Powerful and intimidating are often used as descriptors for Ohad Naharin. A celebrated contemporary dancer and creator of the distinctive dance language called “Gaga”. In Tomer Heymann’s film, Mr. Gaga, we are introduced to Naharin while he is directing one of his dancers to fall more “freely”. He appears pensive, focused and maybe a bit demanding as he instructs her to not think so much about her movements. The dancer repeats the sequence a few times before she finally achieves what Naharin is looking for and when she finally does, Naharin’s approval is clear.
Mr. Gaga layers Naharin’s upbringing and evolution into a renowned choreographer with footage of his multi-layered performance pieces. He is a captivating individual who can easily holds one’s attention. He speaks calmly when giving his dancers constructive criticism, never seeming to raise his voice or lash out; often a stereotype thrust upon coveted choreographers. Interviews with former colleagues and students portray him as someone who could be extremely demanding but not in a way that was harmful. Rather, his demanding instruction is described as beneficial and necessary to the pieces Naharin was trying to create.
Although the film only shows small portions of Naharin’s vast body of work, it is clear that what makes his pieces so powerful is Naharin himself. He is explicit in his desire to help individuals, not just his dancers, move with passion and with understanding of their own body’s needs. While recovering from a back injury Naharin wanted to move beyond the boundaries of his injured state; the result of this experimentation was the creation of Gaga, a dance “language”, not a technique. After viewing his personal history and evolution as a dancer, it is unsurprising that Naharin created Gaga.
Although he came from a family of performers, Ohad did not become a dancer until his early 20s. Maybe because of his late entry into the dance world, his movements were unlike those of his contemporaries. While he was seen as an attractive and “macho” man, his dancing ability was both masculine and feminine. To Naharin, dancing is opposite of “macho” because movement in its purest form is above gender. Both his offstage and onstage presence made him attractive to influential choreographers such as Martha Graham who traveled to Israel to invite him to study under her in New York. Naharin admitted that the experience of studying with Graham was actually arduous because he felt he could not study movements in which he could not connect. It is this notion of “disconnection”, often found in traditional dance techniques, that appears to have propelled Naharin to develop a more improvisational and somatic style of movement. During his time with Batsheva Dance Company, Nahrin began to create and implement his unique Gaga movement style which is now the foundation of instruction at Batsheva and has become exceedingly sought after by both dancers and individuals.
While some viewers may be drawn to Heymann’s documentary to see vivid examples of Naharin’s eccentric, but impressive style of dance, and his remarkable body of work, the real draw is Naharin himself. To listen to him articulate his understanding, and connection, to dance and movement is both fascinating and oddly soothing, even for those of us who have limited understanding of the topic. Heymann’s finished product focuses exactly on what it should, Ohad Naharin.
Mr. Gaga opens March 31st.