Ohad Naharin’s “Venezuela” starts out mysteriously, but that’s not mysterious: Being enigmatic is his way. Dancers with their backs to the audience — already it’s a little perverse — inch ahead in tiny steps as their bodies lean quietly from side to side. A woman and then a man suddenly strike a pose: She raises an arm with a wilted wrist, her other hand on her waist, elbow out. His arm and leg strike out to the side. The music is a Gregorian chant.
In “Venezuela,” there are two sides to every move. The choreography is performed for 40 minutes and then repeated with different lighting (by Avi Yona Bueno, or Bambi), music (designed and edited by Maxim Waratt, Mr. Naharin’s pseudonym) and dancers. If that initial pose has a sculptural, spiritual air in the first half, it has a raunchier Bob Fosse dimension when it returns. Pow.
So what exactly has changed? Nothing and everything, as Mr. Naharin proves in this excellent and stringent piece. Showing the same dance back to back with different elements isn’t groundbreaking — Lucy Guerin did the same with her Bessie Award-winning “Two Lies” — but it’s powerful in “Venezuela.” This stark, nuanced work is both of its own world and a reflection of the greater one.
In the production,” at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House through Saturday, Mr. Naharin veers, to a certain extent, from the episodic track he usually takes; it’s subtle, but “Venezuela” has a more lucid flow. And while the work, performed by Batsheva Dance Company under the artistic direction of Gili Navot — Mr. Naharin, who stepped down from that post, is now the group’s house choreographer — is named after a specific place, the location onstage is more ambiguous. The world feels hard, and this is a hard, exacting work; we could be anywhere.
After the opening walk, the dancers pair up for brief tangos, break away for individual explosions of movement — harried leaps, contorted torsos, overstretched arms — and converge again for a group activity: skipping. While we hear it in the first half — quieter music amplifies the dancers’ pounding feet — in the second, even though the skipping is more agitated, the beat of their footsteps is drowned out by an electronic score. It’s creates a strange sensation and prompts an intriguing question: Is something more powerful when you hear it or when you can see it?
While the dancers wear Eri Nakamura’s black costumes in both sections, the first half of “Venezuela” is bright yet sedate and tinged with melancholy; using voices closer to a stage whisper than a shout, two dancers rap the lyrics to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Dead Wrong.”
But in the second half, which feels like the darker, late-night version, the recording is played over the loudspeakers. The dancers rap here too, more loudly, and again, join in at the same time to deliver a defiant message: “The weak or the strong, who got it goin’ on; You’re dead wrong.”
But even with the differences between the two halves, the emotional temperature is never totally clear-cut: There is a sense of spectacle in the spiritual first half, and peace within the storm of the second. In both, aren’t the dancers just trying to drown out the sounds of an anxious world? Mr. Naharin’s movement, in good times and in bad, is like a balm, but here he crystallizes it to make another point. Just as there is more than one way to grasp an issue, there is more than one way to see a dance. The notion of choice has its limits; believing in freedom is infinite.