Israeli Troupe Has Hearts Wide Open

July 21st, 2013

TEL AVIV — From around the mid-1980s through the ’90s, a generation in the West grew up on parties and raves as a culture, Gai Behar explained, his shirt unbuttoned to the navel and a collection of chains hanging over his chest. From 1999 through the mid-2000s, Mr. Behar produced similar underground music events in basements and parking lots in Israel.

Sharon Eyal, already a celebrated dancer and up-and-coming choreographer, was an occasional, if timid, guest.

“I remember I used to come to his parties and run away because it was scary for me,” she said, wearing a pink collared blouse studded with small gold spikes. “For me, nothing is too much, but this moment was too much.”

Shy and soft-spoken, Ms. Eyal is nevertheless connected to Mr. Behar and his world. She invited him to a rehearsal in 2005, and soon they were a pair in life and in art, creating work for some of the top dance troupes here and abroad.

Until last year they did so under the umbrella of the Batsheva Dance Company, Israel’s premier contemporary dance troupe, where Ms. Eyal, now 41, was the house choreographer for 11 years and, before that, a star dancer. As comfortable and supportive as the arrangement was, it was imperfect.

“When you go to other companies, it’s like being a guest,” said Mr. Behar, 36, who has no formal dance training.

Your own troupe, Ms. Eyal interjected, “is your home.”

Their new home, L-E-V (“heart” in Hebrew), will make its American debut at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., Wednesday through next Sunday. Ms. Eyal’s choreography was shown at Jacob’s Pillow by the Norwegian company Carte Blanche in 2011. But this is the first time Ms. Eyal and Mr. Behar’s work will be seen there with their own dancers and creative team.

Fittingly, they’re presenting a piece called “House.” But far from a cozy haven, this house throbs with a rave’s raw, bright energy. What’s onstage doesn’t resemble a rave in a literal sense, and the playfully mischievous music by Ori Lichtik, a member of the L-E-V family, has none of techno’s aggressive, metallic repetition. But the work does induce a trancelike, hypnotic state, the “tripping experience,” as Mr. Behar refers to it.

If the duo’s previous pieces, like “Bill” for Batsheva or “Too Beaucoup” for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, feel epic and universal in their size and scope, then “House” is an extreme close-up. The dancers — totaling nine, including Ms. Eyal — nicknamed the first of three sections “The Family,” a nod to its intimacy and perhaps also a recognition of what is being built here after Ms. Eyal’s departure from the family that raised her.

Batsheva entered a golden age when the choreographer Ohad Naharin took over in 1990. But to credit him solely with the troupe’s thrilling transformation would be to overlook Ms. Eyal’s significant contributions as muse, singular interpreter of his work and feral company choreographer in her own right.

That artistic lineage attracted Ella Baff, the executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow. “I’m interested in what happens generationally,” she said, explaining that her respect for Mr. Naharin’s work and his endorsement of Ms. Eyal put L-E-V on her radar. “They’ve been embraced and nurtured by an organization, but they want to do something different.”

Ms. Eyal said she was grateful for her time with Batsheva and described the breakup in romantic terms: “You separate from your lover, and you start to understand who you are without him. You learn so much about yourself.”

The split was amiable. “It wasn’t suddenly this exodus,” said Doug Letheren, who left Batsheva to join L-E-V. “It was organic.” But Ms. Eyal became something of a reluctant Pied Piper anyway, and Mr. Letheren and others have followed.

“As a dancer, to really build something with someone who you believe in so much, it’s kind of the best thing you can do,” Mr. Letheren said. His sentiment is similar to the way dancers often describe their devotion to Mr. Naharin. Whether this magnetism is passed from mentor to protégé or is merely the mark of similar souls, Ms. Eyal’s dancers speak of her with a sense of reverence bordering on obsession, a feeling she returns.

Still, the moment of separation created a seismic shift. Almost half of Batsheva departed, and the company had to refresh its ranks with dancers from its junior company and a few from abroad. Mr. Naharin declined to comment on the transition but maintains that Ms. Eyal has his blessing.

Meanwhile, L-E-V generated ample excitement at a showcase of Israeli dance here in December, leading to performance dates around Europe in 2014, as well as its American debut at Jacob’s Pillow.

It’s an impressive beginning, consistent with a company from the Start-Up Nation, as Israel has been branded, a reference both to its own scrappy origins in 1948 and to the tech boom of the past decade. The cultural scene has soaked up a bit of that risk taking.

Nevertheless, Ms. Eyal remains a devotee of Gaga, the movement language Mr. Naharin developed, and she uses it as the foundation for L-E-V’s training, maintaining an energetic and qualitative link between the two groups.

Much of the actual movement material is generated from watching Ms. Eyal improvise in the studio and distilling her movements to their most elemental parts, Mr. Letheren said. “It’s like watching an open heart and mind undo itself,” he said.

In addition to their choreography’s precise movements, Ms. Eyal and Mr. Behar have put an aesthetic stamp on their work. Their creations for L-E-V, Batsheva and other companies all feature a variation of monochromatic white or nude-colored unitards, often paired with whitened hair: simultaneously sensual and a bit cold.

This aesthetic, the creators explain, acts as a blank slate, an erasing mechanism through which the personality of each dancer emerges. Physical traits disappear, and what’s left is just a family of open hearts undoing themselves.

“This is my fetish,” Ms. Eyal said. “I like when people are going extreme.”

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