Any Australian with more than a passing interest in contemporary dance must have seen Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company. It could have been at Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide Festival in 1996 – my first acquaintance with Batsheva – or David Sefton’s Adelaide Festival of 2014. Possibly Melbourne’s festival in 2000 or 2015, or Jonathan Holloway’s final Perth festival in 2014, Batsheva’s 50th anniversary year. Or you could have seen Naharin’s unique approach to dance at the Sydney Festival in 2007. Local festival directors can’t get enough of the man.
Dancers will be aware that STRUT Dance, the Perth-based national choreographic development centre, is towards the end of a three-year partnership with Naharin to present a series of workshops (one of which I was fortunate enough to see). They culminate in September with a performance of Naharin’s Decadance in the State Theatre Centre of WA’s Heath Ledger Theatre as part of the MOVEME Festival.
All of which suggests there should be a dedicated national audience for Mr Gaga, a very fine documentary that follows Naharin’s career in dance and the power of his movement language – his philosophy – Gaga. (The name is meaningless; the results are magnetic.) The documentary, directed by Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann, has already been seen at a number of Australian film festivals and at a handful of cinemas around the country with others to come. It’s worth seeking out.
Gaga is a deeply sensual form of dance, although not in the dreamily erotic way the word usually implies. It can look awkward or silly; it frequently has a brutal energy that’s as challenging as it is exhilarating; and it can be frankly, overtly sexual. Naharin wants dancers to be fully and intimately in touch with all their senses – to make, as he said in a 2013 interview for Adelaide’s The Advertiser, “a connection to the explosive power within”. He wants dancers not to tell their bodies what to do, but to listen to the body’s impulses and emotions and respond to them. The dancers look immensely individual, strong, free, powerful, juicy and fiercely alert and engaged.
It’s telling that when talking about his active youth, Naharin says he was “a lot more connected to the animal I am”.
When you understand that, you can see why Naharin bans mirrors. Watching oneself means an inevitable concentration on the outside – on form – and on making judgments that can distance the dancer from the dance. The training is exacting and can be confronting. Heymann dives right in, opening Mr Gaga with a snippet of rehearsal in which a woman falls to the floor again and again, but not truthfully enough for Naharin. He can see her “protecting her head”. “Are you stressed?” he asks the dancer. “No.” “So do it again.” It is an astute introduction to the man and the subject.
Naharin started dance training at the very late age of 22 although early family film footage shows he was exceptionally active and a terrific mover. He lived in a kibbutz until the age of five, when he was “torn away”, as his father acknowledges, from a communal life he loved. As all young Israelis must do he completed several years of national service, during which he saw violence, experienced the deaths of young friends and, as a performer, sang “bad songs to traumatised soldiers”. These experiences inevitably colour his work, which is plentifully illustrated by Heymann with clips from pieces including Anaphase, Tabula Rasa, Decadance, Sadeh21, Mamootot, Mabul and Naharin’s most recent production, the mysteriously titled (and politically charged) Last Work, which premiered in June last year and was seen in October at Josephine Ridge’s final Melbourne Festival.
Naharin took classes with Batsheva Dance Company at the urging of his mother after leaving the army. Batsheva had been founded in 1964 by Baronnes Batsheva de Rothschild and American contemporary dance legend Martha Graham; when Graham returned to Tel Aviv to make a work she took a shine to Naharin and he quickly found himself in New York dancing with her company. Almost just as quickly he moved on, disappointed. He took classical classes, then danced for a time with Maurice Béjart’s company (“the worst year of my life”).
Eventually he wanted to go home. He was asked to take over the artistic directorship of Batsheva in 1990 and turned it into one of the most admired, influential and sought-after contemporary dance companies in the world.
It took Heymann many years to persuade Naharin to participate in the film and it would appear funding wasn’t particularly easy to get as a Kickstarter fund was needed to get the project to completion. Perhaps the hunt for money is the reason Heymann had to include a brief interview with actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Israel. The little sprinkling of star-power feels like a sop to a funding body and is an out-of-kilter touch.
But that is a tiny irritant in an otherwise absorbing attempt to pin down an elusive man. The viewer gets only a partial understanding of the choreographer, although there are telling clues in snippets of personal footage and from Naharin’s fascinating admission about what initially seems a potent reason for his decision to become a dancer. The obviously crucial partnership with Naharin’s wife Mari Kajiwara is handled delicately, as is a later relationship.
Mr Gaga is a beautifully constructed film that wisely doesn’t feel it has to explain everything about its enigmatic subject but does reveal his creative, sometimes controversial, genius in absorbing detail.
Mr Gaga is screening daily at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova; at Adelaide’s Trak Cinema from July 28; and can be seen at a special screening at Sydney’s Roseville Cinemas on July 31, introduced by Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela.