How much does a soundtrack really affect our perception of movement? Halfway through a performance last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of Venezuela, a dance by Batsheva Dance Company’s House Choreographer Ohad Naharin, dancers put that question dramatically forward for contemplation.
The curtain opens on a group of dancers center stage dressed variously in black walking slowly away from the audience. A series of Gregorian chants accompany them as they eventually break apart. The chants continue, sweeping solemnity across scenes of aggressive skipping and hard movements–almost punches from various limbs–as well as some spellbinding ballroom dancing and mesmerizing pairings like when female dancers settle on the backs of male dancers and ride them, dragging their feet and conjuring images of sand dunes and camels. At one point, the dancers form a line behind two male dancers who begin rapping the lyrics to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Dead Wrong,” which are strikingly violent but especially so when instead of B.I.G’s catchy beat repeating a half-step up and down, it’s a ceremonial monophonic chorus holding down the foundation for phrases like “Jacked her then I asked her who’s the man, she said ‘B-I-G’ then I busted her in the E-Y-E.” The juxtaposition was harsh, almost shocking, each abusive phrase starkly on display.
At the midway point of the hour-and-twenty-minute performance, the chant runs higher in volume until it reaches a steady buzz, the lights drop, and when they come up again it is as if the dancers cast a time loop spell. Every movement (with small exceptions, including some new color on flag canvases that dancers snap and throw) is the same, but the soundtrack might as well be from another universe. Instead of anonymous chants from from the 9th century, it’s electronic, power noise work like Scott Sturgis’ “Coma,” heavy, angry metal like Rage Against the Machine’s “Bullet in the Head” and “Mirage,” an Arabic trap mix from Biz. This time, when dancers rap “Dead Wrong,” B.I.G.’s real beats are pulsing around the vulnerable line of dancers.
But in the jarring chasm separating power noise from Gregorian chants, there appears Olafur Arnalds’ “The Wait,” a slow exploration of string instruments in sweet harmony that, settled between these two opposing realms, will make you weep.
The difference of sound–and the radical emotion elicited by the shift–underlines how repetition of movement is never really a duplicate, but rather a recitation of thought and a profound statement about the subtle fluctuations that govern everyday life. On arriving in the second half, the connection between dancers’ movements became salient–one body was never without a vibrating thread pulling it to another–and slowly, the realization emerges that has been true all along.