Our writers get comfortable (or perhaps uncomfortable?) watching Last Work by Batsheva Dance Company. Choreographed by Ohad Naharin; the show was his last in development as Artistic Director of Batsheva Dance Company (where he still resides as house choreographer). But will our writers go ‘gaga’ for it?
A sparse stage lined either side by monolithic blocks. A blue hue allows us to see a woman, in a blue dress, running. She sustains a constant pace. Which she will, much to my amazement, continue for the duration of the show.
A dancer enters our scene, they move fluidly, almost like they are underwater. The current of the droning minimalist music flowing through them. Our introduction to a show filled with stark contrasts. The rhythmic pace of the runner and the fluidly building movements of the dancer. The music increases in intensity as more dancers join, wait and move. The dancers are at times animalistic, at times robotic and angular, others are fluid. At moments, all of these styles are happening at once. It becomes otherworldly.
Duets and group moments punctuate the choreography bringing individuals together. I found myself scanning the stage for these moments of connection, trying to pick them out. My brain was playing a game to find the narrative.
The music pauses, we hear the runners simple beat as her feet hit the floor. We suddenly remember she’s there, still going.
The moments of connection between the dancers are beautiful. They almost fall into synchronicity and then out of it. Even in those moments, their faces have a sense of longing.
Some moments are evocative of sexual acts, but the dancer’s expressions remain distant. Suggesting that whilst they are connecting, they are not forming connections. It can, at times, be uncomfortable. Connection without connection is uncomfortable.
…Even in the moments of stillness, the runner is always there.
The electronic music builds into a steady beat, echoing that of the runner. The group moves together. Individuals break away into repetitive sharp movements. Others join them, building into something almost machine-like. Then someone breaks out, and the process starts all over again.
The piece crescendos with a dancer shouting into a microphone that they connect to the stage with a web of masking tape. A dancer cleaning a machine gun to evoke masturbation, and a white flag is flown.
The dancer’s pause. The man with the masking tape connects them all. The runner is connected too. The first time there has been a physical connection between her and the rest of the dancers. The dancers sit on the floor and move, together, as she continues her run holding the white flag aloft. In the end, all is still and silent. Apart from the runner, the noise of her feet as she holds the white flag aloft.
Last Work is one of those shows that if I took my less art-inclined friends with me, they would say “Thanks! What an interesting experience!” in an overly polite manner because they’re unsure of how to react. I was watching it on my TV. My partner came downstairs, and I felt the need to explain why I was watching it, especially as he glanced at the TV during the gun-as-masturbation moment.
“It’s for a review,” I said.
That feeling comes, not because the show is bad, far from it. It’s captivating, but it is challenging. It gives you music, moments and movements. The rest is up to you. It leaves your brain to find the narrative strings and weave them. At least that’s what my mind did. I found the theme of connection and isolation. A storyline particularly present to us all at this time of mass disconnection. Perhaps you will find something different.
Sometimes we aren’t sure of a piece, and we can’t quantify it. That’s ok. That doesn’t change what it is—an interesting experience, created by incredible artists.
As a cliché leo with a huge gob, I can safely say that there aren’t many things I engage with (artworks or otherwise) that leave me lost for words. Unsurprisingly, Last Work falls into that elite club; along with Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, and eating biscoff spread with a spoon. As I watched Last Work from my bedroom, my initial reaction was a lot of dramatic gasps, fixated stares, and lightning-speed, mildly incomprehensible texts – mostly ‘omg’ and ‘!!!’ – to my friend who was watching along at the same time as me. Now, trying to bundle my thoughts and feelings into a coherent review, it’s still a struggle – but let’s give it a go…
Last Work is potentially Naharin’s best. It is masterfully curated, an extraordinary feat of artistic vision; each detail – from the smallest twitch of a dancer’s limb, to the composition of the entire stage (filled with whole-cast ensemble, monoliths, and props) – thunderous, precise, and commanding. If I’d have paused the screen at any moment, the careful conformation of the stage as a whole – even when there were multiple, seemingly unconnected or conflicting solos on stage simultaneously – would mean that the image looked like an oil painting. Frequently, movement peels away to reveal jarring, gasp-worthy images that lingered in my mind for days after viewing, serving as a stark reminder of the show’s socio-political motivation and overarching themes: conflict, complicity, and lack of meaningful connection.
