DANCE / A mad, mad, mad, mad whirl

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The Independent Culture
HE SAYS he's a Zelig but he's really a Zog, a self-invented person from a planet where reality is so bent you can meet your dead mother or vomit on a man in a suit. He is Ohad Naharin, choreographer and artistic director of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company, which last week launched the Dance Umbrella season.

You sit there, intrigued, reviled and fearful as he takes you to the edge of an abyss with his unsettling, unpredictable, unpretty dance. You grip your seat and pray you won't be pitched into the deep dark unknown below. Mabul is Hebrew for flood, not necessarily the watery kind but an onslaught of any sort - and feels like it.

The raw, jerky style looks as if it's drawn from the brain- damaged. Frenzied dancers tear at their skin or thrash about in a wild panic, arms here, there, everywhere, as they try to swat an invisible wasp. Legs are rooted while upper bodies spiral like worms with epilepsy. Or upper bodies are still as legs punch in all directions. A thin, bare-chested man slaps his knee, his side, his nipples, more human drum than Little Drummer Boy. There are also, disappointingly, segments of Eurocrash: we've now seen so many bodies slamming on the floor that, frankly, this style has had its day.

Singing in what sounds like Latin, Naharin leads his 14 dancers out of the wilderness like Moses. That's the introduction. Then the dance is crushed into a snatch of jazz, stretched to the steady beat of Vivaldi, slammed into a whiff of heavy metal, and finally drawn out to the smooth waltz time of 'Que Sera, Sera'. You never know what's going to happen next, so you hold on tighter. The chaotic spells of dance and dialogue are images that have no apparent logic. But side by side, they create an upside-down world that is logical if, like a dream, you don't take it too literally.

For example, six couples perform a stylised medieval court dance. The music stops, a woman breaks away and yells her head off. Her partner grabs one of her arms, the music restarts and they dance again as though nothing had happened. On its own, the snippet seems like an excuse to let off steam, but repeated three of four times it comes to represent the oppression of women throughout history. Naharin is a king of contrast, a wizard of the weird.

A dancer has a hamster on his head, and moves carefully to prevent the animal plunging southwards. What is this? Live props? It is only when the dancer lets the hamster run free that we see it is not the rodent but the dancer who is lost.

Naharin's dance appeals to the senses over the intellect, and is as demanding on the emotions of the audience as on the physiques of the dancers. I left feeling shaken. Not pleasant, perhaps, but an experience.

(Photograph omitted)