This New Israeli Dance Performance Is an Anti-fascist Warning

The Batsheva Dance Company's ‘MOMO’ makes it clear that choreographer Ohad Naharin’s faith in the public’s ability to act has been replaced by despair

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The Batsheva Dance Company's performance of 'MOMO.'Credit: Ascaf Arts
Ron Brown
Ron Brown

“MOMO,” the new work from Ohad Naharin – in cooperation with Ariel Cohen and the dancers of the Batsheva Dance Company themselves – is a dance performance filled with deep sorrow, a bitter lament over the loss of individualism, a dirge on the repression of everything that strays out of bounds. Its despondent beauty hangs over the audience and refuses to dissipate even after it comes to an end.

The performance can be seen as the third chapter in Naharin's dance trilogy that began in 2015 with “Last Work,” and also includes “2019,” which successfully expressed the spirit of the times and the changes Israel is undergoing – although it lacks in local iconography, and the developments it echoes are, sadly, global. If Naharin’s previous works embodied hope, such as a figure that refuses to surrender and runs throughout the entire performance of “Last Work,” or belief in the public’s ability to act, such as turning directly to the audience in “2019,” it seems that “MOMO” reflects a more pessimistic spirit.

Both groups of dancers onstage in 'MOMO.'Credit: Ascaf Arts

In "MOMO," two groups of dancers compete for the audience’s hearts: Four stern-looking, muscled manly men in cargo pants and bare chests (Guy Davidson, Yonatan Simon, Li-En Hsu and Igor Ptashenchuk) move as one. With amazing, military unity, they confidently and authoritatively explore the stage as if they own it – whether it is empty or filled by “others.”

At the same time, there are seven unusual individuals (Yael Ben Ezer, Ben Green, Sean Howe, Chiaki Horita, Ohad Mazor, Danai Porat and Londiwe Khoza). They are wearing unique garments in pinkish-golden hues, the colors of the breathtaking setting sun of individualism from which they will part during the work. They advance in strange ways, lengthening, fluttering, straying from any form and order, outlining fluid figures with their bodies.

It is painful to admit how much the fascist-militaristic aesthetic of the quartet of men captures the eye.

From the Batsheva Dance Company's performance of 'MOMO.'Credit: Ascaf Arts

It is painful to admit how much the fascist-militaristic aesthetic of the quartet of men captures the eye. It is enough just to watch their lower bodies dipping low, their hands thrust forward, bearing the weight of the body, the four perfectly synchronized – to understand dance researcher Andrew Hewitt, who described in his book “Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement,” how the aesthetic serves as "the utopian lure that enables that ideology to operate in a hegemonic rather than a simply coercive fashion."

The visual pleasure exposes a primeval yearning for belonging, a need for unity imprinted in us, that we give ourselves to willingly – even when this uncompromising unity goes as far as the erasure of the individual. Nevertheless, the choreographer ridicules this aesthetic through banal demonstrations of masculinity, such as push-ups or breakdance exercises, and at one point it even seems like the dancers are giving a Sieg Heil salute while the other hand makes a tiny mustache.

In 'MOMO,' two groups of dancers compete for the audience’s hearts.Credit: Ascaf Arts

In comparison, the dancers in pinkish-gold are exceptions who move uniquely; no two are doing the same thing. Sean Howe, clad in a pink velvet bodysuit, moves wildly and hedonistically; Londiwe Khoza, in a pleated minidress, nimbly trots on tiptoes, casually sends a leg upward and rolls violently from side to side. Ohad Mazor, a brazenly beautiful swan in a corset and tutu, freezes in the air for a moment while he jumps, marches without shifting his weight and shakes his hips to and fro in pleasure – it looks like a simple step, but it is impossible to take your eyes off of him. At first, they move separately, one figure after another presents themselves to the audience, and later they join the others, and the all seven of them move together in a polyphonic celebration in parallel to the monotonic presence of the male quartet.

Hand gestures that characterize each of the groups serve as a thought-provoking motif. The quartet of men hold hands with each other behind their backs; at some points they walk like lords supervising the goings-on on the stage, and at times they look as if their hands are tied behind their backs. When they surprisingly pounce to the floor, their palms come out at the very last moment to block their fall.

The group of dancers in pinkish-gold repeatedly turn to face the audience, raise one hand in a sort of wave hello that interrupts the choreography, breaks the fourth wall and prevents the viewers from becoming totally immersed in the flow of movement. It seems that this is a classic Brechtian distancing effect, in the spirit of the criticism of traditional theatrical illusion, and maybe other repressive mechanisms too, outside the auditorium itself. But as the work progresses, this tribute becomes more and more like the first half of another gesture – raising hands, surrender, self-deprecation in the face of the processes taking control of the group of dancers on the stage, and maybe even a warning sign for the processes now spreading around the globe.

The group of dancers in 'MOMO.'Credit: Ascaf Arts

Even though they share a stage, it is as if the two groups of dancers exist in separate worlds. While watching, it is hard not to think about the extremism that has creeped into the public discourse, and the way gaps between groups, in Israel as well as in other democracies, have become seemingly impossible to bridge. As a result, the moment the two groups meet in the work is both so exciting and so disappointing.

Yael Ben Ezer draws near the group of men, stands worryingly close to Li-En Hsu, tilts her head in such a way that her forehead hits his. The men continue on their own way; they do not stop. She sits down near Igor Ptashenchuk’s legs, her hand gently stroking his back, and then hits its center. The men ignore her presence, continue to move as one. She stands between them, thrusts her crotch into the head of an indifferent Yonatan Simon, who returns to the group a second later. She hugs Guy Davidson, who rests his head on her shoulder for a hopeful moment – but it then disappears when Ben Ezer’s body drops, and she slides down, while the four men join hands in front of them and distance themselves in a quick sequence of steps that carry them away from her.

At the end, the dancers approach the front of the stage, unite in one long line and look forward, as if they were searching for someone in the audience. For a moment, this line recalls the iconic line of dancers from Naharin’s 2001 work “Virus.” They shift their weight from leg to leg, walking in place without moving forward. A few of them let out a sigh. crouch, stop moving, collapse.

The group of dancers in 'MOMO' display a classic Brechtian distancing effect.Credit: Ascaf Arts

It becomes apparent that this is a different line from the one in “Virus” – then, the dancers’ hands waited by their hips, ready for action. Now, everyone’s hands are holding each other’s behind their backs. In “Virus,” the line of dancers was tense, with flashes of energetic choreography strewn throughout, fierce and uncontrollable outbursts of expression – while now it looks defeated, replete with grief, at the point of death throes. A female dancer spreads her hands out, ekes out a forced smile and jerks her head upward sharply; another dancer sticks her tongue out and a third woman knocks her heels together. And then all of them return and fall into the unified line, while the dancers there slowly spin on their axes.

One of the dancers calls out in a small, weak voice: “Hi,” and sad laughter spreads through the audience when he repeats it, but no one responds. One after another, the dancers surrender to the unified movement, in a gloomy requiem to the lost, wondering, hesitant voice. In the last moment of the work only the men’s voices sound: a clear and authoritative “Hi!” – and with it comes the darkness.

“MOMO” by Ohad Naharin, in cooperation with Ariel Cohen and the Batsheva Dance Company’s dancers. At the Susanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater in Tel Aviv.

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