Photo: Ella Barak

Ohad Naharin’s message amid Gaza war

Ohad Naharin in Haaretz, 11 of January 2024.

‘People call me a maligner of Israel, but it’s our government that maligns Israel, the settler-messianic right wing. They are the people who think that the IDF’s campaign should continue, and that dead soldiers and dead hostages are an understandable price.’ Batsheva Dance Company choreographer Ohad Naharin refuses to shut up and dance

Gili Izikovich

During the past few weeks the Batsheva Dance Company underwent an unprecedented experience – one that recurred every time they performed their work “2019.” As its title suggests, “2019” premiered some four years ago, and it was not even scheduled to be reprised now. Putting it on was a spontaneous move, an instantaneous decision that turned out to be just right for this moment. And like other things that are happening at this moment, it sparked side effects never seen in the past. Like the audience sobbing in response to it.

Nothing these days looks like it is supposed to, and art is generating even more unusual reactions than it normally does. For its part, “2019,” which is staged in the troupe’s small Tel Aviv studio rather than in its other venues, was conceived to be a demanding, intense work. The audience is small and seated in physical proximity to the dancers in a work that leaves no stone of the Israeli ethos unturned.

The narrow, runway-like stage is in constant flux. One moment it’s a ballroom, then a military parade, a gladiatorial arena and a party. In another instant the studio morphs into a venue for a sing-along, a nightclub, then a funeral. It’s a fetishistic, campy, quasi-militaristic work, pulsing with a sense of urgency and danger, and an anti-violence vibe – and also nothing less than heartbreaking.

It’s a piece that was created as a swift, well-aimed gut punch, but as we watch it now, it becomes a historic moment. It’s a moment at which this nearly 75-minute piece, unquestionably the most critical work veteran Batsheva choreographer Ohad Naharin has created, confronts reality in its current, post-October 7 version. And not only are the performers infusing it with new meanings and heft; its target audience is also different now.

“There is a dialogue here with the present,” Naharin observes. “I didn’t revise the choreography or the music, other than making some changes because there are a few new dancers in the performance [with different abilities than the original cast]. We also worked on interpretation and on the dance language. Its range has grown. About two months ago, we realized that the tours scheduled for Batsheva would not be happening, and we thought that ‘2019,’ even though it touches painful places, has the quality of untangling things – of untangling all those places simultaneously. The decision to stage it was made by the company’s artistic director, Lior Avitzur, and it was an idea that we are making good on now.

“Dance – and not just ‘2019’ – is consolation within the horror,” Naharin continues. “That doesn’t apply to every type of dance, but within the intentionality of what we’re doing, the soul that is imprisoned in its own self-image finds freedom through movement. There is beauty and a direct connection to the body, under the clothes. A connection to the essence of existence that doesn’t need any mediation. Anyone who sees and feels that body is able to communicate directly with the realms of imagination, thoughts, senses. There is no other art that can do it this way, with the aid of the body that was your prison and is now what releases you to freedom with its movement.”

The company’s international tours have been canceled?

“Batsheva’s schedule has changed radically. All our tours were canceled or postponed – Japan, Germany, Italy. There are no tours until June, and this was supposed to be a year of performances overseas. In June we’ll be performing in France. We were supposed to do ‘Anafaza’ there, but after October 7, I said we would only go on the condition that we will be able to perform ‘2019’ instead, and they picked up the gauntlet.

“We are performing here in Israel, renewing pieces we hadn’t thought of renewing, and canceling other things. Some dancers [not Israelis] have also left us because of what’s going on here: four of the troupe’s 18 members, and one or two from the [youth] ensemble. They wouldn’t have left, not at this time, at least, if war hadn’t broken out.”

What reasons are your partners abroad giving you for the cancellations?

“The main reason is that our hosts can’t take responsibility for our security. Batsheva is also afraid to take responsibility for its dancers’ security. In France, for some reason, they’re still onboard at the moment. I was surprised about the decision in Japan. I’m sure it wasn’t an anti-Israeli, anti-Batsheva, move. They all love the company and are actually talking not about cancellation but postponement. In Japan it’s the third time: The first two postponements were because of COVID. The tour that had been set for the United States this March has been postponed until next March.”

