“Israel needs political change, that’s for sure”

Israel needs political change thats for sure

At the head of the Batsheva Dance Company, Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin is one of the undisputed leaders of contemporary dance. His shows are sold out all over the world, including at the Paris Opera. A lifelong peace activist, he shared in January in the center-left daily, Haaretz, his fear regarding the outbreak of war in Gaza, after the Hamas attacks on October 7. He also strongly denounced the policies of the Netanyahu government. Interview with an artist who generally rarely expresses himself in the media.

RFI: Since October 7, performances by the Batsheva Dance Company have been canceled in Japan, Germany and the United States, but were maintained in France. Ultimately, they will not take place. For what ?

Ohad Naharin : The cancellation is due to the same reasons as for all our other tours: the safety of the dancers which cannot be guaranteed.

How did you feel on the day of the Hamas attack in southern Israel, October 7, and in the following days?

The important thing is not what I felt. I witnessed something horrible taking place. I remember I wasn’t surprised [très long silence].

You never talk about your political ideas in the media. Your shows show them without needing to explain them. Why speak out in a recent interview for the center-left newspaper Haaretz ?

Good question. I think I was very… confused. Very angry. Frustrated. I saw very clearly the wrongdoing happening. I felt helpless. Several people have asked me to speak. I refused at first, then I decided. I think it was the right choice. Because people are afraid to speak. And, for my part, I am not afraid.

In this interview, you firmly denounced the positions “ messianic » settlers from the Israeli far-right as well as the policies of Benyamin Netanyahu, « slanderous » from Israel? Thousands of demonstrators are demanding political change. Do you also want early elections to be held?

I don’t know if elections can help if we choose the wrong people again. But Israel needs political change, that’s for sure. I’m not a soothsayer. I just see that things are going badly. And if we take care of what’s wrong now, the future will be better.

Do you think anti-Semitism is stronger today?

I’m not an expert on this and it may be too early to understand all this. But for me, I see more anti-Israeli positions, not anti-Semitic ones. It’s not the same thing. Many people confuse the two. They take things personally, as Jews, instead of understanding that Israel is responsible for such misdeeds that it causes this anti-Israeli feeling all over the world.

The Batsheva Dance Company regularly faces boycotts (pro-Palestinian BDS movement) around the world? How can you handle this situation as a long-time peace activist?

I think being a peace activist makes it easier for me. I respect the themes addressed by people who defend the Palestinian cause. And I try to give them space to protest. I try to create a dialogue with them wherever we go. This is how. I don’t think this helps the Palestinian cause, but I understand their motivations. Most of the time, the claims focus on the occupation and treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government and settlers. Things I completely agree with.

Are the company’s dancers still working at the moment?

We are about 40 dancers and half of them come from other countries. Most of the international dancers are gone for a few weeks. But they came back and now we are working. Some decided not to return. It’s sad, but understandable. We are rescheduling a lot of shows here in Tel Aviv. And I think we’re going to break the record for performances in the company’s history in the country.

You often say that we are not our thoughts, that we are our bodies. Does dancing help you better cope with current events? And do you continue to dance every day?

I feel very lucky that in the abyss of my sadness, I can still float and that this floating is largely due to the possibility that I have to continue to do research, to discover, to meet my colleagues and to take care of my family and friends. Dancing, being in movement, is a necessity for me. To balance me and bring meaning to my life.

Your choreography entitled Last Work in 2015 was a real storm, a powerful reflection on the violence, the madness of the world. Dancing also means moving forward collectively?

No. Unfortunately, history has proven that humanity fails to move forward. What we can do is expand our circles of consciousness. This is where art and dance have an important role to play, to balance the axis of evil and ignorance. When I talk about art, I also talk about science, philosophy and creation. Everything that can give meaning to life. I also call it “the art of living” because many people are content to survive. But surviving is not living. When you dance, you don’t need anything. No tools. You just need space and time.

Many people feel like their body is their prison. People tell me that they feel trapped in their bodies. The beauty of dance is that all of a sudden, this body which was your prison, becomes the element which frees you through movement. Dance connects us to our passions, to the power of imagination, to compassion, to delicacy. It therefore improves the quality of our lives.

On stage, the Batsheva dancers twist their bodies which become elastic. They fall, sometimes going into a trance, giving the audience a very palpable feeling of chaos? How do you achieve this?

I like chaos. For me, chaos has a beautiful form. It’s something I can’t describe, but I can certainly relate to its clarity. That’s the difference between us and furniture. A piece of furniture has no capacity for chaos. Animals, yes. We call it invisible chaos. Often, when we do a very simple movement, we connect to the availability to do many things that we are not doing at the moment. We are ready to interrupt the flow of energy. So chaos plays a very important role in what we do.

What is the “ gaga method », the body language you initiated? Is it dancing with an imperfect body? Let go too?

Yes, that’s exactly it! Letting go is a big part of what we learn to do. By letting go, we become more aware. If you have tension, your body is very rigid, you sometimes become numb. If you let go, you become aware of all these places in your body. You can relate to touch, effort and movement. Letting go is therefore very important. But Gaga is above all about strengthening our “engine”. Because life is difficult and we have to carry a lot of things. When the engine is more powerful, all this is easier to live with. The problem is half solved and everything becomes lighter!

Do other Israeli artists manage to express themselves publicly as you do and campaign for peace? Or is there too much fear?

Israel is still a democracy. I can still express myself. I can still criticize the government, people in the government (the far right – Editor’s note), and the bad actions of the Israeli army. I might be judged and criticized, but I can do it. I am not afraid. Israel is still a democracy in this regard.

But you have an international reputation. So we can’t silence you?

I don’t think it has to do with international support. But rather how I perceive myself as a human being. I don’t see myself as Israeli or Jewish. I see myself as a human being in this universe. It is through their humanity, not through their citizenship, that I see people. I see good and bad clearly, I talk about it and I am lucky to live in a country that allows it.

To have :

  • The documentary directed by Tomer Heymann, Mr Gaga, In the footsteps of Ohad Naharin
  • Move, the series by Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai produced by Netflix on contemporary dance