Gauthier Dance negotiates the physical politics of gut impulse

Gauthier Dance of Stuttgart makes its Chicago debut with “Mega Israel” (Harris Theater, Friday April 5—Saturday, April 6), a program of three seminal works by Israeli choreographers.

As first impressions go, this was a knockout. The company— young, vibrant, hip and supremely adept—could be the German dance sibling to our own beloved Hubbard Street. In fact, the two companies share a number of choreographers and one dancer, Florian Lochner, a recent (2015) Gauthier transplant and 2018 Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow.

Smart and athletic in their versatile negotiation between the raw drama of physical politics and spatial design, Gauthier Dance’s program capitalizes on its prime commodity: in-your-face movement that transcends the traditional technical vocabularies of ballet, modern and contemporary dance.

There are few recognizable “steps” per se in the three pieces that comprise “Mega Israel.” Instead, we are immersed in a movement world of gut emotions, contrasting impulses, and the extremes of tension and release. That’s not to say they are in any way devoid of rich compositional structure, sublime creativity, or virtuosic performance.

The unity of the three pieces, described by artistic director Eric Gauthier as a choreographic “triumvirate” that intertwines theme, style, and artistic roots, perhaps stems from all four choreographers’ affiliations with Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, whose artistic fires were initially lit by Martha Graham. The palpable influence of one of them, Ohad Naharin, is apparent in Hofesh Shechter’s “Uprising” (2006) and Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s “Killer Pig” (2009). Naharin danced with and choreographed for Batsheva and was artistic director from 1990 until 2018. He currently holds Batsheva’s title of House Choreographer.

We were treated to a full evening of Naharin’s work last June, at Hubbard Street’s 40th anniversary season finale, with “Decadance,” created expressly for Hubbard Street. In “Mega Israel,” Gauthier Dance reprises a segment of that work, “Minus 16” (1999).

In a near-perfect evolution of mood, the evening moves from the confrontational, all-male angst of “Uprising” to the angry, all-female sexual icon-bashing of “Killer Pig,” and culminates in the raucous, gender-neutral apocalypse of “Minus 16.”

Shechter’s “Uprising” takes place in a stark landscape of fog, vertical shafts of diagonal light, and a low-hung upstage row of lit orbs staring straight at the audience, a confrontational adjunct to the seven male dancers’ opening stance facing the audience across the front of the stage. Shechter’s own sound score lends industrial alienation to the environment, with repetitive machine pump reverb and intermittent mechanical rhythms. The contrast underscores the push-pull of wrestling and rescuing, combatting and giving in, joining and separating. They alternately slide, slip and crawl across the floor, flopping, leaping, and tumbling in loose-limbed fluidity, spilling themselves into embraces that become wrestling matches. Slack arms spin out into space and come back in hard punches as anger and apathy, rebellion and rage spar with languor in an imaginary ring.

In contrast, the tight-knit barefoot bourrées in the opening cluster of constrained women in “Killer Pig” bring brazen grotesquery to clichés of female sexuality. Exaggerated distortions of the fashion-model runway walk, pelvic thrusts, violent chest contractions, and torso undulations reminiscent of vomiting alternate with the tippy-toe bourées, frothy Graham-esque sautés, and balletic saut de chats and entrechat quatres of lady-like decorum. “Killer Pig” delivers its message, and then some, repeatedly rising to climactic peaks but lingering too long in transitional repetitions. The overall impact is one of self-hate, the discomfort of out-of-joint contortions, asymmetry, frantically beating hearts, and screaming bodies reaching beyond physical constraints for some kind of freedom.

And freedom is exactly what Naharin’s “Minus 16” delivers. If you were lucky enough to remain in your seat, or at least in the house, for intermission, you first noticed a nebbishy guy in a black suit and white shirt buttoned at the neck, no tie, standing on stage in front of the curtain like an extra usher keeping an eye on the audience. Then you realized he was part of “Minus 16.” Maurus Gauthier (not related to artistic director Eric Gauthier) endeared himself as dancer, clown, acrobat, and jester, holding the stage for the entire intermission.

Gauthier’s solo spans dance, mime, acrobatics, and circus arts, all underscored by an emotional monologue that leaps tall buildings in a single bound to the tune of cha-chas, rhumbas and swing. His astounding solo performance exemplifies “Gaga,” Naharin’s signature movement methodology.

Anna Della Subin, in a September, 2015 New York Times Style Magazine piece, describes Gaga as “a set of invented words and phrases designed to provoke movements—by turns ugly, exquisite, and silly—which together constitute an anti-technique…”

“Collapse up” is one of those phrases that gives rise to the startling non-sequiturs of Naharin’s movement palette, which embodies the gestural specificity of rattling fists, whole body oscillations, wild kicks, sudden elevations, and falls that alternately collapse the body or assault the floor.  “There is something about Gaga,” Naharin says, “that makes you realize that joy and pain and sadness can live in the same space…”

“Collapsing up” aptly characterizes much of the marvelous originality of movement invention that make both “Uprising” and “Killer Pig” uniquely personal and universal at the same time. It’s also a key to what makes “Minus 16” so powerful.

“Minus 16” draws imagery from Hasidic ecstatic dance and the traditional Passover song, “Echad Mi Yodea,” or “Who Knows One,” an add-on counting song that enumerates the thirteen central Jewish principles that guide ethical action, and which lead, ultimately, to freedom. It is traditionally sung by children at the end of the Passover meal with game-like playfulness, but it’s underlying meaning resonates deeply with adults who understand the cycles of hatred and oppression the Jewish people have endured, the Holocaust being especially present in everyone’s mind.

The movement from constraint and rote repetition to raucous freedom achieves its full impact in “Minus 16” as the company tears off jackets, then slacks, shirts and finally shoes, throwing each in turn into a pile, and dancing unrestrained in nothing but skivvies.

Cumulative reiteration of the verses, with a new movement added on with each new verse, forms the structure of the first part of “Minus 16.” Repetition informs a good deal of the exquisite duet that follows, set to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Nisi Dominus.” One can also trace its influence to the structural progressions in “Uprising” and “Killer Pig.”

In the culminating segment of “Minus 16,” the ensemble reappears, back in black suits, fanning out into the house to each retrieve an unsuspecting dance partner from the audience for some on-stage Gaga fun set to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” When this happened with Hubbard Street in “Decadance,” the audience-to-stage magic had been building throughout the program. While not quite the same, the fun was not lost on second viewing, and the evening concluded on a celebratory note with a hearty Chicago embrace for Gauthier Dance.