Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Calling over a young female dancer choreographer Ohad Naharin asks her to give him her weight as she, back to him with his arms under hers, gives into gravity and drops to the floor in the knowledge he will catch her. Naharin asks her to repeat this exercise twice more but on the third time, to her surprise, he lets her fall to the floor. The scene from Israeli filmmakers Tomer and Barak Heymann’s award-winning documentary Mr. Gaga (2015) hints at the complex and contradictory nature of Naharin as a person and an artist; one whose strong beliefs ask himself and others to circumvent their internal safety nets for the sake of great art.
Mr. Gaga is an insightful, engaging and at times moving portrait of the Israeli dancer/choreographer exposing his flaws, his genius and humanizing his persona as one of world’s leading contemporary choreographers and dance practitioners.
Eight years in the making, Mr. Gaga traces Naharin’s artistic roots and sheds light on his dance career and personal life, using family films, rehearsal footage and unseen archive material along with clips from his dance works.
Born in 1952 on Kibbutz Mizra, the documentary begins with Naharin lamenting his family’s move from the Kibbutz when he was 5 ½ and professing his love for that time in his life. The documentary continues with Naharin’s mandatory military service in which without formal dance training, he is accepted into the Israeli army’s performance troupe as a dancer, singer and choreographer. Writer/director Tomer Heymann intercuts these scenes with archive military footage of Naharin performing, war footage and excerpts of Batsheva Dance Company performing Naharin’s 2003 dance work “Mamootot,” inspired by his experiences during 1973’s Yom Kippur War. Using mood music by Ishai Adar and voiceovers from Naharin such as his reflecting on “singing bad songs to traumatized soldiers” as his army friends were dying each day, Heymann creates a sense of drama, tension and a connection with Naharin as a man. It’s a formula Heymann uses effectively throughout the film.
After his army service in 1974, Naharin starts his formal dance training joining Batsheva at age 22. One of his dance teachers there Judith Brin Ingler describes the young Naharin as being like Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat, green eyed, aloof and with a unique way of moving. Then following a visit by Martha Graham to set a work on Batsheva (a company she helped foster in 1964), Naharin moved to New York to join the Graham Company. Says Naharin of the experience: “I came to New York full of hopes and fantasies. Dancing with Martha Graham did not fulfill those hopes and fantasies and after 10 months I had to leave.” Similarly, Naharin also describes in the film his disappointment in joining Maurice Bejart’s Ballet du XXe Siecle in Brussels, calling it “the worst year of his life” and saying “I learned about what I don’t want to do.”
In watching Mr. Gaga, parallels to Matthew Diamond’s 1998 award-winning documentary Paul Taylor Dancemaker begin to emerge both in the way the two films brilliantly reveal their subjects, and in the sometimes eerie similarities between Naharin and Taylor as individuals and artists. Both are tall, imposing dancers, both caught the eye of Graham and joined her company and both at times had tumultuous relationships with their dancers ─ Taylor playing mind games with his dancers and once firing the entire company, and Naharin, recounted by former dancers in the film, having stood in the wings during his New York company’s performances yelling to the dancers onstage that they were boring him and chewing out one of them for “performing” his work. Naharin even admitting to telling his dancers before they went onstage: “Don’t fuck with me my life depends on you.” Perhaps the most telling similarity is in how the two men in each of the respective documentaries, talk about lying to the press. In Dancemaker, Taylor tells of making up a tale about garbage picking an album by The Andrews Sisters as being his inspiration for his work “Company B” while Naharin in Mr. Gaga, tells of inventing a twin autistic brother and how he used dance to communicate with him as his reasoning for taking up dance.
While there may be similarities between the two films and men, Heymann’s film shows there are many more differences. Mr. Gaga touches on Naharin’s New York companies of the 1980s, his first professional choreographic work, a solo using empty pop bottles and a shopping cart entitled “Pas de Pepsi” (1980), his appointment as artistic director of Batsheva in 1990, and his developing his Gaga movement language after back surgery sidelined his performance career. Some of the most revealing and poignant scenes in the film however, involve his relationship with his first wife, former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater star Mari Kajiwara, there meeting, life together and her eventual death at age fifty in 2001 of cervical cancer. The film also briefly touches on his relationship with second wife, and current Batsheva company member, Eri Nakamura with which he has a child.
Throughout Mr. Gaga, Heymann pieces together Naharin’s philosophy on dance, dancers, Gaga, and life in general delivered via several Naharin voiceovers. One particularly timely passage in response to the title of his 2015 piece “Last Work” has Naharin speaking about Israeli society but could have easily been about how many artists feel nowadays in the United States. He says: “When I am asked why did I call my last creation ‘Last Work,’ one of the answers that I give is maybe it is my last work since we live in a country that is infested with racists, bullies, lots of ignorance, lots of abuse of power, fanatics… and it reflects on how people choose our government. This government puts in danger not just my work as a creator, it puts in danger the existence all of us here in this country that I love so much. Are we going to be here?”
Throughout the film we hear the phrase “piece of cake,” which Naharin uses as a mind over matter mantra in overcoming life’s obstacles for him and for others. In Mr. Gaga, we see very little about Naharin’s life and career was in fact a “piece of cake,” nonetheless unwrapping Naharin, the man and the artist, makes for great theater and one remarkable film.
Abramorama, East Village Entertainment, and Heymann Brothers Films present Mr. Gaga – A True Story of Love and Dance
North American Release Date: February 1, 2017
Run Time: 101:40 Minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Official Website: www.mrgagathefilm.com
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.