MR. GAGA, documentary, not rated, in English and Hebrew with subtitles, The Screen, 4 chiles
In a rehearsal caught in the documentary Mr. Gaga, Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, asks a dancer to finish a phrase of movement by falling to the ground. She does so, and he interjects. “Maybe you need to create the reason for the fall.” She tries again. He interjects. “Way too much control.” She tries again. “Just let it happen. You’ve gone into your head too much.” Again she falls. “The softness of your flesh will protect you. Are you stressed?” The dancer answers, emphatically, “No.” “So do it again.”
Mr. Gaga is partially an artist biography recounting Naharin’s carefree childhood on a kibbutz, his time in the Israeli army, a dance career in New York, and his emergence, back in Israel, as one of the leading choreographers of his age. More important, however, are scenes in rehearsal, and the opportunities to listen to his direction. The sound of Naharin’s voice — deep, thoughtful, probing, is like that of a guru. To watch dancers investing repetitive, pedestrian movements with the kind of intensity that belies routine, tells more about the man behind the dance than any interviews.
The film does include talking heads, but these come with the bittersweet quality inherent in watching retired dancers recall their primes. The reality of dance as a youthful art form also adds power to scenes of Naharin, a father for the first time in his late fifties, dealing with his own toddler crying at rehearsal. Naharin is, after all, a normal, flawed human being, and the film, titled Mr. Gaga after the movement language he invented for his own use, is a document of his very human style of brilliance.
“I dance every day,” he says, “and I think everyone should.” Scenes in a huge conference room, late in the film, feature Naharin on a platform, surrounded by hundreds of “regular” people, all moving ecstatically. “I take physical pleasure from this activity,” he says. “Dancing is totally a part of how I feel alive. I like watching it. It turns me on.”
In 1998, at a gala celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of the founding of Israel, Naharin’s company was slated to present a section from his Minus 16, set to the Passover song “Echad Mi Yodea.” In the piece the dancers are seated on folding chairs dressed in black suits and begin to undress, throwing their clothes in the air. A conservative backlash prompted Naharin to cancel the performance. The events caused a national dialogue about artistic freedom versus religious dogma, and made Naharin a cultural hero.
Dance is a barely understood art form. Audiences may respond to artifice — the pointe shoes and tutus of ballet; they may enjoy being in the presence of beautiful bodies. But seeing the examples of Naharin’s work throughout
Mr. Gaga offers a hint of other possibilities — that movement can be more than effortless and perfect. Naharin is fond of saying to his dancers before a performance, “Don’t **** with me. My life depends on you.” His dance is human, difficult, cathartic, and emotional. Mr. Gaga is an opportunity to witness and taste this artist’s raw, physical need, and the brilliant way he has exploded this urge into movement. — Michael Wade Simpson
A choreographer prepares: Ohad Naharin, right