Famed Choreographer Still Feels the Fear

Talking to: Ohad Naharin, choreographer, 59 years old. In a relationship, father of a 2-year-old daughter. Lives in Tel Aviv. Claims to fame: Artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company and creator of the Gaga dance movement. When: Thursday, 8 A.M. Where: In his living room.

Ayelett Shani: Tell me how you’re doing.

Ohad Naharin: The truth is, I thought it could be very interesting not to talk about me at all.

Ohad Naharin - Gili Eitan - April 12, 2012
Gili Eitan

Not talk about you at all?!?

Yes. Let’s not talk about me.

Not a chance. Why don’t you want to talk about yourself?

It’s uncomfortable, and it doesn’t interest me.

Ohad Naharin - Gili Eitan - April 12, 2012
Gili Eitan

We can’t run away from it.

I understand what you’re saying. [Author and scholar] Yoel Hoffmann once said, “When I’m asked what I mean in my work, I tell people: ‘I don’t really care whether you understand me; it’s more important to me that you love me.’ But for me it’s different.

You’ve stopped identifying with that. Why?

Because I want people to understand me; it’s less important to me that they love me. Understanding is critical to our ability to experience something in a meaningful way.

So your ambition is actually to be clear?

Yes. That may be my more meaningful ambition: to be clear, precise, lucid. Yes. That’s a very important part of what I invest in, both in my choreography and in my work with the dancers. Finding that clarity.

When did the need to be understood overcome the need to be loved?

When I began to enjoy loving so much.

Because of becoming a father?

It’s connected. No only that. My daughter, Noga, was the trigger for something inside me.

Maybe it’s related to your age. You’ll be 60 this year.

About 10 years ago I singled out the age of 60 as something that I aspire to reach with a sense of an increase in my happiness curve. I actually felt that. And it really happened.

How do you increase your happiness curve?

It’s a matter of moments. It’s a sequence of moments. And those moments simply came in larger amounts than before.

What makes you happy?

It makes me happy to stop talking about myself.

So I am being forced to lower the curve.

That won’t make me happy. You have to distinguish between relief and happiness. It’s interesting, I’ve just remembered: Half a year ago, I was sitting with several dancers and I told them that they had been accepted to the [Batsheva Dance] company. When I informed one of the female dancers of her acceptance − the only thing I sensed from her was relief, whereas another, male dancer, started to cry from happiness. I saw how significant the difference was between that man’s ability to experience moments of happiness, as compared to the young woman. Because actually, that moment was a missed opportunity; she wasn’t happy at all. This was the thing she most wanted to have happen to her, but she still wasn’t happy; she only smiled a smile of relief.

I can actually understand relief as happiness. Even great happiness.

Yes, but in relief I feel that there’s some reassurance about our fears, our ego trip. The path to happiness, one of the most wonderful keys to happiness − is to dance, really.

You’re saying that because you’ve never seen me dance.

Well, that’s it: I’m saying it because I don’t have to see you dance.

Yes, yes, people always say that to those who don’t know how to dance.

We say it to everyone, because it’s true. I don’t have to see you dance in order to know that dancing can make you happy.

I’m terrified at the very thought that you’ll see me dance. I once attended an ashtanga yoga class, and at the end the teacher said to me, “Someone who suffers from disabilities has to let me know before the lesson.” I explained that I’m not disabled. That’s how I move.

So she is really insensitive and unaware. Take, for example, a person who has never engaged in sports and an athlete who won a gold medal in the last Olympics. They will have a lot in common, physically, genetically, even in their abilities. One will run faster, but still both of them will run. One will jump higher, but both jump. So this common denominator is huge, among all of us. That’s the simple truth.

It’s interesting to talk about physicality. Do you feel your body is betraying you?

Betraying me − not at all. It’s getting worn out, of course. What I do with my body is that, with the little that remains, I manage to do more.

Explain.

Once I was able to do more push-ups, and I was able to lift more weight and perhaps I was able to run further without panting. Clearly the overall situation is on the decline. In terms of the more genuine thing, which relates to balance, longevity, flow − one of the more significant things about feelings is our ability to diagnose the blockage of the flow, the atrophied places. And this diagnosis enables improvement and streamlining, which makes it possible to obtain a lot of satisfaction and results with the little that remains.

That’s little?

It’s little, relative to what there was before. It’s always little. Previously it was also little. This awareness that we are weak is a very significant factor in our ability to improve. Because you usually improve on what is weak.

Do you feel you’re able to enjoy that too? Are you already in a place in life where you’re able to see weakness and still enjoy it?

Very much.

Interesting. Explain it to me.

If you’re motivated by ambition, for example, you make more use of strength. If you’re motivated by passion or love, you’re much more motivated by giving in. To live without passion, or to dance without passion, is like being dead.

