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Amidst the waves of tourists arriving in Israel this summer was one particularly diverse group, gathering, from around the globe, in Tel Aviv. They came from the United States, Canada, Mexico, England, Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Cameroon, Japan and Korea. Like some other foreign visitors, they were eager to experience an unfamiliar culture and learn a new language. But these weren't typical tourists and they weren't planning to study Hebrew. They are dancers. And they came to immerse themselves in Gaga.
Gaga is the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. Year-round Gaga classes - held at Tel Aviv's Suzanne Dellal Center and other locations throughout Israel - have attracted a devoted crowd of dancers and non-dancers alike. Meanwhile, dancers in other countries have sampled Gaga in popular master classes taught by Batsheva's members during international tours. But the two-week Gaga Intensive, which took place from July 19-31, provided a unique opportunity for both Israeli and foreign dancers to study Naharin's innovative approach and learn excerpts from his captivating choreography.
Armed with brightly colored water bottles and packets of information, the 120 workshop participants were bubbling with anticipation before their first class. Some had previous experience in Gaga and were hungry for more. But for many, this would be their introduction to a class that would likely bare little resemblance to their years of training.
For one thing, mirrors are banished from the Gaga studio and, for another, rather than giving combinations of movement, Gaga teachers dance alongside their students, offering vivid verbal instructions that are interpreted by each person. The emphasis is not on specific steps or positions but on sensation and availability for movement.
With an hour-and-a-half Gaga class each morning and a more experimental, two-hour long Gaga method class each afternoon, the workshop attendees soon picked up a new physical language. Words like "biba," "lena" and "tama" entered their vocabulary. They discovered how to float their bones inside their flesh and move quickly while maintaining a sense of plenty of time. Above all, they connected to a sense of pleasure and their passion to move - one of Naharin's most frequent instructions.
In between classes, the dancers put their newfound knowledge into practice while learning sections from Naharin's work. The quickening beats and intoxicating melody of an Arabic song wafted through the building as the participants practiced "Arab Line" from Virus; their agile bodies pierced the space in explosive improvisations, their clenched fists pounded the air and their sharp shouts reverberated throughout the studio. During Mamootot, the dancers motivated each motion from evocative images and performed the phrase-work with a clarifying efficiency. Then they broke this quiet calm in a section from MAX, streaking fiercely across the room with daring abandon.
At the end of these long, hot days, the dancers jammed in playful improvisation sessions which epitomized the workshop's atmosphere of exuberant exploration. Indeed, for many of the participants, these two weeks were a joyful, profound experience.
Recent Julliard graduate Sarah Goldstone remarked happily, "The curiosity for dance and for experiencing new ways of moving is back." Hannah Nieh, who also hails from New York, reflected, "My body has explored so much uncharted territory and knows that there's the potential for more." And Birgitte Lundtoft of Denmark laughed, "I actually feel that you get addicted to Gaga. After a day off, the body wants to do it again!" And with this year's workshop over, it's just a single trip around the sun till the dancers flock back to Israel for next summer's Gaga Intensive 2010.
For more information about Gaga visit gagapeople.com. And remember, you don't have to be a dancer to learn a new language.
The writer is a dance scholar who blogs at danceinisrael.com