In the past couple of weeks, discussion about Ohad Naharin’s Decadance, scheduled to open the 2022 Sydney Festival, has come with calls for a boycott of the Festival by a group of pro-Palestinian organisers in protest at a $20,000 sponsorship of the event by the Israeli Embassy in Australia. As a result, a number of artists have withdrawn from the Festival. Today came news of a letter from 120 artists opposing the boycott.

There were police at the Sydney Opera House last night before the opening of Decadance, as about 80 protestors gathered outside. Inside the theatre, there a storm of approval at the end of the show with a standing ovation from the audience, clearly exhilarated by the dazzling performance.

Decadance

Decadance performed by Sydney Dance Company for Sydney Festival. Photo © Daniel Boud

Decadance was created in 2000 by internationally acclaimed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin to mark the tenth anniversary of his work at Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, where he was Artistic Director from 1990 to 2018. During this time, he developed the Gaga movement language, which defines the company’s training and inventive technique.

The original version of Decadance featured ten excerpts from works Naharin choreographed for Batsheva. Since then, he has regularly made new additions so that different iterations have been created.

Batsheva has toured the work internationally (often facing political protests), performing it in Australia at the Perth Festival in 2014 and the Melbourne Festival in 2015. Other companies around the world have also performed it. For this year’s Sydney Festival, Sydney Dance Company was invited to bring its vision and voice to the piece, with former Batsheva dancers and Gaga specialists Rachael Osborne and Ian Robinson staging the production.

Naharin’s choreography is very different to that of SDC Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela and a new challenge, but the 17 dancers do an exceptional job of channelling the idiosyncratic movement through their finely tuned, highly expressive, fighting fit bodies.

This particular version features excepts from seven works ranging from Anaphase, created in 1993, to Sadeh21 from 2011. The works are performed to an eclectic score featuring music by Goldfrapp, David Darling, John Zorn and The Beach Boys among others.

The evening begins with Jesse Scales, in red pants and grey top, sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage during the Welcome to Country. The other dancers wearing different coloured pants and tops, then gather around Scales in a tight bunch, their arms creating sculptural patterns before the dancers erupt into loud laughter then spread out across the stage.

The choreography that unfolds from there presents a vivid snapshot of Naharin’s oeuvre, with Rakefet Levi’s costuming and Avi Yona Bueno’s lighting enhancing the visual impact.

Decadance

Decadance performed by Sydney Dance Company for Sydney Festival. Photo © Daniel Boud

At one point the audience are asked to stand on their feet “so the performance can continue”. A series of questions are lobbed at them, allowing them to sit if they fit the criteria, presumably giving the dancers time to prepare for the next section. A curtain falls to allow for the setting of chairs and for the dancers to make a quick costume change for the Anaphase section, but overall the choreography flows freely from one piece to the next, creating a coherent whole.

Naharin’s choreography ranges from fierce and frenetic to soft and fluid. The dancers display strength and flexibility at every turn, as backs bend, bodies judder and twitch, limbs stretch and twist, and heads and chests are hammered. Their arms and fingers are constantly in play, creating elegant shapes and staccato patterns. At times the dancers vocalise as well.

The movement often feels convulsive, at other times it’s sinuous. But it’s always riveting, fascinating, intriguing. You marvel at how bodies can move like this with such (seeming) ease. The men leap and jump, and do so with such a spring in their step it’s almost as if they are on a trampoline at times. In one section a dancer (Natalie Allen) walks around the stage with hips and thighs rolling backwards and forwards in a kind of waddle.

Naharin creates sections for individual expression as well as for surging groups that evoke a sense of fierce tribalism and also perhaps political protest. There are also various powerful duets, among them a playful, sexy routine between a male and female dancer (Chloe Leong and Dimtri Kleioris) in red harem pants, and a beautiful, intimate, romantic duet between two male dancers (Kleioris and Dean Elliott).

In one scene, the 17 dancers walk across the stage in a straight line, with one dropping out to take centre stage and tell a personal story in (recorded) words and movement. Again and again they cross the stage, until each dancer has had their moment. The stories are succinct but powerful. One dancer doesn’t like their body unless they’re dancing, another’s parents are deaf so dancing became like sign language, one was able to stop taking meds when they began dancing, another is so obsessed with dance, they once danced all day until their mother begged them to stop. It’s a very powerful section, in which we feel we come to know the SDC dancers and warm to them emotionally as their revelations provide an insight into who they are and the fascinating ensemble they create together.

Decadance

Decadance, performed by Sydney Dance Company for Sydney Festival. Photo © Daniel Boud

The famous section first created for Kyr then used in Anaphase, performed by the dancers on a semi-circle of chairs, is a real highlight among many. Dressed in dark suits, white shirts and hats (which quickly fly into the air) the dancers are revealed standing in front of a folding chair as a voice tells us the piece will explore “the illusion of beauty and the fine line that separates madness from sanity”.

Performing to a traditional Passover song in Hebrew, Echad Mi Yodea (Who Knows One), ramped up with guitars and drums, the dancers leap forwards, twist, raise their arms then slump back into the chair, as the movement is passed along the line, knocking the final dancer onto the floor. The pattern is repeated and repeated, with new gestures added as the choreography builds. The dancers then remove their jackets, trousers, shirts and shoes, hurling them into the middle of the semi-circle. It’s stunning, triggering all kinds of emotion, so it’s little wonder that it’s become so well-known.

Decadance is a celebration of Naharin’s choreography for Batsheva. This performance also showcases the versatility of the Sydney Dance Company dancers. Running 75 minutes, it’s a sensational evening of thrilling, visceral dance, and (politics aside) a stunning festival opener.


Decadance plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 9 January as part of Sydney Festival.