Going Gaga over Naharin

Israeli director Tomer Heymann’s ‘Mr. Gaga’ is a rare glimpse into the creative world of the charismatic choreographer Ohad Naharin.

‘MR GAGA’ features fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of Batsheva dancers rehearsing with Ohad Naharin, taking class and just moving around. (photo credit: GADI DAGON)
‘MR GAGA’ features fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of Batsheva dancers rehearsing with Ohad Naharin, taking class and just moving around.
(photo credit: GADI DAGON)
"It was like a ritual. Ohad [Naharin] says, ‘Yes, you can come film,’ but the day of filming, I would get to the studio with my crew, and he would say: ‘No, it’s not the right time. It will disturb the creative process, it will mess up the rehearsal, not now.’ And he would throw me down the stairs – how do you say that in English?” asks Tomer Heymann, the director of the documentary Mr. Gaga, about Ohad Naharin, the choreographer and artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv.
While the charismatic Naharin, whom The New York Times called “one of the most important choreographers in the world,” did not literally toss the director out, “I would get upset and frustrated,” recalls Heymann. “And it would cost a lot of money.”
Most directors would have given up at some point during the eight years that it took to make Mr. Gaga. But Heymann, an accomplished documentary director who has made 17 movies, among them I Shot My Love, about his family and their relationship to his German boyfriend, and Paper Dolls, the story of a cabaret act of transvestite Filipino workers, believed, with an almost religious fervor, that somebody should make a movie about Naharin and that he should be that person. His producing partner and brother, Barak Heymann, agreed.
Heymann’s tenacity paid off. Mr. Gaga is currently playing throughout Israel, where it is drawing large crowds for a documentary. It was just shown at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the world, and last week, was the opening night film at Festival Dei Populi in Florence, the first Israeli documentary to open an international film festival.
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 Echad Mi Yodea, Tabula Rasa, Hole, Sadeh 21 and Last Work, as well as the fascinating behind-the-scenes footage that Heymann fought so hard to get.
Eventually, Heymann says, he insisted Naharin sit down and talk to him.
“Ohad said, ‘I want you to understand my objection to you. I never allow anyone to film.... One of the reasons I decided to be a choreographer and not an architect or an artist or any other kind of profession that interests me is that I love that dance vanishes, it’s fleeting, that’s the power and strength of dance. Once you see it, it’s no longer there.... Every performance, every evening is different, the dancers are different, everything flows differently. The minute you put it in a frame, it’s the same frame. It’s stuck.’ So we got into this argument about dance vs. cinema.”
The winner of the argument is the audience.
Once Naharin decided he was in, he cooperated fully.
“He let us into the ‘holy of holies,’ his studio, and we tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, to preserve the intimacy of the creative process,” says Heymann.
In addition to filming Naharin’s daily work, Heymann found treasures among the film clips Naharin gave him, clips that illuminated the choreographer’s life before he began running the Batsheva company in 1990.
“Ohad doesn’t talk about the past,” says Heymann. “But he was 39 when he took over Batsheva.”
The movie shows Naharin, who was born on a kibbutz, dancing around the yard as a child and a young man, and his athletic grace shines through even in grainy home movies. There are clips of the simple routines he choreographed in the army entertainment troupe, and glimpses of Naharin in the Golan Heights entertaining shellshocked troops during the Yom Kippur War, “singing bad songs to traumatized soldiers,” which was a pivotal experience for him.
He moved to New York after his army service, where he studied at the most prestigious dance schools in the world and was briefly a member of several companies, including those run by Martha Graham and Maurice Bejart. Feeling unfulfilled, he started his own company. 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, and died at 50 of cancer. Heymann, who was a fan of Batsheva, which, under Naharin’s direction became the hottest ticket in Tel Aviv, met the couple while he was working at the Orna and Ella cafe as a waiter, and immediately was intrigued by them.
Heymann dedicated the film to the memory of Kajiwara, saying, “She was such a meaningful part of the company.... He wasn’t a manager, he couldn’t communicate. She was the one who helped him get his message across.”
The duets Naharin and Kajiwara perform together in the film are especially moving.
“Ohad hadn’t seen Mari since she died. It was very hard, just the two of us there watching these clips.”
Naharin is now married to, and has a child with, Eri Nakamura, a Batsheva dancer, and part of the inspiration for the choreographer’s cooperation was his wish for his daughter to understand his background.
“He started to soften when his daughter was born. He wanted the film to be a gift for his daughter.”
The movie also spotlights another important innovation by Naharin, Gaga technique, which he developed originally to help him recover from a back injury.
“Gaga is a language that doesn’t come from an intellectual and theoretical place, it comes from the body,” says Heymann, who himself takes Gaga classes now. Naharin and his dancers give Gaga classes for non-dancers, including people with all kinds of physical problems, among them Parkinson’s Disease.
Now at work on a film about Knesset member and human-rights lawyer Dov Henin, which, like Mr. Gaga, will be co-produced by Channel 8, Heymann says, “There are many people who still haven’t heard of Ohad, who haven’t heard of Gaga. I want them to see this movie, I want to go every place with it.”