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With Batsheva, in Paris

The day after the hottest day ever recorded in Paris (42 degrees Celsius, 108 degrees Fahrenheit), two things happen. One: Batsheva’s Young Ensemble—the training appendage of the modern dance group Batsheva Dance Company—puts on its final show for the Festival Paris l’Été, performing the 2000 piece Decadance. Two: the heat breaks—just gives way—and is forgotten. The cold lands in its place. Leaves fall, as if in autumn.


These two things happen at the same time. They are unrelated. The cold did not come for Batsheva. It is there for them nonetheless. That explains the sweater I pull on—layering, the first time this summer—before walking the six blocks from my apartment to the theatre. Explains, too, the see-through rain-coats that volunteers hand out at the door. Your call. But it’s going to rain, one insists, after I decline.


It’s not quite a theatre, this place. The Collège-lycée Jacques Decour, the space for tonight’s show, is, actually, a high school. But it’s a French one and an old one, meaning it’s both beautiful and excessive, sprawling out cream-coloured courtyards bracketed with slim honey locusts. It’s in the hollow of one of these courtyards—out in the open air—where the Young Ensemble will perform. Hence the talk of the rain.


The first time I saw Decadance, there was no need for this kind of talk. That was years ago. It was winter. To see the show, I entered, unbuttoned my coat, coughed snow off my boots. The cold fell far away. Far—like a foreign language I spoke once, but could now only grasp the shape of. Inside, the theatre looked how theatres look: cushioned and quiet, ceilinged and floored. Its own little ecosystem, siphoned off from the world. There was no need to think—much less talk—of the winter waiting, white and endless, outdoors.  


In Paris now, I find a seat and pull my sweater around me. Decadance, I read from the programme, is built of excerpts from over two decades of the choreographic work of Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of Batsheva from 1990 to 2018.  Naharin describes the piece as “quoting” sections from different works, so as to “create a whole new story.”


This concept is the same as it was the last time. But, despite this sameness, there’s something different about seeing Decadance now. And it’s not, I think, just the fact that a few years have passed. Or that, because the Young Ensemble offers a residency for a maximum of two years, all the dancers tonight have different faces than the ones I first saw.


It’s something about the cold and the fact that I can feel it. About the dark on me, too, and the rain as well, the first drops of rain that come through the square of sky. When I first saw Decadance, the whole affair seemed introverted and inward-facing. Movement as movement. The show was arresting, yes, but seemed to refer to nothing outside of itself. Now though—hearing engines from the street, wearing the wet of July—Decadance feels tied to an external life. To the city. To the six blocks I walked to get here. It’s this world, I think, that Decadance wants for us to attend to and—perhaps most importantly—wants, more than anything, for itself to join.


I should say that when I first saw Decadance I had never seen Batsheva before. I had only a loose sense of what the company was, an even looser sense of the name Naharin. A boy I liked at the time—he was a dancer—told me about them, messaged me on Facebook with a link, and said batsheva is from Israel and they are world renowned / they are the best in the world for contemporary / this is the show to see / you will walk away a new person. /


He was right about most of that. Batsheva is from Israel (based in Tel Aviv). They are also world renowned. Naharin received international attention in 2015 with Mr. Gaga, a documentary made about his life and his work. About Gaga, too—the movement language developed by Naharin and practiced regularly by Batsheva. The elevator pitch for Gaga goes something like this: a teacher, centred in the studio with dancers around them, offering guiding phrases. Feel the collapse between your ears. Dancers are encouraged to listen to their bodies and respond freely as they see fit.


Of course, Decadance is not a Gaga class. Most of the show tonight is previously choreographed—meticulously so. Understanding the improvisatory instinct of Gaga, though, is important for grasping the freewheeling energy of the thing, as each movement seems to occur to a dancer at the precise moment at which their body brings it into being.


Not long after Decadance begins, dancers stage an excerpt from the 2001 piece Naharin’s Virus. Pressed up in a line towards the edge of the stage, they stand still as death, staring out through the front. Here in Paris, slow rain is coming down. Eyes sweating black, the dancers look out and break—one by one—from stillness.


A leg shoots out like a loose fish. A hip bone grinds itself into the floor. There’s a strong-jawed immediacy in these movements that refers—in a refracted, oblique way—to the way our bodies tend to make their way through the world. Most often instinctually, usually without thinking. A hand grabs a mouth, yanks it open to a smile. A young couple ducks out of the audience, into the foyer, away from the rain.


