Israel's Batsheva Dance Company help open the new Shanghai International Dance Centre

They celebrate ten years of the company's work at the stunning new venue

ML Antonelli
Given Batsheva Dance Company’s fondness for change, it’s not surprising that the stunning new Shanghai International Dance Centre is featuring company classic Deca Dance in its debut month. But perhaps combining a long history with constant evolution is just the tone organisers wanted to set. This month, you can wander through the country’s latest cathedral to the arts, and watch one of the world’s best companies shed their clothes onstage, in a retrospective that celebrates ten years of the company’s work, but never the same way twice.

stage batsheva 2
Credit: Zani

Batsheva has a distinguished pedigree, having been founded in 1964 by Baroness Batsheva De Rothschild and legendary mother of modern dance Martha Graham. During her tenure, she plucked a young Ohad Naharin out of the proverbial chorus line and hustled him off to her New York company. While abroad he also studied at the School of American Ballet and The Julliard School, and had a stellar international career that included dancing with Maurice Bejart. In 1980, he and his wife Mari Kajiwara formed the Ohad Naharin Company (she died of cancer in 2001), and performed in New York for the next decade, all the while accepting choreographic commissions from international companies. ‘My choreography emerges through my relationship with the dancers,’ says Naharin. ‘A lot of my communication has to do with their interpretation of my work. I never fall in love with my work,’ he continues, ‘but I fall in love with my dancers.’

He returned to Batsheva in 1990 to take up the helm as artistic director, and found a very different company. This Batsheva had eschewed the Graham angularity in favour of a ballet base and was now collaborating with emerging Israeli choreographers for local flavour. A new start meant a new dance language; Naharin developed his own training style based on what he calls ‘sensation-based movement.’

stage batsheva 3
Credit: Maxim Warratt

The now world-famous Gaga Dance takes its name from babies’ first sounds, which to Naharin symbolises ‘unexplored movement and feelings.’ And instinct is everything. Instead of using studio mirrors, dancers in training respond to verbal cues about body parts, actions or qualities, and rely on senses rather than sight. ‘It’s about listening to the body,’ he says. ‘By listening, we can improve the volume of our expression, and connect to our animal instincts. Gaga is a lot about developing bigger awareness, so what is delicate becomes more delicate, and what is wild becomes wilder. It is about the flow of energy and being open,’ he continues. ‘Even if we don’t move, it is a state of mind that you are available – for anything.’

That’s a good mental place for audiences to receive the ever-evolving Deca Dance. ‘I am not sure of the exact composition I am going to bring to you,’ he says. ‘Some things will always be part of it, but it’s also to do with our current repertoire and what we feel like doing,’ he continues. ‘I take unfinished stories and put them together. The coherence comes from the sense of the whole.’

stage batsheva 4
Credit: Zani

Some standards might include a thong-wearing dancer on stilts, dancers pulling delighted audience members onstage for impromptu duets, and the devastatingly effective chair dance, set to evocative Hebrew music and featuring the most dramatic wave in history. Company members in black suits sit in a semicircle, one by one rocketing into the air, the final one crashing to the floor – again, and again. As movement layers build, so does the rebellion; by the end, the company is tossing their clothing into the centre until they stand, triumphant, in grey underwear. It works, and it will stay with you.

Batsheva Dance Company’s Deca Dance is at the Shanghai International Dance Centre on Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 at 7.30pm. Tickets are priced 180-1,080RMB. Buy tickets below.