Ohad Naharin is the 64-year-old dean of new Israeli dance. Charismatic, magnetic, imperious, and intense, he’s in demand as a choreographer by companies worldwide, and a film opening here this month, Tomer Heymann’s 2015 documentary Mr. Gaga, is likely to inflate that celebrity. A smash hit in Israel, where people return to see it several times, it interweaves archival film with contemporary material to masterfully portray one of the most vital dance artists of the past half-century.
Born on a kibbutz and raised by artist parents (his mother a choreographer, still alive at 90; his father an actor and psychologist), Naharin reveled in the communal lifestyle of his early childhood, observing the movements of animals and agriculture — a prelapsarian paradise he’d later incorporate into his work. He began his formal dance training only after leaving the army at the age of 22 (naturally, he’d been assigned to an entertainment unit). “I was the dancer in the family,” he declares in a voiceover accompanying a clip of his younger self in motion. “The idea of physical pleasure from physical activity was…how I conceived myself as being alive. Dance started, not as a career, [but as] something that I love, that turns me on.”
While training at the Graham-based Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, Naharin was spotted by Martha Graham, who invited him to New York to perform with her ensemble. He didn’t like it and quit to join Maurice Bejart’s Euro-pop ballet troupe. But he hated that, too, so he started making his own dances. In 1990, he was offered the directorship of Batsheva, then Israel’s primary modern troupe. (They perform at BAM at the beginning of February, concurrent with several screenings of the film around town.)
Mr. Gaga is titled after a major part of Naharin’s legacy, the movement language he developed to heal the disabling back and leg pain arising from his late start in technical dance. Gaga is a set of tools designed to open up the body and enable dancers to execute other techniques more powerfully, to access sensation, and, according to practitioners, to “feel like a light has been switched on inside of you.” Now the primary training method at Batsheva, it’s widely taught in Israel and by Naharin veterans in New York, at the Mark Morris and Peridance studios. Several of his original company dancers, like Reggie Wilson and Ani Udovicki, appear onscreen to fill us in on the demanding artist’s early efforts and thorny personality.
The climax of the film follows the 1998 political turning point of Naharin’s career. As part of Israel’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration in Jerusalem, the choreographer was asked to present a mega-version of his powerful Echad Mi Yodea, based on a cumulative Passover song, in which seated masculine figures in black suits gradually and rhythmically strip down to their underwear. A devout woman who’d viewed the dress rehearsal took issue with the performers’ naked legs and complained to then-president Ezer Weizman, who asked Naharin to cover his dancers. The company refused and dropped out of the ceremony; the resulting national uproar over religious censorship made Naharin a hero for standing up to repression. In the film, Heymann follows up the saga with a recent Naharin interview wherein the artist frets that, nearly twenty years later, the religious right in Israel may try to interfere again.
Heymann, a 46-year-old Israeli filmmaker whose passion for Naharin’s art goes back a quarter-century, has made many award-winning documentaries with social and political orientations. He conceived this film as a narrow one-year project, but it got away from him, growing from a personal exploration of the choreographer’s craft to a wider panorama. The film is better for it: On the whole, Mr. Gaga is extraordinarily thorough and compelling. Even better, it helps those unfamiliar with the company — or perhaps with dance itself — to get a handle on the essence and practices of creative process and performance.