Review: Ohad Naharin Is More Than the Sum of His Imitators

It’s been five years since Ohad Naharin stepped down as the artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, the Israeli troupe he had made into one of the world’s most popular, transforming it into a vehicle for his idiosyncratic, extremely influential aesthetic. But within the first moments of the company’s performance of his “Hora,” from 2009, at the Joyce Theater on Wednesday, it was clear that Batsheva is still guided by his auteur’s eye.

The dance begins with all the performers seated on a bench at the rear of the stage, backed by a wall of disconcerting green. (The excellent stage design and lighting are by Avi Yona Bueno, a longtime Naharin collaborator.) At first, all they do is sit and stare — at us, the audience. That “we know you’re watching” gaze is echt Naharin, and its fine calibration of uningratiating directness, more assuming than aggressive, is like a watermark — an aspect that his many imitators struggle to reproduce.

The dancers stand and slowly advance toward us, hands on hips, pausing to pose in both balletic positions and pointedly bizarre ones, their wrists bent like paws. They break out into solos, their bodies suddenly collapsing inward or stretching into impossible-seeming positions or sinking into squats, deep and wide. This is eccentricity (and high skill) but not freedom. Their repetitive motions (twisting hips, drive-the-car arms) sometimes suggest sex or getting down, but these feints at uninhibited sensuality are compulsive rather than impulsive. Instead of allowing the dancers to relax, they reveal the straitjacket of stylization.

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That exact stylization is what makes a Naharin work a Naharin, as well as how he adroitly arranges the dancers. Those solos accumulate into a stage full of individual activity, or the whole group snaps back into unison but with an odd man out. Ideas like that keep coming, woven together by the periodic return of the first procession. The theatrical craftsmanship is typically expert.

What’s most distinct about “Hora” is the music, a playlist of classical war horses in synthesizer remakes by Isao Tomita. The overfamiliarity of selections like “Clair de Lune” and “Aranjuez” is intentional, a nose-thumbing joke, as the inclusion of the title theme from “Star Wars” makes amusingly obvious. To pair the thundering climax of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” with dancers spinning on their butts is Naharin’s kind of humor — like calling an hourlong work “Hora” and not including the Israeli folk dance by that name.

But the music isn’t only a joke. The movement for “Afternoon of a Faun” alludes to the two-dimensional choreography of Nijinsky’s dance to that Debussy piece, a nod to a predecessor of Naharin’s stylized animality. Here, though, all the dancers are the faun and their attention locks not on a nymph but on us.

And if it’s cheeky for an Israeli choreographer to use music by the antisemitic Richard Wagner, Naharin wants the drama, too. The starting procession takes its strongest form to “Ride of the Valkyries,” the dancers dropping one by one and rising to advance again. They thrash and yell.

After this height, the work goes a little limp. But for fans of Naharin or anyone curious about his world-conquering style, this performance of “Hora,” last seen in New York in 2012, is the real deal. The aspects that his acolytes push into one-note histrionics or weirder-than-thou eccentricity are all here, but in the right proportions, with dancers who have been trained and coached to maintain the right frequencies. Amid a uniformly strong cast, Londiwe Khoza draws attention not for her mastery of the style so much as for the moments when she lets hints of a regular person surface. It’s charming, but under the eye of Naharin, it’s almost an error.

Batsheva Dance Company

Through March 12 at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org.

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