Certain religions will claim that this is the aspiration: to sever yourself from passion, not to want things.

As far as I’m concerned, passion is wanting to live the moment − the opposite of ambition, the opposite of yearning for something that will happen. Passion to be here, now, with full sensitivity and awareness. To be available, in a big way.

The ability to simply be present? Is that how you understand passion?

That too. You don’t have to finish defining it.

In that case, I must speak to you about humor. It seems to me that engaging in dance comes at the expense of humor.

Are you familiar with my work? Not really, right? Because I think that the answer lies in the question itself.

What I’ve learned about things that are related to humor is that lightness is a virtue, that laughing at ourselves is a necessity. Are you able to laugh at yourself?

Guess.

I think you won’t like my guess.

Try.

Okay then. No.

What is laughing at yourself?

The ability to take a step back and to observe yourself ironically and critically. Not that I suspect you of being unable to do that. But maybe you don’t do it a lot?

A lot is relative. I think I do it much more than I used to.

Are you really capable of laughing at yourself?

I think so. I think that a person who laughs at himself is there all the time.My observation of life is an observation of the fact that I’m actually in a playground, and I’m trying to raise my daughter that way, too: to feel that everything is a game. What I’m trying to teach her is the rules of the various games. And the moment she knows the rules, she can enjoy things without endangering herself, without disturbance, without hurting herself − without hurting anyone else.

What do you most regret?

I think situations where I hurt someone. I regret them.

Of course.

Okay, so I have something to regret, because I hurt people.

And about yourself?

I regret that I promised and was unable to keep the promise. That’s why now I simply keep the promise, but without promising.

You come from a home involved in therapy and movement.

My sister is a therapist and a psychologist. My father is a psychologist who specialized in psychodrama; my mother [from whom he is divorced] is the one more involved in movement. She is a Feldenkreis [a way of retraining the body] teacher and was a choreographer and a dancer. My father was an actor in Habima and the Haifa Theater.

And what kind of a home did you grow up in? What tools did you receive?

Wonderful tools, really. First of all genetics. You see how perfect I am, don’t you?

Of course. It’s impossible to ignore that even for a second.

My mother is really full of brilliant moments, with her musical and coordinative abilities. And they are both full of love for art and creativity; very creative people. My father didn’t even read books to me, he only invented stories. And I think that that had a very strong influence on my joy in creating things.

Do you have a good relationship with your parents?

Yes, very good.

Would you like to talk about love a little?

Love? We’ve already spoken about love.

Not enough.

I love to dance. Hey, you rolled your eyes. Do you do that a lot?

Yes.

At work we have all kinds of things that I forbid the dancers to do, like rolling their eyes. And there are also words that I forbid my dancers to use.

That sounds very totalitarian.

No, no. No, because those are the rules of our game. It’s not, because totalitarian is − when someone acts that way, you hang him. We don’t hang anyone.

Sometimes a meaningful raising of an eyebrow can kill. So tell me about love.

I love riding a bike. Now I’m challenging you to roll your eyes.

And succeeding.

Maybe you’ll ask me about something specific and then maybe I’ll manage to satisfy you and you won’t roll your eyes.

All right. Is it easy to win your love?

Sometimes you don’t have to do anything for me to love something. I don’t think that I’ll love anyone who tries to win my love. The object of my love is not at all related to anyone’s effort to win that love.

On the contrary.

Exactly. But if you’re asking whether I fall in love easily, then I think I do.

Your wife is very pretty.

My fiancee.

Oh, you’re not married.

Not yet.

Do you plan to get married?

We’re talking about it. We’ve also spoken about it. I mean, we’ve also spoken about not getting married. So that could happen. I think that Ari, my partner, simply wants to wear the dress. And if we get married, that will be the main reason, I think.

To get married only for the dress? Really?

A dress. Another thing is you have to understand whether there’s anything practical about [marriage] that can help us with the authorities. And this desire also has a romantic aspect, you know, that can’t be ignored: a question of whether you want to let go and to let this romantic thing take over. Or of understanding that there are other very broad things that are related to the institution of marriage, and that you actually don’t want to enter into this institution, don’t want to be a part of it.

She’s much younger than you, isn’t she?

Yes.

By a lot?

Yes. We connect here. Now. Like, we’re in the present. So what’s the question. I’ll die long before her, that’s certain.

I feel that you’re in a period where you’ve become more accepting, and maybe you weren’t always in that place. When I read previous interviews with you, I didn’t get that impression.

That’s a totally correct diagnosis.

So have you gotten rid of your fears?

I don’t think I’ve gotten rid of my fear. I’m actually aware of the fear. Sometimes I enjoy being afraid. It’s less a matter of getting rid of the fear and more a matter of knowing that it’s all right to be afraid.