Later in the show, there’s a moment when the dancers duck out too, off the stage and into the sloped rows of our seats. Their eyes are still after us. Each one picks an audience member and takes them to the stage. Dean Martin’s “Sway” plays overhead. For a minute, the sight is an easy doppelganger for a wedding dance floor, suspended in the first moments after the DJ clicks over to a slow dance. Partners fumble together like weak magnets and then they’re with each other, leaning.


There’s a woman up there on stage. Her long grey hair is disciplined into carelessness and a smooth beige smock wraps loose around her. Sitting in front of me when I arrived, she was covering herself sourly with the raincoat given at the door. Now she’s up there and soft against her partner, doing little loops under her hips. She’s not telling her body what to do. Just moving—unrehearsed, together. It’s here that Decadance’s extension to a world outside the stage is perhaps at its most explicit. If it weren’t for the costumes, it’d be hard to tell the dancers from the rest.


As I look at the wide courtyard in which we sit, though, Decadance’s call to the present world seems to bristle against the oldness of this space. It’s true: the Lycée lets in the sounds and circumstances of life passing by outside its walls. But, despite this fact, each stone of the school still arrives from a past time, marks a certain history, and reiterates it up and around us. 

I’m thinking of what I’ve heard about this place. About the fact that, as a friend told me, scenes from Francois Truffaut’s film The 400 Blows were shot in next courtyard over. Or that before the Lycée was built, this land held some of the largest slaughterhouses in Paris. And how, on the hill just north of where we sit, the bishop Saint Denis was decapitated in 250 AD, only to calmly collect the head that was his, walk paces down the slope, die. (This last point was shared with me by a coworker one morning this summer, over coffee). In other words: something happened before now, something back before that, and, in Paris, people love to talk about it. It’s tricky to live—much less to dance—now, amongst all this history.


The first few weeks I was here, when I wasn’t bending down to read a plaque, I was craning up to make out a monument. After a day, I would come home to my flat. It was pitched high on the seventh floor of an old building, above two Turkish bakeries and an auto-repair shop. The seventh floor was also the top floor, so when you lay down on your back, all you could see, through the slanted windows, was the sky. The sky: hovering, like a flat disk of warm water, like an unchanged fact.


I spent hours like this. Lights low, stick of incense lit, ABBA over the Bluetooth. And me on my back. It was like a deprivation tank, one designed to evaporate the past, leave only the flat grey present here with me. In these moments, nothing felt quite as stark as the warm body that was mine in the room, my shoulder blade, hard, on the blue-tiled floor. Our bones, I’ve found, when we speak to them—have you noticed?—can answer only in the present tense.


I began taking breaks from pausing at plaques. I turned my head forward on my neck instead. At eye-level, a lot was happening upon this history. Trees were loosening up with summer. Beneath the trees, along the streets, was each person—all and each—passing by. There were men selling red-yellow cherries in the market. And there, across the way, children idled on the corner, drinking flavoured ice. I cannot tell you if history will think of them. I can tell you that, even if it will, it will think little of how they moved.


How they moved. The urbanist Jane Jacobs has talked about day-to-day movement as “the ballet of the city sidewalk.” And I get it. But what I saw seemed less like a ballet. Less rigor, less premeditation. There was a looseness, here, and a transience too. In the way one child poured the melted leftovers of his ice onto a friend’s shoes. Or how a shopkeeper gave a woman three baskets of cherries—no charge—that were left over at the end of the day. Beneath the city’s endless repetition of history, these simple gestures emerged. Happening, unrecorded, here.


Like Decadance. Like in the jittered ecstasy of the excerpt from Three, as dancers break off in their own rhythm, ripple in overlap, and back away again. They acknowledge each other, move with each other, turn inwards. All that emerges is what their bodies arrive at tonight. Performed tomorrow, things will change. The day after, change again. It’s in this way that Decadance comes unfixed from repetition, from the last time and the time before that, arriving before us just here, only tonight, under the sky.


Decadance ends after an hour and a half. As it does, the Beach Boys’ “You’re Welcome” begins to play. The dark has come above and the rain has gone. I still don’t know if—as that boy promised, years ago—I am leaving Decadance now as a whole new person. But then the Young Ensemble arrives on stage. They’re facing out at us, arms extended, as if in anticipation of a hug. And, new person or not, I do know that I want to reach back to these other bodies, to embrace them. Stark and warm, here and now. You’re welcome. / Well, you’re welcome to come.


People start to collect their things and the lights go up all the way, though it’s still dark in the cool night. The woman next to me is on her knees, looking for her purse. To me, though, she’s in movement. Feeling the collapse between her ears. Told we have been dancing, what do we do? Remember, perhaps.