Is anyone talking to you about an anti-Israel atmosphere? About the possibility that your potential audience won’t want to come because of it?

“We are so not in the center of things. There are so many grave and upsetting things happening but that’s not part of the discussion. It’s like talking about a mosquito bite while the house is going up in flames. We don’t talk about the mosquito bite, and we do talk about the house being on fire. The story is not Batsheva.”

But Batsheva suffered, and has suffered for many years, from protests and from boycotts against it, which are sometimes vocal and thuggish.

“That is exactly the mosquito bite. When BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] people demonstrate, it doesn’t help the Palestinians, unfortunately, but it does add drama. Discussing how much we at Batsheva are affected is not important. We try to navigate amid the changes, but we are not a victim.

“I have never been so disturbed, worried, anxious as I have been in these past 90 days. These are not new fears, but the volume has changed. I am not one of those who are saying ‘I’ve become disillusioned now.’ I think that immediately, right after October 7, I felt the potential of what is happening now. I am against the actions being taken now [in the Gaza Strip]. People can claim they have empathy, but how is it possible to cut into the flesh and feel empathy at the same time? And if you have no empathy – heaven help you. The talk at the moment is between bad and worse. There is no clear distinction between good and bad, so everything is bad, everything is different shades of bad. I am helpless and I have no influence over anything.”

Comfort through Gaga

Ohad Naharin has always been a political person, and that has certainly not changed. The situation that’s evolved since October 7 is causing him such acute torment that for the first time in years he agreed to give an interview to a media outlet. The impact of current events is also reflected in his social activity. Earlier this month he gave a two-day mass class in Tel Aviv in Gaga, the unique language of movement that he created, whose proceeds went to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Thousands of people, dancers and non-dancers alike, take Gaga lessons with him or other teachers around the world, in person or online. For the past decade, Naharin has held a mass class in Gaga every year, benefitting ACRI. Since October 7, he has held four such events, and there are more to come.

He’s obviously troubled and frustrated. It’s clear, on one hand, that he wants to avoid militant speech – that he is hurting and speaking with a palpable feeling of devotion for and love of his homeland. This is evident from the slow, measured tone with which he articulates his thoughts in an interview conducted in his Tel Aviv home and innumerable phone conversations. Yet it’s equally clear that the general public would categorize him, based on what he is saying, as someone who is maligning the country. Indeed, two or three days after Hamas’ massacre in the south, he came up with a new WhatsApp profile picture in blue and white, with the words “Together we’ve lost” – a counterweight to the popular motto “Together we will win.” He observes recent events with growing discomfort and dread.

Something terrible happened and there was no choice but to take action. What should have been done differently?

“A horrific thing happened. On a scale we have never known. Hamas is the enemy of humanity. But what’s going on is part of a cycle of violence that didn’t begin on October 7. There is a cycle of suffering of Jews, Israelis, Palestinians. The Israel Defense Forces has a whole list of operations that it’s carried out in the past 40 years, in Gaza and in the West Bank.

People talk about the Arabs, the Muslims, the Gazans as the “other side.” There are people in Israel who are more on the “other side” than many people who live in Gaza. The other side is not in Gaza, it’s here.

Ohad Naharin

“When I say that the cycle of violence did not begin on October 7, people call me a maligner of Israel. It’s clear to me who the people are who are maligning Israel. They constitute a majority, if not all, of our government. Those who malign Israel are the settler-messianic right wing. They are the people who think that the IDF’s campaign should continue and who justify it; who maintain that one must not criticize IDF soldiers. They are the people who think that dead soldiers and dead hostages are an ‘understandable’ price [to pay] for enabling achievements in the fighting. They are those who are turning the war into a goal in and of itself.”

But how is it possible not to fight when such murderous ideology threatens you, just a few kilometers away?

