The audience clapped and cheered as the curtain parted to reveal 15 dancers in black suits standing in a semicircle in front of wooden folding chairs.
The dancers were performing Ohad Naharin’s “Ehad Mi Yodea” — based on the song “Who Knows One” in the Passover Haggadah — as the closing number of a recent gala benefit for the dancers union at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv.
Performed hundreds of times in Israel and abroad, it is not only one of Naharin’s best-known works, but also a cultural symbol with its own rich history. In Israel, the Batsheva Dance Company, of which Naharin is artistic director, has a following that rivals sports fans in its enthusiasm.
The February 22 Tel Aviv performance of “Ehad Mi Yodea” was undertaken by former members of the dance company who reunited in support and celebration of their profession.
Tami Lotan, a member of the original Batsheva cast and now the director of international touring at the Noa Dar Dance Studio, recalled in an interview how “Ehad Mi Yodea” was created in a single, long rehearsal session. In a wave-like movement, each dancer rises from a chair — arms outstretched — in an explosion of movement then returns to the chair. Originally, the piece closed with the dancers falling to the floor.
When Naharin decided to change the movement, one dancer, Erez Levy, did not hear the instructions and fell as before. His error was incorporated into the dance in the role of “the faller,” who sits at the end of the circle, falling to the floor at the end of each wave. Lotan noted that while Naharin is not verbally communicative, “when Ohad shows you something you know what to do.” Naharin draws inspiration from the way dancers work with his choreography, creating a dialogue between their bodies and the movement.
Since the Batsheva Company was on tour and unable to participate in the benefit. Amit Goldenberg, artistic director of the Tel Aviv Dance Company and dance union representative, suggested that former dancers from the company perform the number. The response was warm and enthusiastic.
“I give them my blessing,” said Naharin.
Added Inbal Yacobi, herself a former Batsheva dancer and member of the union’s steering committee: “I don’t think there has ever been such a reunion.”
Spending time away from other commitments to take part in the event was a big deal for the dancers, who are currently performing with other companies. Elad Livnat, a member of the Tel Aviv Dance Company, was not able to attend rehearsals and appeared only for the performance, saying: “The last time I performed this was 12 years ago. I practiced taking my pants off at home.” The choreography requires the dancers to remove their pants and throw them quickly to the center of the circle; many dancers were worried that they wouldn’t be able to disrobe in time.
Meanwhile, Talia Paz, an internationally known dancer who has returned to perform in Israel after a successful European career, recalled performing “Ehad Mi Yodea” as part of “Vara” — a choreographic remix that Naharin created for the Cullberg Ballet in Sweden: “It felt so familiar, so Israeli, it gave me a feeling of pride.” Although she has not had not danced this particular work for many years, she said, “It’s imprinted so deeply on us; if you wake any one of us up in the middle of the night we can dance it.”
A more recent Batsheva graduate, Inbar Nemirovsky, currently dancing in Barak Marshall’s “Monger,” was thrilled to share the stage with dancers she had admired from afar.
When Naharin visited the rehearsal studio on the eve of his departure for a United States tour, the reunion was warm and lively, with one dancer, Sonia D’Orleans Juste, leaping into his arms. Hillel Kogan, another Batsheva veteran who is currently one of the Batsheva ensemble’s rehearsal directors, brought the dancers up to date on the latest version of the work, which, in Naharin’s style, is in a constant state of evolution. “If your chair breaks,” he told them, “take it out to the wings and bring out another.”
The force of the movement is such that chairs do indeed break during performance. Lotan said that Naharin, who used to perform this dance with the company, once sat beside her in a chair that shattered, leaving a pile of splintered wood on the floor.
This benefit performance followed this pattern. Noa Rosental, a petite dancer with strong moves, managed to break her chair, and then calmly replaced it with another from the wings and returned to dance on until the final rousing chorus.