The Batsheva Dance Company: Israel's Superstar of Contemporary Dance

Photo of Krista Zozulia
10 December 2015

Around the world, Israel has become famous for its dance talent. While the small Jewish state is home to several companies, the largest touring group is the Batsheva Dance Company. Read on to learn more about their unique style of movement known as “Gaga,” a dance language developed by Ohad Naharin.

The Batsheva Dance Company perform in the latest work, ‘Last Work’ by Ohad Naharin which premiered during May of 2015. | Courtesy Gadi Dago

The Batsheva Dance Company

Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theater, located in the historic Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Tzedek, is home to the Batsheva Dance Company, one of the leading contemporary dance companies of the world. With 34 elite and highly-skilled dancers, they are the most well-known company in Israel. The dancers hail from Israel and abroad, comprising the junior Batsheva Ensemble and the Batsheva Dance Company, which both perform and work separately.

Founded in 1964 by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, with Martha Graham as the artistic adviser, the company began as a repertory company, bringing in works from the United States and Europe. Through years of transitioning directors, Ohad Naharin became the last appointed director, taking up his current role in 1990. He changed the face of the company into what it is today.

Dancers in ‘Last Work’ engage their bodies differently with Ohad Naharin’s Gaga language | Courtesy Gadi Dago

Ohad Goes Gaga

Ohad Naharin brought Batsheva to the world’s center stage. As the artistic director and choreographer, he shifted the focus of the company to Gaga, a movement language he developed, and with it transformed the company. Now the company is driven through the movement of Gaga instead of strictly classical ballet or modern styles of dance.

Gaga is different—it brings the teacher into the center of the classroom, one without mirrors, to move with the students during class. Actions are layered to increase awareness of individual body parts. Images such as ‘floating in water’ and ‘cooked spaghetti’ are suggested to help generate original movement ideas. In moments of exaggeration and extreme intensity, the dancers enjoy the burning of the muscles and learn to move efficiently. The whole class does not stop for the hour to two hour time in which it is held.

The well-known choreographer is admired not only for his unique artistic vision and powerful dancers, but also for his dedication to community outreach. Gaga is offered to dancers and non-dancers, and no experience is necessary to join a class. Classes are held around Israel and abroad.

Click here to view the schedule and location of ongoing Gaga classes.

Of all the dancers, Iyar Elezra wears the only white tuelle skirt, creating a contrast with Billy Barry’s black gown | Courtesy Gadi Dagon

Far From the ‘Last Work’

Naharin creates evening-length works, 60-75 minute pieces without intermission – sometimes on a proscenium stage, and other times in the studio. When the light softly rises over the performance space, the audience becomes immersed in a new, unrecognizable world. What will happen next is usually unknown.

Dealing with political issues, internal struggles, or other human affairs, the undercurrent of the works can be heavy. In the latest premier ‘Last Work’ by Ohad Naharin for example, one of the dancers shoots off a rifle at the end of the piece, crazed in his obsession with the gun. The dancers shift from deeply-colored costumes into all-white garb, some even transitioning into black gowns and then into white. Moments such as these sustain a variety of symbolic interpretation.

Each season the company performs past and brand-new works. The junior company performs primarily only the past works except when their creations in “Batsheva Dancers Create” which is held every summer. This past year it was called ‘Porch’ and is conceptualized anew annually. With a challenging aesthetic, the choreography and ambiguous movement stimulates the imagination. Other theatrical elements in the performance space are significant but never intrusive. The sounds and music can be ambient and have an unfamiliar melody. Most who have seen Batsheva come for more than the bright lights and sparkly costumes, but to be mesmerized and enriched by the peculiar beauty of the dancers and the artistry of the works.

Batsheva dancer Shamel Pitts performs in ‘Last Work.’ | Courtesy Gadi Dagon

To find out information about their performance schedule, visit the Batsheva Dance Company’s website.

By Krista Zozulia

In May 2015, Krista Zozulia graduated from Indiana University with degrees in contemporary dance and journalism. During her time at IU, Krista studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance for one semester. Currently she is a freelance dancer and journalist, just recently having completed a dance workshop in Tel Aviv. Krista is most interested in documenting the stories of those who mysteriously discover a passion for dance.

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