“[We could come up with] a diplomatic solution. It was possible to stop on October 10, a few days after the massacre, when Israel seemed to be no longer in immediate existential danger. To try to bring back the captives and the hostages – that takes precedence over everything. When will the number of dead be reached that is supposed to let you feel you have won? After all, we’ve lost. If on October 10 we had said, ‘Together we’ve lost,’ not ‘Together we will win’ – what would have happened?

“We need to see to a decent present so that the future will be better. To stop, lick our wounds, look for an international community that will support a solution, liberate the prisoners and the captives, help the 1,300 grieving families, the thousands of wounded and the tens of thousands of evacuees. By doing that you already paralyze Hamas. You don’t fight. How could you not examine that mode of action before doing what you have done? I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that whatever’s happening now is in our hands.

“Stop fighting today – save those who will die tomorrow. We are being promised many months of fighting. In simple arithmetic: Let’s say six months, with two to three [Israeli] losses per day? That’s more than 500 dead.”

Naharin’s monologue will no doubt resonate among those attending performances of “2019,” simply because the work unfolds like a ravishing, tragic, kinetic version of his grim words. At the peak of the show, Naharin himself sings the late playwright Hanoch Levin’s ditty, “You and Me and the Next War,” from the 1968 cabaret show of that name – in a scene that virtually encompasses within it decades of mounting violence.

A few days later, in our second conversation, Naharin sounds even more agitated. It isn’t only a matter of the tragedy of what is going on, he says, it’s amazement at the still-evolving situation. “It seems so clear that everything that has happened since then [October 7] has not moved us forward – on the contrary – and that should have been already apparent back then, before plunging deeply into this mistake, whose resolution is not at all clear now. You don’t need to be an expert in history in order to exercise healthy logic and also be humane along the way.

“I stopped watching the news channels more than a month ago,” he continues. “I couldn’t take the insensitivity anymore, the arrogance, the lies, all the ostensibly tear-jerking broadcasts. I remember the moment when I said to myself: This is it. By that stage, a quarter of Gaza was already demolished, a million people were homeless and thousands had been killed. Gazans were without electricity and water.

“So there’s this military commentator, I don’t remember his name, dressed in black, no tie, on Channel 12, speaking in a quiet voice and saying, ‘At this stage there isn’t a humanitarian crisis yet in the Strip…’ With just a few words he succeeded in articulating the pure evil that has infiltrated our souls and has turned so many of us into human monsters.

“If we want to change something in our story after what happened on October 7, to honor our dead, act in their name and be able to emerge from the horror that is being taking place, the first thing we need to do is to stop living in the huge rift between self-perception and actual reality. If we don’t reduce this huge disparity, things will get a lot worse. People think their opinions are facts. Those who view themselves as great experts – especially people like them – are denying reality.

“The current discourse is being conducted by many people like that, everywhere – people who are supposedly familiar with history. In fact, we are experts without learning from history per se. We know about the Holocaust; we know the racism and antisemitism the Jewish people suffered from, the abusive force wielded against them. We are now doing something similar. What have we learned? Nothing. Because of the tendency to self-victimization, the most frequent justification for using violence, we are now mired in this ongoing horror.

“Jews have a history of being victims. The default is to feel like a victim and thus to find justification for extreme acts of violence and acts of revenge. It’s impossible to kill an ideology, one can only threaten it with other ideologies that will become more popular. The greatest threat to Hamas is a diplomatic solution, not war. War is Hamas’ fuel.”

But there’s little likelihood of such a scenario – and even if there were, citizens would be enraged by it.

“I’m not alone, I am not the only one who already realized this a few days after October 7. I think there were other people who grasped that if we didn’t search for a diplomatic solution, we would become bogged down. But when you allow generals and a corrupt government filled with ignorant racists to run the world, they do what they know how to do: fight.

“People talk about the Arabs, the Muslims, the Gazans as the ‘other side.’ What is the other side? There are people in Israel who are more on the ‘other side’ than many people who live in Gaza. The other side is not in Gaza, it is here among us. We must recognize that all human beings have much in common. Even if there is no agreement between them, there is no such thing as not being able to find love, a desire to give or genuine concern, in someone – unless he is truly a psychopath, one in a thousand. We need to believe that this potential can be discovered in everyone.

