemingly voracious desire to constantly learn and fill his own toolbox.

A trained musician he also works extremely closely with sound and design artists. I wonder why dance ultimately won as his art form of choice, if indeed he has made a choice?

‘Movement turns me on like nothing else, in terms of being creative. There’s something about working with dancers and my collaborators. And the fun part is that music is still there and a big part of it. I didn’t have to choose.’ Is music fundamental to the work? ‘Dance is not music dependent. I don’t need music to move and to dance. The work is not coming from the music. But the music at the end is very important…. Bringing music into the composition is very pleasurable. ‘

With a choreographic career spanning over 3 decades has he noticed any changes in his work? ‘My tool box got a lot fuller: my understanding of content and form, learning the technical; the lights, my personal life, changes in me. And also being able to connect to the collective subconscious of all the people I work with: I grew parallel to my work.’

And there again we return again to the idea of the dancers as inspiration. Our interview is flecked with statements such as: ‘My dancers can produce a lot of genius moments I can’t even imagine exist.’ Or ‘the most meaningful thing is the person I work with, his treasure, his passion…’ And ‘learning that the dancers’ interpretation of my work is really what makes a difference.’ His words are generous and his message clear: he doesn’t just lead, he collaborates and invests.

And what about the audience? Does he give consideration to his audience when creating work? ‘Yes, but not in a sense of a mass, as a group, but as individuals watching it. I like to feel my work through the eyes of somebody else watching it but with the sense of applying their imagination, and intelligence.’

The Batsheva Ensemble will be performing Naharin’s piece Deca Dance during their UK Tour. Although it contains sections of his repertoire of work, he does not like it to be referred to as a ‘Greatest Hits’. It is ‘about reconstructing, playing with sections of materials, about what we are currently doing.’

There is a history attached though, some elements recur again and again, how does he keep the piece fresh? ‘The sense that we are moving keeps it fresh for us and the love of dance.’

And the meaning? ‘Meaning’, he says ‘is in the eye of the beholder. I’m interested in something which is really intimate, private, and this is why I think I can connect with audiences in different religious, geographic, cultures, because it’s not based on that. It is based on something very private and very human.’

He continues: I’m not trying to talk another language. I’m trying to talk my language and be coherent with my language. That doesn’t mean everybody will understand my language but that doesn’t mean everybody is my audience.’

Naharin developed a movement language called Gaga, which he introduced to Batsheva and now forms their daily training. In his words: ‘Gaga is a movement language I developed over many years dancing, and working with other people as a choreographer. It’s a work-out in which we discover our movement habits, places of atrophy, connect to effort, to pleasure, explosive power. It is a lot to do with small gestures and delicacy but still being able to punch. It’s about thinking of movement as something which can heal.’

And did he notice a change in the company after the introduction? Here there is a pause.

‘The most meaningful thing is the person I work with, the treasures he brings, his talent. Gaga can help it, but what is most meaningful is what they already possess. There is a sense of progress, learning from past experience. You can feel the progress, but this doesn’t mean the people in the past are less talented. Gaga is not only about creating better athletes, it’s about listening to something which is beyond the athletic side, about the soul, connecting to your demons, fantasy, passion: Learning to do more with less. Being able to grow old and still create magnificent moments.’

These quietly-spoken fluent profundities flow so easily and readily from Naharin throughout the hour we talk it is easy to find yourself getting lost in his answers. I get the impression he’d rather talk than be interviewed; sometimes directing my questions back at me, or injecting something funny into the proceedings making me laugh; I could forget it is an interview at all. He is an intense, passionate, highly articulate, interviewee. But more than this he seems very, very human.

It’s getting late and I become aware we have run over time and he must be tired. Last question: What is the future for Batsheva?

‘I am not a teller of fortunes’ he says smiling. ‘I can see a lot of possibilities. But what I’d like most is to invest in the quality of the present.’