at the Auditorium Theatre

November 15 and 16

The Batsheva Dance Company, an Israeli troupe, is by modern-dance standards something of a dowager–both old and rich. Established in 1964 with Martha Graham as artistic adviser, it was first sponsored by Baroness Bethsabee de Rothschild and is now supported by the Israeli government.

So it has credentials, and it has backing. But judging by the concert I attended, it lacks the one thing most dowagers have in abundance–an identity. In the absence of a unifying artistic vision, Batsheva seems to strive for an international flavor. The three dances I saw represented an eclectic mix of choreographers; each showed a tendency to bring disparate cultures together, and each had moments or sustained periods of exciting dancing. I saw some lovely trees–but the forest eluded me.

SVSPLKT, choreographed by Daniel Ezralow, appears to be a comment on contemporary urban society. Despite some brilliant moments of dancing and some brilliant use of light, however, ultimately its design is incoherent, with one particularly odd dead end.

We first see the dancers silhouetted onstage–but suddenly we’re the center of attention. Another dancer enters, careening down the aisle, flashing a blinding spotlight in our faces: this dance is about us, he seems to say; we’re not supposed to distance ourselves. Then the well-dressed audience sees a bunch of drunks onstage (the music is by Tom Waits), moving in alarmingly big teeters and swings and loops. In one repeated jump, the dancers draw their arms and legs back and stick their bellies way out in an incredibly buoyant version of a drunk’s forward stagger. In one of the most creative tumbles I’ve seen, a drunk leaps up, kicks up, and crashes to the floor headfirst. The drunks repeatedly stick their hands in their pants, but whether for a flask or a fistful of sex is unclear.

A coda to this first part is clearly sexual. The dancers transform themselves into yuppies by doffing their ragtag shirts, ties, and coats, stripping to what look like either fashionable high-waisted underpants or loincloths. These voyeurs stand behind venetian blinds, peering out at the drunks and later at each other. Each is isolated–each stands behind his or her own panel, lighted from overhead, repeatedly opening and closing the blinds; they appear and disappear like strange gods in eerily flickering golden shadow boxes.

Many of their poses during this coda are vaguely Eastern–in one case, like what you’d imagine as an illustration for the Kama-Sutra. The second part of the dance is explicitly Eastern: to traditional Indonesian music, several dancers sit in a circle around a “goddess,” a female dancer with her back to the audience whose arms snake endlessly out. Worshipers and goddess alike have bent bodies, flexed limbs, flexed hands and feet like Balinese dancers. Their patterns express symmetry and harmony; their writhing motions express control, especially controlled spirals and torsions. Finally the women dancers gather in a circle and seem to carry and share water jugs. But suddenly the men–again clothed–surround the women and box them in with the panels. Why? I wondered. What had they done?

The third part of SVSPLKT returns us to contemporary Western life. To the sentimental growl of Waits again, a cripple–crippled by drink? or just so drunk he looks crippled?–hobbles onstage. The others peer at him from behind their blinds, then limp out to help and dance with him. They’re all cripples–like us, of course. They all hobble painfully up on and then down off their toes, their butts sticking out as if the dancers were so many victims of cerebral palsy.

Ezralow set himself quite a task here–to make cripples dance, to show the musicality possible in what we think of as particularly awkward movement. But the cumulative effect, once we’ve seen that the job is doable, is boring. I found the ending, like the music, sentimentally pessimistic, and its tone doesn’t jibe with the jocularity of the first part at all. And is Ezralow claiming that the “caging” of women has crippled our society? If so, nothing in the dance explains or justifies this connection.

Cantata 78/Every Waking Hour, choreographed by Doug Varone, brings Bach to the kibbutz, lovingly and with respect; Varone uses this lovely German devotional music to express the reverence of everyday life in a community. The piece opens with a group of dancers seated and standing together. They then break apart to perform turns and runs in swirling floor patterns, like water rushing in musical eddies. The dancers break down into smaller groups for different sections of the Bach cantata: In one duet, a man tosses a limp, tiny woman like a child. In another, the dancers perform some very realistic falls–they’re so off balance that their momentum takes them in giddy circles. In a trio, the dancers seem to struggle, look into the void (literally), and recover, with each other’s help and companionship.

What saves this dance from sentimentality is the everydayness of occasional gestures. This is particularly true of the beautiful quartet for women set to the second movement of the cantata (for soprano, alto, and organ), “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten.” Here the dance seems almost crude in comparison with the singers’ silky, flowing voices. But it works, and maybe partly because of the contrast. There’s a sense that the music is made visible, but not in any expected or overtly emotional way. In one movement, for instance, a dancer drops her head back, and another dancer catches it, and pushes it forward hard in a great arc-and it’s just like the drop, catch, and push of the music as the singers’ voices climb and drop but always spiral up. This section also initiates the movement that Varone uses to close the dance: the women move like pipes of a calliope up and down from a seated position; finally they settle–slowly, gently, but firmly–on their fundaments.

Robert North’s Entre Dos Aguas was the closest to pure dance on the program. I take it to be a meeting of two cultures, Spain and the United States–the work is a modern-dance (i.e., American) exploration of the principles of flamenco. This suite of dances, to music by Paco De Lucia and Simon Rogers, is at first fairly faithful to flamenco conventions–hands on hips, tossed arms, arched backs, the dancers accompanists as well as spectators for each other–but abandons those outward forms by the end. Of course, since the dancers are barefoot, Entre Dos Aguas never has flamenco’s staccato footwork. But aside from that obvious difference, this piece is interesting because of the way North takes all the energy of flamenco, which is usually packed into a rigid vertical space, and lets it flow out into space horizontally, in turns and swirls and leaps, the dancers not losing but gaining in dignity with their freedom.

Three dances, three ways of looking at things, three “international” cultures. But what brought them together? Only their stylishness. I couldn’t find in Batsheva the pulse point of modern dance–the personal vision imposed on a disorderly universe and on the body that can give both new meaning.