People can claim they have empathy, but how is it possible to cut into the flesh and feel empathy at the same time? And if you have no empathy – heaven help you.

Ohad Naharin

“We have 40 dancers from 10 countries in Batsheva. We don’t share a similar history and we don’t share the same citizenship, we have diverse and different preferences and opinions. We are involved in ongoing processes together, during which we are enlarging the circles of our awareness. I expect of myself and of them to learn from our mistakes. We are learning how to shed old ideas in favor of new and better ones. We are learning that when we do good, good will come of it. We admit that we will always be far from perfect, yet we will still be capable of creating moments of transcendence.

“When I teach Gaga online, I meet hundreds of people. Not long ago I gave a class in which there were 700 participants from 50 countries, including Iran, Russia, Hungary – countries that represent benighted regimes. They are people whose basis resembles your own, with the same realms of the imagination, a common scale of values and shared universal ethics.

“The problem is, that in order to destroy, no talent is needed, no prior experience, no skills. It’s very easy to destroy. There are many builders in Israel, people who know and want and are capable of that. They are also the ones who will build and bring about the change that seems to have no chance of coming about. It’s harder for us builders, because the destroyers operate with ease. I say ‘for us builders,’ because I think I am part of those builders. There are many builders in this land. Maybe even more than there are destroyers – it’s just so terribly easy to destroy.

“There are builders, people like that, in key positions as well, even in the [political] leadership. They are in that category even if they make mistakes. Even if they don’t represent the way I would like things to be managed. Their hearts are in the right place.”

Defining Israeli dance

At age 71 Ohad Naharin enjoys a status shared by only a few people in the world of culture and art, in Israel and internationally. Under his stewardship, Batsheva has become one of the most important and mesmerizing contemporary dance troupes on the planet. There’s not a moment, it seems, when a work by him isn’t being performed on a stage somewhere.

Naharin was born on Kibbutz Mizra, near Nazareth. His father, Eliav Naharin, was an actor and a psychologist; his mother, Tzofia, was a dancer who taught movement. He was 5 when his family left the kibbutz, but that specific form of Israeliness – of kibbutz, of the earth – has always been discernible in his dancing and choreography. He had always danced and was always in motion, but didn’t become a dancer per se until the ripe old age of 22. He was accepted to the Batsheva company, but not long afterward, after meeting the world-famous choreographer Martha Graham, he moved to New York to dance in her company. Concurrently, he attended the Juilliard performing arts conservatory, then danced briefly in Maurice Béjart’s troupe before gathering a group of dancers around him and becoming a creator himself.

After assuming the role of artistic director of Batsheva in 1990, he created revolutionary works, connections that seemed impossible, and brought a new audience and a surging libido to modern dance. A series of works choreographed by him redefined the world of Israeli dance: “Kyr,” in which he collaborated for the first time with the Israeli rock band Nikmat Hatraktor, “Anafaza,” “Deca Dance.” In 1995, The New York Times called him one of the five most important choreographers in the world. In 1998, he was awarded the French government’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters).

In 1998, a furor erupted in the government over a controversial Batsheva piece – the now-iconic “Echad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One”) that Naharin created as part of “Kyr” and which is also featured in “Anafaza.” Based on the eponymous Passover song, “Echad Mi Yodea” was supposed to be inserted into the “Jubilee Bells” event, the centerpiece of the state’s official 50th anniversary celebrations. However, religious groups, among them the ultra-Orthodox, threatened to disrupt the proceedings if the dancers, who in the course of the work shed their black suits and white nightshirts and remained in their underwear, did not promise to cover their bodies. Naharin refused – and the performance was canceled.

A few years later, passions had abated. In 2005, Naharin was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, and over the years has won virtually every other possible honor, local and international, in his field. In 2015 he was the subject of what was arguably the most successful Israeli documentary film of all time, “Mr. Gaga,” directed by Tomer Heymann.

