IN A world crisis which has Israel as a principal flash point, the Batsheva Dance Company from Tel Aviv has bravely stood up for the universality of dance and honoured its commitment to open this year's Dance Umbrella. If only it had brought a piece that did justice to this message and to its own distinguished origins – Martha Graham began the company as a satellite ensemble in 1964 with money from Batsheva de Rothschild. But the present director, Ohad Naharin, and his 18 multi- national dancers brought Sabotage Baby, which Naharin created in embryonic form for Netherlands Dance Theatre before enlarging it in 1997 for Batsheva.
Sabotage Baby is the kind of piece that has you slumped in your seat and grinding your teeth. It wraps the absence of any discernible theme in a bombastic, self-conscious theatricality, as if the mere fact of rubbing together a few disparate flamboyant visuals will automatically spark deep resonances. The only resonance some of us experienced was irritation, as we watched dancers, dressed in elaborate sackcloth aprons, who might or might not be slave industrial workers in some desolate post-apocalyptic future. That ambiguity might have been intriguing, except it stopped there, without developing a subtext or evoking a larger atmosphere. A flippant cartoon face, briefly silhouetted above the dancers, deflated into innocuousness, so that it was the opposite of Big Brother menace. Meanwhile, the feathered, bare-buttocked characters who strode about on stilts certainly had a dramatic predatory danger, but they revealed themselves as nothing more than empty gimmicks.
The dancers share the stage with a heap of rusty junk assembled and operated by two Dutch boffins, Peter Zegveld and Thijs van der Poll, members of Orkater, a company dedicated to using sound as a visual happening. In their tattered khaki and goggles they could be pilots lost in the desert since the Second World War, because they certainly seem mad enough. Whether you find the sound effects and voice distortions amusingly original or profoundly annoying depends on your attitude to ear-splitting sirens, whirrings and crashes.
Even more allergy-inducing are the dancers' sequences of twitchy histrionic movement. This edgy, depressive and uninteresting dance alternates with ironic numbers – presumably intended for comic relief – in which the same dancers mouth or mime to song lyrics. The curtain closes and opens at odd moments. The final curtain comes arbitrarily just as a man starts another St Vitus solo and an Orkater machine on wheels travels to the front. Is that Naharin's way of telling us he's planning a further instalment to Sabotage Baby? To which you can only say "aagh!".
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