There are certainly great performers and choreographers in the world of dance, but Israel’s Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, manages to turn dance into an aggressive, inflammatory, provocative, political means of expression on a regular basis. But in the shadow of personal tragedy he also found a way to make it a means toward achieving a type of healing and joy, for himself and thousands of worshipers. Directed by Tomer Heymann, Mr. Gaga covers several decades in Naharin’s life in which he rose up through the dance world’s elite studios (including Juilliard and one where he was taught by Martha Graham) and ended up coming back to Israel to build up his own company.
Heymann followed Naharin for eight years, capturing hours of intense rehearsals (he is a cruel but fair instructor: “I just see arms flopping around,” he tells one performer) to groundbreaking final performances, some of which were the subject of international news stories regarding censorship and appropriate content. We learn about the inspirational relationship he had with his first wife (who passed away in 2001) and his rebirth through work and a new love in his second wife.
But this dark, brooding artist is perhaps best known for his “Gaga” style of improvisational dance where he gathers and guides dozens of professionals and amateurs in a room to move them through a therapeutic series of movement and expression designed to hit pleasure centers in the body. Although not expressly sexual, the undulating motion sure does make it appear like a sensual exercise, with the goal of feeling better, ridding the body of pain, and allowing joy to slip in. Watching it is thrilling, so I’m sure experiencing it is exhilarating.
If the final work were even approaching mediocre, it would be easy to dismiss Naharin as a self-absorbed artist, but director Heymann never allows the audience to forget that his subject is a certifiable genius and provocateur who pushes artistic boundaries as much as he does his dancers.
The film opens with Naharin pestering a dancer about the proper way to fall to the ground, as if collapsing from exhaustion. He makes the point that her fall looks as if she’s deliberately protecting her head, which, he argues, of course she wants to do, but she shouldn’t look like she’s doing it. At the end of Mr. Gaga, we see the same fall in the final dance, and it’s done perfectly, to the point where it looks painful. Sometimes the smartest person in the room knows what they’re talking about, and while you may grow frustrated with Naharin’s methods, both his results and the film about him are tremendous.
The film opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.