Throughout, he never slowed down or stopped creating and developing the dance method he invented, even after stepping down as artistic director in 2018. His creative pace typically dictates a new work every two years; the latest, “MOMO,” premiered about a year ago. Since then he also staged a spectacular reprise of his seminal and perhaps best-known work, “Anafaza”; like in the early 1990s, he also performed in it, wearing a red velvet robe, singing and playing electric guitar. “Anafaza” was supposed to return to the stage yet again, but the costly production has been postponed. In any event, neither Naharin nor his company have the will or desire to mount it now.

In the meantime, Naharin seems to be keeping a relatively low profile. In mid-December he returned from Los Angeles, where there was discussion of his possible role as choreographer in a film being directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal (among others he worked with there was Christian Bale, the movie’s star). But he’s dividing his time mainly between the Batsheva studio and his home in the heart of Tel Aviv, where he lives with his wife, Eri Nakamura, their daughter Noga, a dog named Momo and the two kittens they recently adopted. Our conversation takes place in their pleasant kitchen, but he sounds more cautious than before when commenting about the general situation in Israel. (Full disclosure: We have become friends in recent years, following the interview I did with him and Tomer Heymann in 2015.)

You have always expressed your views and opinions, and that exacted a price: You were a target in a violent and threatening campaign conducted by the ultranationalist Im Tirzu organization, and there were threats to reduce the company’s funding – Batsheva, like every Israeli cultural body, receives millions in support from the public budget.

“Im Tirzu is an organization of loonies, to put it mildly. There are wonderful groups in Israel – such as Physicians for Human Rights, Combatants for Peace, Israel-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, Standing Together, Zazim Community Action, Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and many others – which I support. In my case, creative work is the principal way for me to express myself. If I were to feel that I was truly endangering the company or my family or myself [by speaking out], maybe I would reconsider. Maybe I’d feel afraid.

“I have nothing to lose, because it’s my work that speaks, and by means of it I can continue to create and I will continue to create. I think that people who support and believe in me, realize that – even if they won’t agree with my views. I’ve been in situations of that sort many times, in arguments with our executive board. Twenty years ago, I was quoted in Yedioth Ahronoth as saying that the IDF was committing war crimes 30 kilometers from us, referring to the West Bank. I was summoned to a board meeting, there was talk of firing me. It didn’t upset anything. Just as ‘Jubilee Bells’ was a kind of incident that I thought was a storm in a teacup. It didn’t rattle me. Maybe because I wanted to distance myself from it.

It was possible to stop on Oct. 10, a few days after the massacre. To try to bring back the hostages – that takes precedence over everything. When will the number of dead be reached that’s supposed to let you feel you’ve won?

Ohad Naharin

“The money the government allocates is not the government’s money – the government will change and the money will still continue to come in, as it should in an orderly democratic regime. They can make cuts, perhaps, but the criteria have nothing to do with my political views. There are criteria related to quantity, quality, numbers and so forth. Among our private donors, who are very important to us, many might not be as extreme as I am [in my views], but they belong to the group I called ‘the builders.’ They feel that they belong to me, and I belong to them. I might argue with them, but we agree more than we disagree.”

Would you say that the IDF is committing war crimes?

“I wouldn’t use that expression today, because it’s a legal term. What is happening now is a total mistake. What is happening is cruel, inhuman: millions of refugees on the brink of hunger, without a roof over their heads; mothers who have nothing to eat and can’t breast-feed infants; thousands of people, including children, buried, dead and dying beneath the rubble after being bombed by the IDF, which is deliberately killing without ascertaining exactly who the victim is.

“Tens of thousands of wounded people dying, hospitals in ruins. A severe shortage of medication. Tens of thousands of orphaned children and bereaved parents who are part of a dreadful tragedy that was not mandated by reality. Cut off from water, from electricity. The destruction will not bring back the victims of October 7. In my view it desecrates their memory and also reduces the prospect of bringing the hostages back healthy, if at all. What difference does it make whether we call it war crimes or crimes against humanity or ‘the devil’s balls,’ if we don’t understand and don’t internalize how cruel and mistaken the army’s operation in Gaza is?”

