Twenty years can be an eternity in the arts, yet around that period during the eighties, the Bolshoi Ballet’s arrival at Birmingham Hippodrome provoked a great deal of resentment from political activists who staged human rights protests.
History has a habit of repeating itself and earlier this week the banners were out once more as pro-Israel and anti-Israel groups clashed once again, accusing Batsheva Dance of being complicit in “legitimising apartheid in Palestine’’ and taking part in “the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians”.
But the audience that flocked into the theatre in droves had come to see contemporary dance from one of the world’s great companies, not a display of political rhetoric, and so, when activists stood up and shouted abuse at the company, the general feeling from the ticket-buying public was outrage.
They in turn shouted “get out!” to the pro-Palestinian supporters while the dancers, forced to suspend their dancing, watched silently. With calm eventually restored the audience resumed its apparent delight in the wonderful, hypnotic movement unfolding on stage which never failed to engage both the heart and the imagination.
Lithe of body and expressive of face, these young Israeli men and women, most of whom were not much above 20 years old, were fantastic as they suggested elements of sadness and loss ( so much a part of Jewish history) which communicated perfectly with the audience. In a marvellous way, their well-honed sense of a kind of danced metaphor evoked all kinds of mental pictures.
At one point there was an element of the hieroglypic sculptures you find in the tombs of the ancient Egyptian warrior kings, but these formal gestures segued into a marvellous area, where athletic men in cotton wraparounds daubed paint on their bodies as a symbol of tribal unity. When a dancer washed off the paint and rebelled, consolidation was immediately threatened and the rebel exchanged love for menace.
Perhaps the most marvellous moment came in part two. The soundtrack gave us a fast tempo disco version of Garland’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow, ( with its poignant, totally valid line “there’s a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby”).
Suddenly the dancers, genderless in formal suits and black trilbys, came into the audience looking for partners. As the stage filled with all kinds of creeds, colours and races, dancing to a sinuous cha-cha-cha, Batsheva Dance seemed to be saying we can resolve things by just getting it on together.
Under difficult circumstances, it was a gesture of peace, dispelling, at least for this reviewer, earlier tensions.