Tomer Heymann’s documentary, Mr. Gaga, about Ohad Naharin, the choreographer who is the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, had its first screening on Tuesday at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
It will be shown again in a more festive premiere in Tel Aviv on Monday, which Naharin and his dancers will attend.
The film will be shown commercially at theaters throughout Israel in September.
Mr. Gaga, on which Heymann worked for eight years, is a rare glimpse into the creative world of the charismatic Naharin, who has been interviewed in the past but has never opened up like this before.
The movie, which takes its name from Gaga, the dance technique Naharin created (he developed it before Lady Gaga became famous), covers virtually every aspect of his personal and professional life. It is a visually stunning movie, with beautifully photographed footage from most of Naharin’s well-known works, among them Echad Mi Yodea, Tabula Rasa, Hole, Sadeh 21 and Last Work, which just premiered a few months ago. The performance footage alone makes this a must-see movie for dance lovers.
But it also features equally fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of Batsheva dancers rehearsing with Naharin, taking class and just moving around.
The movie explores how Naharin, a kid from a kibbutz, emerged as one of the leading contemporary dance choreographers of the late 20th/early 21st century, and how he turned Batsheva into one of the world’s premiere dance companies.
One fact that emerges clearly from the documentary is how compelling a dancer Naharin was, with an athletic grace as revolutionary in modern dance as Baryshnikov’s dynamism was in ballet.
He was encouraged to dance as a child and a young man by his family, and his talent shines through even in grainy home movies. An injury prevented him from serving in a combat unit in the army, but he was in an army entertainment troupe, where he began choreographing simple routines as well as dancing. Sent to the Golan Heights to entertain the shellshocked troops in the Yom Kipper War, “singing bad songs to traumatized soldiers” struck him as absurd and made a lasting impression.
Moving to New York after his army service, he auditioned for both Juilliard and the School of American Ballet, the New York City Ballet’s school, and was accepted by both, an incredible accomplishment for anyone, but even more so for someone who had had virtually no formal dance training.
Later, he danced for Martha Graham’s troupe and Maurice Bejart’s company, but was not fulfilled in either of them.
He began choreographing for himself and a small group of dancers, and the film includes some clips of these early dance pieces, even his first work, a comic throwaway called Pas de Pepsi, which is nevertheless impressive for Naharin’s theatrically effective work.
When a journalist asked the master ballet choreographer George Balanchine about his life, he replied, “It’s all in the programs,” and the same can be said for Naharin. In the burgeoning New York dance scene in the ‘70s he met and fell in love with Mari Kajiwara, a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey Company. Kajiwara and Naharin married after knowing each other just a few months, and she left Alvin Ailey and began to dance for her husband’s company. When Naharin was offered the directorship of Batsheva, an offer he couldn’t refuse, in 1990, she came with him, and both danced and staged his works for the company. She had a hard time fitting in in Israel – he recalls, “She never set her watch to Israeli time” – and died at 50 of cancer. He is now married to, and has a child with, Eri Nakamura, a Batsheva dancer.
Once he returned to Israel, Naharin revamped Batsheva and made dance popular and chic in a way it had never been before in Israel.
Perhaps the movie’s most interesting scenes detail how Naharin developed the Gaga technique to heal himself after a back injury. Creating Gaga “was my most meaningful experience using my body ... to create a language with words and movement,” he says.
Gaga uses and enhances people’s natural way of moving, and Naharin is almost religious about it, giving open classes for non-dancers and saying, “I want everyone in the world to do Gaga because Gaga makes people happy.”
As generous as he is to non-dancers, many colleagues recall him as excessively demanding, but say they learned from him. Scenes of him rehearsing his dancers are comically harrowing. In the opening moments of the film, he encourages a dancer to fall in a certain way, and keeps asking her to repeat the motion until we hear her head hit the floor – hard.
But he knows what he wants from his dancers, and they seem eager to help him realize his vision. “I don’t want people who obey me, I want people who agree with me,” he says.