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“Minus 16” includes “Echad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One?”), one of Naharin’s most notable compositions. Set to a rock version of the song from the Passover Haggadah, the dancers, dressed in dark suits and white shirts, sit in chairs laid out in a semicircle on the stage. They go through the 13 verses in unison, screaming out “She ba-shamaim u va-aretz” (“Who is in the heaven and the earth?”) with every repetition. The choreography ranges from gentle pedestrian gestures to violent thrashing. The dancers stand on the chairs, stomp and throw themselves into frenetic backbends. The segment concludes with the cast members feverishly tearing off their suits, stripping down to their underwear and throwing their clothes into the center of the stage.
“Danielle and Ohad purposely didn’t translate the Hebrew or give us a sense of story when they taught us ‘Echad,’” Ailey dancer Alicia Graf Mack said. “They emphasized the strength of the movement and the power of dancing as a group. But for me, the piece is about struggle, and coming out of a struggle stronger and smarter. Knowing the history and mission of Ailey, it feels especially relevant.”
While Naharin is excited to work with Ailey, his motivation for setting “Minus 16” is also personal. The piece is dedicated to the memory of his wife, Mari Kajiwara. A New York native, Kajiwara joined Ailey in 1970, dancing with the company and serving as an assistant for many years. She married Naharin in 1978 and co-founded his first company, the Ohad Naharin Dance Company. In 1990, when Naharin became the director of Batsheva, Kajiwara served as the company’s rehearsal director and as a dancer, and performed in some of Naharin’s pinnacle works.
“On Christmas Day, it will be 10 years since Mari passed away, and we have prepared a special concert in her honor,” Battle said. “I think presenting “Minus 16” is a beautiful testament to her and her contributions to the dance world.”
Ailey has a diverse lineup for its winter season, including the company premiere of Paul Taylor’s “Arden Court” and of Rennie Harris’s hip-hop fusion piece, “Home.” “Minus 16,” however, is the biggest departure from the traditional Ailey style.
“I have admired Ohad for decades,” Battle said. “His success at Batsheva proves how modern dance is evolving. We continue evolving here at Ailey, as well, and this piece really shows what we can do.”
“Minus 16,” presented by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is at New York City Center through December 25.
Stacey Menchel Kussell is a culture writer. Her recent articles examine Israeli contemporary dance.