Gaga about Naharin

The documentary ‘Mr. Gaga’ spotlights the life of Israel’s premier choreographer

The documentary ‘Mr. Gaga’ (photo credit: PR)
The documentary ‘Mr. Gaga’
(photo credit: PR)
People who aren’t dance mavens may know that the Batsheva Dance Company is one of the most acclaimed dance troupes in the world, and they may even have heard of Ohad Naharin, the charismatic artistic director and choreographer. But those who don’t know his work might not realize that a movie about a modern dance choreographer can be a lot of fun. Tomer Heymann’s documentary Mr. Gaga is an extremely accessible and entertaining film that brings Naharin’s work and life to the big screen. The movie, which takes its name from Gaga, the dance technique Naharin created (the name predates Lady Gaga’s fame), is visually stunning, with beautifully photographed clips from performances of most of Naharin’s well-known works, among them Ehad Mi Yodea, Tabula Rasa, Hole, Sadeh 21 and Last Work, which premiered earlier this year. It also features equally fascinating behind- the-scenes footage of Batsheva dancers rehearsing with Naharin. Mr. Gaga shows how Naharin, who was born on 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 premier dance companies.
His athletic grace as a dancer shines through even in grainy home movies from his childhood. He began choreographing simple routines in the army entertainment troupe. Being sent to the Golan Heights to entertain the shell- shocked troops in the Yom Kipper War was a pivotal experience for him, and he recalls “singing bad songs to traumatized soldiers,” which struck him as absurd. He moved to New York after his army service, where he was accepted into both the prestigious Juilliard School and the School of American Ballet, an amazing accomplishment for someone who had no formal training. He went on to dance for Martha Graham’s troupe and Maurice Bejart’s company but was not fulfilled in either of them, so he began choreographing for himself and a small group of dancers. The film includes rare clips of his early dance and choreographic careers. Naharin was offered the directorship of Batsheva in 1990. He returned to Israel, revamping the company and making dance popular and chic in a way it had never been in Israel. In New York in the 1970s, he met and fell in love with Mari Kajiwara, a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey Company. Kajiwara and Naharin married after a very brief courtship, and she left Alvin Ailey and began to dance for her husband’s fledgling company. When they moved to Israel, she had a hard time adjusting. In a very telling detail, he recalls, “She never set her watch to Israeli time.” Kajiwara died at 50 of cancer. Naharin is now married to and has a child with Eri Nakamura, a Batsheva dancer. A rather predictable scene shows how she feels torn between her roles as a dancer and a mother. Perhaps the movie’s most interesting section details how Naharin developed the Gaga technique to heal himself after a back injury. Creating Gaga “was my most meaningful experience using my create a language with words and movement.” 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.”
But as generous as Naharin is to non-dancers, many colleagues remember him as being excessively demanding. 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. Mr. Gaga focuses more on Naharin as a dynamic, sexy personality than on his work, which gives the film appeal to general audiences. A viewer who has never seen Naharin’s choreography on stage will get just a taste of his work here. Perhaps no clips, no matter how long, could reveal the cumulative power of some of his pieces; but had the dance sequences been longer, they would have given a fuller picture of his achievement.