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Batsheva dancers: the familiar, with an Israeli flavor

The Batsheva Dance Company is from Israel and appears in the United States rarely, yet the repertory it brought to New York and Washington, where it performs until Christmas, will strike familiar chords to dancegoers here. That's because the Batsheva, like many moderndance troupes from abroad, finds an eclectic, internationally based repertory the most effective way of presenting an art form still new to its audience.

The familiarity of the Batsheva choreographers also reflects a special relationship between the dance worlds of Israel and the US. There has always been a steady exchange of artists, ranging from Martha Graham on down. The Batsheva's current repertory includes works by two Israelis who have made names for themselves here: Ohad Naharin, whose work will next be seen at New York's Dance Theater Workshop Jan. 19-21, and Ze'eva Cohen, who is a regular on the university touring circuit.

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For all the familiarity of the Batsheva roster, however, there is something distinctly Israeli about the repertory. Perhaps mirroring the political turmoil of the Middle East, several of the dances deal with upheaval -- except that it's explored on a psychological level.

Naharin's "Inostress" charts the disintegration of a community. It begins in a spirit of team play, when suddenly the teammates become strangers to one another. Alienation sets in; the old rules of the game have lost their charm. When the movements of the dancers, now segregated by sex, grow slightly bestial, you know that despair is upon them. The more disillusioned they become, the more literal their gestures. The final motif is of a man blowing about in the wind with his finger pointed to his temple.

The there's Siki Kol's dance. The title of this one tells all. "Turmoil" shows a woman trying to recapture equilibrium while beset by spectral figures who become increasingly hostile. Finally, she finds comfort in the arms of a man whose identity the choreographer cleverly shades with ambiguity. He could be Death.

Robert Cohan, artistic director of the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, which will visit the US next spring, is represented by a dance also depicting conflict. Ironically, "Common Prayer" is both the most martial and reconciliatory of the dances. An ancient, sagelike figure -- or so one intuits from the white chalky dust emanating from his body -- woos the warriors into laying down their arms.

Another irony of the dance is that even though Cohan is heavily influenced by the most psychologically oriented of choreographers, Martha Graham, "Common Prayer" is the least internal of the Batsheva repertory. The dancers stomp around for macho effect, which makes the dance less sincere than the others.

Sincerity is the chief virtue of the repertory, and of the dancers, too. Yet the piece that makes the strongest impression does it not through sincerity, but through its powers of imagination. Ze'eva Cohen's "Wilderness, Swamps, and Forest" is a nature piece with a difference. While paying due respect to the undulating, tranquil qualities of wilderness environments, the dancers keep jumping out of their mold to strike jaunty, angular poses. Cohen's dance has a twinkle in its eye, and that's what makes it good.

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