High-octane storytelling and a Dancing with the Stars moment make for a memorable night of Israeli dance.

Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA

February 12, 2014

Founded by the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild (who enlisted Martha Graham as their first choreographer) 50 years ago, the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company is a relatively rare visitor to Australia – in fact this is its first trip to WA. Cost may well be a key factor – there are 18 dancers strutting their stuff here – but whatever the reason, on this showing courtesy of the enterprising Perth Festival, it’s worth moving heaven and earth to get them back soon.

Deca Dance is essentially a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation and such mixed bags can often be, well, mixed bags but Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin has helmed the company for nearly half of its existence and he knows a thing or about what bears repeating and how to build a hour-and-a-quarter of dance without longeurs.

Naharin is one of the world’s finest, most inventive storytellers and he’s blessed with a company to do his imagination full justice. Working from the idea of ten separate moments (hence ‘deca’), he sets out to explore “the illusion of beauty and the fine line that separates madness from sanity”. In doing so, he runs the gamut from high-octane Israeli thrash metal to Baroque stillness and simplicity, with flawless style and enormous panache. His musical choices are excellent too, from Hava nagila to cha-cha-cha via Vivaldi and some lovely Reich-esque marimba melodies. It would take an essay to list every varied delight of Deca Dance but here are some of the most memorable.

The opening sequence sees the full company seated, clad in black suits and hats resembling a group of Hasidim in synagogue. In an initial burst of frenzied action, bodies explode, twist, contort, then slump back exhausted. The sequence repeats with an added section each time (like the house-that-Jack-built), and bit by bit the dancers tear off their garments throwing them into the air with wild abandon. That they go on for another hour after one of the highest energy displays I can recall is a testament to their collective stamina.

Other gems include a sexy pas de deux in semi-bondage gear danced to bits of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and a trio that keeps on wanting to be a duet as three dancers explore a variety of potential couplings. Following sequences veered from Marx Brothers comedy to ritualistic shamanism but despite the apparent diversity of styles there always seemed a dimly perceived link drawing us from one choreographic encounter to the next.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening, though, threatened to be a piece of dreaded audience participation but ended up with 16 ‘volunteers’ dragged from the auditorium becoming the momentary stars of the show. The Batsheva dancers slinked and shimmied with their ‘mixed-ability’ partners throwing a sensitive spotlight on the amateurs in a tribute to the power of dance that was both hysterically funny (for all the right reasons) and gently moving.

So, nothing entirely new as such, but who cares. In a stunning evening of contemporary dance, Batsheva prove again and again that they are one of the greatest companies on the planet and one of the coolest as well.

Batsheva present their second show Sadeh12 at the Perth Festival from February 14-17.