Theater & dance

Dance Review

Batsheva Dance Company’s ‘Venezuela’ is a rewarding enigma

Robert Torres
The Celebrity Series presentation of “Venezuela” marked Batsheva Dance Company’s Boston debut.

You might expect a contemporary dance/theater piece titled “Venezuela” to address that South American nation’s culture, if not its current political situation. But the “Venezuela” of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, which Batsheva Dance Company is performing at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre this weekend, in a Celebrity Series of Boston debut, makes no obvious connection. Sex and politics do thread their way through the piece, but at Friday’s performance, it was the dancing that held center stage.

Founded in 1964 by Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, Batsheva is based in Tel Aviv. In 1990, Naharin became its artistic director; in 2018 he relinquished that post to Gili Navot, but he remains the company’s house choreographer. He calls the movement language he created, gaga, “a toolbox that can help dancers. It’s about a sense of discovery and going beyond our familiar limits on a daily basis. It’s about small gestures, about listening to gravity, to the flow of information, to the sensations on your skin.”

The structure of “Venezuela,” which premiered in Tel Aviv in 2017, is no mystery. The piece is divided into two 40-minute halves (no intermission) where the second half repeats the choreography of the first but with different dancers, different lighting, and different music, pop replacing the first half’s plainchant. So the second half challenges you to observe what’s changed, who’s doing what role now, how the pop music makes the choreography look different.

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“Venezuela” begins with a group of eight dancers, in black, their backs to the audience, swaying as they sidle upstage. Gestures from the gaga toolbox break out: an upraised arm here, an extended leg there. Still accompanied by plainchant, the dancers break into a Latin ballroom sequence, everything speeded up and super sexy. Then they start skipping energetically about the stage, more dancers joining in, circling and crisscrossing. They line up downstage and two men whisper the expletive-heavy rap of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Dead Wrong” against the plainchant background.

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Five men move about on their hands and knees, with women riding them as if they were camels or elephants. Rectangles of white fabric are brought out and whipped around by what might be a drill team. Then the rectangles are fashioned into a shroud to encase a fallen dancer. When he tries to rise, one of the women knocks him back down and winds up perched atop his prone crawling body, as if he were the world turtle. It all concludes in a frenzy of gaga-informed solos, bodies breaking out every which way, as the plainchant is drowned out by electronic noise.

The second half, which begins after just a few seconds of blackout, has a new lineup and dimmer lighting, but it doesn’t feel that different — perhaps because it’s the choreography that matters. “Ae Ajnabi” (from the 1998 Bollywood film “Dil Se”) does give another dimension to the camel/elephant sequence; Rage Against the Machine’s “Bullet in the Head” ratchets up the drill team; “Dead Wrong” is rapped full throttle. And the white fabric rectangles become national flag replicas. In the end, though, it’s Naharin’s enigmatic sequences and the power of the dancing that stay with you.

Venezuela

Choreographed by Ohad Naharin. Performed by Batsheva Dance Company. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Boch Center Shubert Theatre, April 5. Repeats April 6. Tickets $35-$85, 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com

An earlier version mischaracterized the company’s debut.