You’re in an odd position in which you are severely critical of the government’s policy, and therefore are attacked here at home, while abroad you’re seen as being on the Israeli front line and are attacked there as well, from the other direction.

“Overall, the protest against Israel is not antisemitic, but pro-Palestinian. There is also stupidity and ignorance, but most of the protesters abroad are appalled by the scenes being played out in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and they are also aware that Israel has a far-right, corrupt government.

“I was at a demonstration in Milan in which thousands of people stood for two hours, and you felt a prayer for peace in the air that was far from militant. There were Arabs and Christian clergy around us, and local people. It was a prayer for peace. The heart of those people lay not in hatred but in a desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, based on the belief that most human beings everywhere want to live securely alongside their neighbors, find meaning and economic security, and see their children grow up and succeed in life.”

I think that most of those who say they have become “disillusioned” are referring to the understanding that in Gaza terrorism is supported by the population – in other words that your conception is incorrect.

“There is a difference between the discourse about different nations and the discourse about jihadists, Hamas and Hezbollah personnel. There are more than a billion and a half Muslims in the world. Talking about all of them in the same way is Islamophobic. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are enemies of our civilization, but it’s easy to see that the greatest threat to them is a diplomatic settlement – that’s clear. Using different types of power, such as diplomacy, will diminish their power.

“How is it that a groundbreaking, high-tech country resorts to 1948 methods to fight Hamas? What sense does it make? I’m not talking about developing new means of warfare. The solution must be serious, and the ideas we know and are working with are old ones. But for new ideas to evolve, it’s necessary to give up old ones, which is sometimes hard for people. We can and must find a way to weaken them [Hamas]. The solution is not liquidation but neutralization. In a law-abiding country you punish criminals, you don’t take revenge on them – and that’s a big difference. In punishing a criminal you remove him from the society he endangered and harmed. With revenge you often harm innocent people. Most of those who are talking about disillusionment are actually suffering from temporary blindness.”

On the other hand, what mental resources can be marshalled by those who were harmed, or by families of those who were harmed, for them to be able to pursue peace and restraint?

“There is this expression, ‘In their death they bequeathed us life.’ What is happening now is that in their death they are bequeathing us more dead. ‘And when all this is over, again we are three: the next war, you and the picture of me,’ as Hanoch Levin wrote in 1968. It’s almost boring to think how little we’ve learned. But I feel, exceptionally, that there is a new power arising here, that there is a group of builders. The destruction must be prevented, there must be a barrier to it. That is the only hope.”

In the meantime, Naharin may decide to channel his frustration into the dance studio. Even though he had not planned to create a new work so soon, he’s contemplating that idea now. And just as recent years were filled with works that seemed to be snapshots of an emotional state with intriguing ramifications, now too it’s intriguing to wonder what the current period will engender for Naharin – even if in the meantime it appears as though the ultimate work for the present era was created five years ago.

In any event, he is not talking about retiring. And when he does, it’s not clear who will step into his shoes. The disadvantage of the dominance of Naharin lies in that dominance itself. Meaning, one would be hard-pressed to think of a local creator of dance who hasn’t been influenced by him, whose language of movement doesn’t intersect in some way with Gaga or evoke Naharin’s aesthetic vision. The greatest of these individuals, from Sharon Eyal to Hofesh Shechter, have established acclaimed international dance companies of their own. Still, the question – of the successor – is asked from time to time.

“I don’t think about that,” Naharin says. “I am constantly divided between what I know and what I discover about the people I work with – I don’t hide anything. There are presently many people, talented creators who danced in the company, who are succeeding abroad. I don’t call them successors. They are good, important creative artists, and they have their own path, and our encounter was meaningful on that path.

“Beyond this, I meet very talented people every day, many of them people I work with. I don’t have the feeling that I am more important than them. We have an agreement, in our contract it is I who create dances for them. That doesn’t make me more important or smarter. That’s barely the case, it’s even the opposite. It puts me in my place – and that’s a place I want to be in.”

Text as PDF Text in Haaretz