Les Grand Ballets Canadiens: Minus One, this July, Wednesday 20- Thursday 21
Throughout history, modern dance has struggled to find an audience, despite companies making it their mission to inform, encourage and educate the masses. They should take a lesson from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, a talented ensemble that made contemporary choreographer Ohad Naharin’s most accessible work a signature piece. This July, Canadiens brings Minus One to dance fans in Beijing.
Born on an Israeli kibbutz in 1952, Naharin was painting and composing for years before he donned his first pair of tights. But, at age 22, he joined the Batsheva Dance Company, one of co-founder Martha Graham’s more enduring legacies. After working with both Graham and Maurice Bejart, he formed the Ohad Naharin Dance Company in 1980, which collapsed after his wife’s tragic death from cancer two decades later. Stricken with grief, Naharin came full circle, ending up in the position of artistic director at Batsheva.
Besides creating enduring works for the Cullberg Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Frankfurt Ballet and countless others, Naharin invented Gaga, a dance technique utilising natural biodynamics and efficient movement. One example is ‘Luna’, which separates the circular areas found at the bases of the fingers and toes; isolating them creates (in theory) an energy flow that enhances fluidity. Gaga also means heightened sensitivity and ruminations about the weight of body parts, the friction between muscle and bone, even about sweat. In fact, Naharin’s dancers work without mirrors to better divorce seeing from feeling, thus allowing them greater freedom to explore new movements.
Whatever his method, it works. ‘Naharin is one of the most important representative speakers for modern dance,’ says Ou Jianping, director of foreign dance studies at China National Arts Academy’sDance Research Institute. ‘His creativity is explosive, [with] shocking rhythms and energy.’ ‘Naharin’s choreography is a combination of athleticism, deadpan humour and mesmerising patterns,’ adds Alison Friedman, CEO of Ping Pong Productions. ‘Just when you think you’ve figured it out, it changes. I never tire of watching his work.’
Minus One audiences agree. Created especially for Canadiens, Minus consists of vignettes drawn from seven previous works, yet somehow the finished product is a unified whole. ‘It is easy for the general public to understand,’ says Francine Arsenault, director of communications for Canadiens. ‘It’s also different from anything else Beijing has seen before.’ Indeed. Even as the audience are finding their seats, a lone dancer wends his way about the stage until joined by 22 others; this morphs into ‘Anaphaza’, a comment on the conformity of Orthodox Judaism set to a rockified Passover song that sees the dancers stripping down to their skivvies. ‘Black Milk’ is a homoerotic ritual in which men in layered sarongs smear black paint over their bare chests, while ‘Sabotage Baby’ gives audiences a diva in sequins and on stilts lip-synching a torch song.
But, above all, Naharin seems intent on demystifying the dancer, so often viewed as ethereal figures making effortless movements – after all, not many of us get to see them backstage, chain smoking and massaging their bunions. Minus bears the subtitle ‘nothing is permanent’, while an opening voiceover suggests the piece is about ‘the illusion of beauty and a fine line that separates madness from sanity’. In case we miss the point, the dancers deliver confessions in French and English (with Chinese subtitles)； one says he’s painfully shy except when he’s dancing, another admits to saving her cut toenails in a box for 20 years – this last from the ‘too much information’ department surely.
But the fact that performers pull audience members on stage shows the lengths Naharin will go to make the dancer’s world universal. Scored to a broad spectrum of music including an electronic ‘Que Sera, Sera’, surf tunes, mambos, chachas, ‘Greensleeves’, and that contemporary choreographic standby Arvo Part’s Fratres, there’s never a dull moment in Minus One.