by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal
On Sunday, January 29, 2017, The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia presented an exclusive screening of Mr. Gaga, a documentary by Tomer Heymann, which depicts the life of leading Israeli choreographer Ohad Nahrin. Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, has been hailed as one of the world’s preeminent contemporary choreographers, whose work has won international accolades and stands at the forefront of contemporary dance to this day.
Meeting him at a critical turning point in his personal life, the Heymann Brothers offer rare and insightful footage that introduces you to a man with great artistic integrity and an extraordinary vision. Filmed over a period of eight years, director Tomer Heymann mixes intimate rehearsal footage with an extensive unseen archive and breathtaking dance sequences as we discover how the language of modern dance is redefined under what has become known as GAGA.
Present at the screening was producer Barak Heymann, who in a brief post-talk explained that the seeds for this film were first planted when his brother Tomer saw Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Group on stage. Tomer is quoted as being overwhelmed by the experience, “My head and my heart experienced a giant upheaval, like a superb cocktail of alcohol and drugs, but without the alcohol and without the drugs. A continuum of movement, music, energy, sexuality, sensuality, and dancers you could fall in love with without knowing why. From that evening on, I became an obsessive consumer of Batsheva’s art of dance.”
Barak went on to explain that filming this very private, complex and often contradictory character was “a tough nut to crack”, often being asked to leave the studio after twenty minutes in to a rehearsal so as not to disturb the process. Naharin, according to Barack, often struggled with the concept of capturing his work on film as he viewed them as fleeting, intimate moments with the dancers and audiences in attendance. These moments were not meant to be preserved.
The film captures Naharin’s informative years as he grew up on a Kibbutz Mizra in Israel, which became a predominant influence for much of which propelled him in later life. His childhood play with movement frolicking on the kibbutz was not something that necessarily compelled him to pursue a career in dance but more importantly lay the groundwork for the dancer within him.
As the film progresses, we see Naharin serving in the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War in an entertainment unit as an injury kept him from combat assignment. Afterward, his mother urged him to continue dancing and so at the late age of 22 he began his professional training with Batsheva Dance Company in 1974.
During his first year with the Company, guest choreographer Martha Graham singled out Naharin for his talent and invited him to join her own company in New York. Naharin studied on a scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation at the School of American Ballet, The Juilliard School, and with Maggie Black and David Howard. He went on to perform one season with Israel’s Bat-Dor Dance Company and Maurice Bejarts Ballet du XXe Siecle in Brussels.
Naharin describes the experiences at Graham and Bat-Dor as being unfulfilling and with in short periods of time, he walked away from these prestigious companies to create work he found “more personally meaningful”. Naharin returned to New York in 1980, making his choreographic debut at the Kazuko Hirabayshi studio. From 1980 until 1990, Naharin presented his works in New York and abroad and was invited to create works for different companies, including Batsheva, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, and Nederlands Dans Theater.
While living in New York, he married Alvin Ailey dancer, Mari Kajiwara, who left her spotlight in Ailey’s troupe to participate fully in Naharin’s evolving body of work. Kajiwara wasn’t thrilled when Naharin accepted an offer in 1990 to take over Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Company, though she dutifully relocated with him and became its rehearsal director. Kajiwara continued to be a guiding and moderating force and translator for his works up to her death from cancer in 2001. The film gives a rare glimpse in to her influence and relationship with Naharin.
The film shows his arrival as director at Batsheva as being challenging at best. The then 25-year old company with an older and more conservative audience was not prepared for the more adventurous works Naharin presented. While not imminently clear from the film, a turning point occurred in which he was able to attract new patrons and greatly increase the institutions international stature. Naharin became a cultural icon to many Israelis when he refused to bow to pressure by the government over the costuming of the company for a performance for the nation’s 50th-anniversary gala celebrations. Naharin and the company refused to perform rather than accept the artistic compromise of more moderate costuming to appease some religious zealots in the Knesset.
While the film touched on the relationship between Naharin, Batsheva and the Israeli government, it did not explore further the delicate political balance between these three entities, the subject of which many articles have been written since the 50th gala.
The film progresses with riveting footage of rehearsals and the creation of new pieces, intertwined with clips of actual performances. Throughout this we see Naharin as a task master, who could be harsh, demanding complete emotional and physical commitment to his work and to the movement. Dancers spoke of being yelled at by Nahrin from the wings during actual performances if they were not interpreting his work correctly.
At one point, we are given a glimpse of Nahrin’s conflicted self in the studio with his second dancer-wife, Eri Nakamura and their child. While somewhat out of place in the films sequence, we see the dedication to his work over child and family as Nakamura stomps out of the studio. This is somewhat tempered in the film by footage of him at play/dance with his child.
Because the Heymann Brothers’ access was limited at times, we are left with only rare glimpses of the actual process that define this choreographer’s brilliance. It is in fact probably the best we are ever going to get, but I am still left with wanting more. The film concludes with a four-minute clip of his works and even open classes exploring Gaga movement. I could not help but be slightly disappointed that there was not greater exploration of this new vocabulary (GAGA), Naharin created for contemporary dance, an exploration of sensation and availability for movement for all, regardless of age, size, dancer or non-dancer. It is now the primary training method for Batsheva’s dancers, where Naharin continues to be the artistic director.
The Heymann Brothers’ dedication and persistence in capturing Naharin’s story is nothing short of miraculous. Their use of archival footage in its original format, mixed with full screen cuts to performances and rehearsals, draws the audience in and creates a feeling of intimacy with its challenging yet brilliant subject. Just as Tomer Heymann watched Naharin’s choreography “30 times in 30 days”, finding it trans-formative, one could easily see this movie over and over again when it becomes released in February throughout the United States.
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