For me, the identifying factor of Naharin’s choreography is that an image or movement is never representing just one thing – in fact, they often read as two (or more) opposing themes or emotions concurrently. Last Work is no exception, and seems to lean into this layered complexity more than ever; depending on which way, or which second, you are watching, a singular action displays heartfelt tenderness or animalistic violence, earnest hope or aching resignation, serene comfort or irrevocable fear, and staggering beauty or offensive vulgarity. It’s uncomfortable, confusing and confrontational – not an easy Sunday afternoon watch in the slightest, but instead a responsibility welcomed by audiences who like an active role in perceiving – or perhaps more accurately, feeling.
Really, the reason that it’s so hard to put Last Work’s impact into words is because the audience response is almost entirely phenomenological. It’s visceral and unconscious; and I think this type of reaction is almost entirely down to the fact that the dancers aren’t being cerebral or intellectual about what they’re presenting – they’re just feeling along with you. Naharin’s signature movement language – ‘Gaga’ – is rooted in a dancer’s ability to feel through movement and listen deeply through that feeling; constantly exploring the full scope of their bodies’ limits through playing with form, speed, power and texture, in silent conversation with others and the space which they inhabit. The form liberates dancers from painful and limiting self-awareness through focusing on instinct and intuition, rather than what the movement ‘looks’ like; Naharin is infamous for asking dancers to never ‘perform’ his work, and has banished mirrors from the rehearsal room (typically a dance industry standard). Radical, yes – but for me; this is a welcomed act of defiance against an aspect of dance that can be limiting to the form (and the performers).
It’s been so tough to find anything to watch online that has gripped me as a viewer. Knowing I’m in my home, my place of relaxation and comfort, means I’m prone to slipping into zombie-like viewing. Last Work makes resigning to the role of idle spectator impossible; this show is designed to make you feel to extremes – quite surprising when, during lockdown, many of us have barely ‘felt’ at all. I’m willing to bet that even if you hate it, you’ll be grateful for that feeling.
If “a picture is worth a thousand words”- Then in my viewing of Last Work I read all the known words of humans (and perhaps some fictional ones too). The 70-minute piece is a tsunami of emotion. It is heartbreak in hand with joy, togetherness with separation and war amongst love. The building of tension and meaning is a masterclass in movement and Ohad Naharin’s distinctive choreographic voice screams just as loudly as one of his dancers does, as he violently tapes down a standing microphone. As happy as I was to return to one of my favourite dance companies of all time, there’s something amiss for me.
I’ve had quite a few conversations now about how viewing art from the comfort of your own home as opposed to the regular theatre/gallery/museum and if it’s a good or bad thing. Chomping down on your favourite snacks without the look of disgust from others is definitely a huge upside. However, the feeling you get of anticipation, like electricity crackling through the air doesn’t quite compare when it is just your own. One of the greatest loves of my life is the late train journey home from a theatre, chatting loudly with your friends about what you had just seen. This is how I manage to appreciate the bigger picture, through the eyes of others. I often become fixated with one actor, dancer or musician so I need the reminder from others that actually Daisy, you remember this part? Oh yeah! This is what I needed with Last Work, a debrief of sorts. With so much to look at you’re bound to miss something, and I rather greedily wanted to witness it all.
This is the funny thing about having one’s gaze chosen for them. When you watch the recording of a piece like Last Work your eyes cannot wander the full breadth of the stage; you can’t always take in the bigger picture, or appreciate the expression of the dancers sitting idle, awaiting their turn. I often found my eyes wondering, attempting to see the other dancers watching or whether the woman was still running gracefully at the back (I have full confidence I would’ve fallen by the five-minute mark), only for the camera to cut away. Instead of viewing this performance as a sort of communal expression, you’re in a way forced to see each movement as though it were episodic. One piece of movement finishes, the great eye moves on to another part of the stage, whether you’re done watching or not, and so it continues.
Honestly, it is difficult to find my connection with art when I view it on my laptop. As the standing ovation comes, as it rightly should, my longing to stand with them turns into an ugly jealousy. Yes, I know that one day we will all return to the seats of the echoing chambers of our favourite theatres and we will swallow stories with hungry eyes after being deprived for so long (or at least that’s how it will go for me). But as long as I am here, watching stories through a screen, I’ll feel like a part of the experience is lost. It goes without saying that Last Work is thankfully not Naharin’s last and it is just as valuable an experience for other reasons – if not only to push you into researching the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as it did with me – but I am spoiled by the experience of watching similar artworks in person, and to say I miss it would perhaps be an understatement. I cannot wait to return to that seat.
You can watch Last Work on Youtube, at any time, here.