Dancer in the Dark

Sharon Eyal’s ballet of dispossession

Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, Wet, 2022. Performance view, Kraftwerk, Berlin, 2022. L-E-V Dance Company. Photo: Nadine Fraczkowski.

“WE SHOULD HAVE BEEN DANCE CRITICS,” said one art critic to another as they cycled through Berlin, bodies juddering as if struck by a frying pan. We were on our way home from Kraftwerk, a power plant turned club turned performance venue where, on the invitation of Light Art Space, Sharon Eyal, an Israeli choreographer and long-time dancer for the renowned Batsheva Dance Company, recently presented a number of the works she has produced with Gai Behar for their company, L-E-V. Soul Chain, 2017, the piece we saw that night, was a thing of beauty, but the kind of beauty that is exposed like bone under flesh, or procured from below like groundwater. We were shocked.

I’ve always thought of ballet as the last stage of human sophistication. To push a body to its limit and beyond in the name of grace—surely that would be the final touch, the quivering apex of Man’s triumph over Nature. The great attraction of ballet is precisely its wild and unlikely causality between pain and elegance. This sinister undercurrent makes it feel close to death in the same way that cut flowers do, the same way that decadence cleaves to decay. Even modern ballet tends to maintain this tortured relationship to beauty, installing a sense of self-consciousness by placing ciseaux in scare-quotes and deconstructing pliés.

But Soul Chain was not that. Without surrendering any of its technical rigor, Eyal dispossesses ballet of ornament and disavows its staple moves, her dancers instead lowering into goofy split-squats, mimicking violent cramping seizures, and arching their backs like angry felines to techno beats and tango waltzes. Moving like animals, not because animals are magnificent and other, but because we are animals, too. Seventeen dancers, in every way extraordinary, seemed to express something elemental as they took off, birdlike, in unison. In such moments, our stomachs dropped. Like Giacometti’s attenuated figures, the human body in Eyal is distilled to a kind of raw extremity. I was left with the thought that if ballet could ordinarily be understood as against nature, Eyal’s version was somehow with it.

Joris-Karl Huysmans described his 1884 novel À rebours (Against Nature) as the portrait of a man “soaring upwards into dream, seeking refuge in illusions of extravagant fantasy, living alone, far from his century, among memories of more congenial times, of less base surrounding.” The notion of Huysmans’s protagonist being “far from his century” is of course laced with some irony, for what could be more typical of the late nineteenth century than this particular quality of aloofness? À rebours has become a bible of dandyism and camp, a fanciful and somewhat cynical retreat from the world. More recently, the art world has found itself living through a similarly decadent period. Consider the club kid escapism of Michele Rizzo, whose performance Reaching premiered at Berlin’s KW Institute in September, or an artist such as Anne Imhof: The opium pipes, oriental rugs, and peacock feathers of À rebours have been exchanged for Juuls, sweatpants, and a bouquet of roses on fire, but the effect—passionate dispassion—remains the same.

Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, OCD Love, 2015. Performance view, Kraftwerk, Berlin, 2022. L-E-V Dance Company. Photo: De-De Productions.

When I first saw Eyal’s Half Life at the Berlin Staatsballett, at the end of 2019, I thought she was portraying a similar kind of fashionable detachment. There, a battalion of dancers, madly balanced on pointe, tapped away in endless static repetition to a soundtrack of harsh techno. In the dim stage light, the mound of quivering bodies looked like a rock underwater. One dancer might break free for a while, but such attempts always proved futile, and the body would soon be pulled back into the mass. That night, my friend and I found Eyal in an empty hotel bar, skipping her own premier party. When she asked us what we thought, we said that we were still thinking about it, and so, it seemed, was she. What has since become clear to me is that Half Life was so much more than cool; it was chilling—frightening, even.

Eyal’s work abstains from modishness by emphasizing the irreparable ambivalence of being over belonging—no group membership is offered as compensation for the loss of idealism. If, in Half Life, that looked like disciplined, depressed passivity, OCD Love, another L-E-V production I recently caught at Kraftwerk, channeled a kind of manic expressionism. Integrated into the impossible pace of their writhing bodies and punctuated by loud groans—battle cries, signs of pleasure, or exhaustion—were profane gestures of desperation: two fingers drumming at the veins on the inside of the elbow like give me relief, or arms thrown into the air in an appeal to some hollow, rhetorical god. The subject of OCD Love was a highly particular type of frustration, one brimming with energy and wrenched from dancers, who, for that hour, were neither men nor women, or even people with lives, but just people, like those in the audience, held breathless. It was the feeling that something must be expressed, but that you don’t have the language to convey it, and the question that follows—a question to art—of whether it is possible, then, to witness that expression in someone or something else. OCD Love gives form to that failure and then answers: Yes.