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‘Mr. Gaga’ Review: A Lyrical Portrait of Visionary Choreographer Ohad Naharin

The experimental Israeli choreographer counts Natalie Portman among his many disciples. "Gaga," the movement language he invented, explodes out of the screen in Tomer Heymann's film.

“Mr. Gaga”

Photo by Gadi Dagon

“If someone can hypnotize you with only a row, then that person is a genius,” says Israeli dancer Yossi Yungman, recalling wistfully the first time he saw an Ohad Naharin piece. By the end of “Mr. Gaga,” a new documentary about Naharin from Tomer Heymann, even the most dance-illiterate viewer would enthusiastically agree.

Naharin is best known as the inventor of “Gaga,” a movement language that emphasizes seeing and imagining over performing. Put your arms in front of you, and slowly roll your shoulders, giving no thought to how it looks. Now let your head drop from your neck any which way you want. Try to connect to your inner animal. Now you’re on your way to understanding “Gaga.”

Ohad Naharin grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. Through home video footage, we see that he was a gifted dancer from the outset. “The idea of physical pleasure from physical activity was totally a part of how I considered myself being alive,” says Naharin over fuzzy 8 mm footage of himself as a child. He then tells a story about a twin brother who was slow to develop, but opened up when their grandmother danced. After the grandmother died, Naharin began to dance for his brother.

Ohad Naharin

Photo by Gadi Dagon

Or so says the enigmatic visionary. Later in the film, he admits that he made up the moving story, even though he has told in countless interviews. “The point is, there is no clear answer,” he explains. “Making up a story for something that otherwise is a little bit elusive, to me, too: Why did I start to dance?”

Remembering how upset Naharin was when his family moved from the kibbutz, his father muses, in typical Israeli candor: “Life is full of tatters. Try to re-attach them, it doesn’t work.” When Naharin entered the army in the 70s, he assumed he’d be in a combat unit, but was assigned to the Army Entertainment Group instead. “It was an absurd theater; singing bad songs to traumatized soldiers,” he recalls.

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Cut to one of the many performances and rehearsals that make “Mr. Gaga” so beautiful. A few dancers are lying on the floor, each in a tattered heap, looking just like fallen soldiers. Another piece features a seated man spasmodically polishing a machine gun. Another has a line of men marching emphatically from the waist down, all high knees and stomping feet. But the arms are all over the place, specific in their fluidity, liberated within their lines; choreographed chaos.

One of the great pleasures of performance documentaries is watching an eccentric visionary dole out mystifying direction, which “Mr. Gaga” offers in spades. “I appreciate it when you hurt yourselves,” he tells a group, as they practice slapping their foreheads. “You just have to inflict yourself with that pain in order to make the sound.” Multiple times throughout the film he coaches dancers on how to drop to the ground, rag doll style. One dancer recalls leaving the stage after what he thought was a triumphant performance only to have Naharin tell him, “Never perform my work.” Another note: “I didn’t feel the palpitating heart.”

Nahrin’s specificity about the slapping sound is another unique aspect of Gaga. Naharin’s movement often features dancers pounding their chests or thighs, groaning, chanting, even praying. As the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, Torah stories and prayers often inspire Naharin’s work. (Gaga really began to flourish in 1990, when Naharin returned to Israel from New York, where he had studied at Juilliard and the School of American Ballet simultaneously, as well as danced with Martha Graham.)

Naharin became an even greater cultural icon in Israel in 1998 after a censorship scandal. Batsheva was set to perform at the state’s 50th Jubilee celebration, when President Benjamin Netanyahu, folding to pressure from religious groups, asked him to change the costumes to something less revealing. Naharin refused, and Batsheva did not perform. It was significant because, as Naharin says in the film, “This was the first time that we witnessed extreme religious censorship against culture in Israel.”

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Naharin’s marriage to former Alvin Ailey star Mari Kajiwara threads a personal story throughout the film. “She knew him better than he knew him,” observes one friend. Her death in 2001 of cervical cancer was naturally very difficult. “When someone close to you dies, you don’t say goodbye,” he says. “They leave you, but you don’t leave them.” The film ends on an uplifting note; Naharin re-married, to Batsheva company member Eri Nakamura. They have a daughter, who dances very freely.

The dancing alone is worth the price of admission, and Naharin is a dynamic if somewhat aloof subject. Comparisons to “Pina,” Wim Wenders’ tribute to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, are unfair but inevitable. That film broke the mold with an unconventional 3D format and dances choreographed specifically for it. Tomer Heymann’s film is much more traditional, though its subject is anything but.

Grade: B+

“Mr. Gaga” is now playing at Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. 

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