Israel's 'Mr. Gaga' Sparkles on the Silver Screen

After years of rejecting any documentation of his life or the dance troupe he directs, Ohad Naharin finally let the camera capture the complexity of the movement language he invented and of his unique art.

Heymann Brothers Films

The dancer stretches her body as though to infinity. Slowly, as in a meditative experience, the sole of her foot rises and extends until it is straight up in the air. “Nice,” confirms a baritone voice from afar. “Very nice.”

The dancer trembles, her back arched. When her body can’t contain the tension any longer, she falls down. “Let’s stop,” says the baritone. “Maya,” he says from the dark end of the hall to the illuminated dancer, "You have to create a rhythm to the fall. You move slowly just when you’re collapsing.”

Again the body trembles, the back arches, a thud on the hard floor echoes in the otherwise silent studio space. And he: “Too much control, did you sense that? Your hand was ready. You have to lose consciousness when you’re up – before you fall.”

The dancer stands up. “Lose it now.” Bang. She lies frozen on the floor, waiting in the exact position in which she fell. “Are you all right? You have to find a way to let go.” He stands up. “Instead of walking backward, simply let go.” He collapses like a rag doll.

She gets up again and falls.

“Almost.”

Gets up, falls.

“Are you nervous?”

“No.”

“So do it again.”

She does it again.

One can learn a lot of things from this dramatic opening scene of the new documentary film “Mr. Gaga.” Not only about rehearsals at the Batsheva Dance Company, based in Tel Aviv, or about the cold and distant way in which everything is run by the main protagonist of the film, the company’s artistic director Ohad Naharin. One can also learn from it about dedication to art and commitment, about stubbornness and precision and clear vision. One can ponder the relationship between Naharin and the dancer who falls again and again and again at his request until receiving the hoped-for approval. About his unquestioned status.

And if you consider this scene very carefully, it’s impossible not to sense something contained within it that is not actually documented: the look at Naharin that director Tomer Heymann gives us. For eight years Heymann followed Naharin until the film came into being, and yet it takes only one scene to explain why.

At the end of this week “Mr. Gaga,” Heymann’s film, will be shown in Israeli theaters; it will soon be aired on the Channel 8 cable station, too. Two weeks ago the movie was shown at the BFI Film Festival in London, this week it will be screened at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and at the end of the month it will open the Florence International Documentary Film Festival.

"Gaga" connotes the unique language of movement that Naharin invented, which is used by Batsheva as well as dance troupes and non-dancers around the world.

Alon Shpransky

Born of suffering

This was a film born of suffering: If the creation of a documentary usually takes an average of two years, this one took four times as long. According to the original agreement, Heymann was supposed to accompany the dancer-choreographer, who is today 63, for a year: He planned to follow the progress of one of the Batsheva productions and to create a kind of local version of “Fame” – but the plan changed very quickly. Afterward, it changed again and again. And, on occasion, Heymann was convinced that no film would come of it.

Naharin and Heymann have known each other for years. Heymann recalls that he was a soldier on leave when he went to see the production “Kir” (Wall) in 1990, and that it shook his world up. After starting to wait tables in Tel Aviv he was hypnotized by the sight of a couple, an Israeli man and a beautiful Japanese woman, both of then tall, slim and impressive, who would come to the restaurant every Saturday morning.

Only later, when he began walk around the premises in which the contemporary dance troupe rehearsed, camera in hand, did he realize that the man with a peacock-like demeanor was Naharin – that he was the one who created the performances that Heymann continued to attend faithfully. The person responsible for this art sparked the photographer's curiosity, but Naharin refused to allow him to film at Batsheva.

Heymann didn’t give up. He became friendly with the dancers, and would attend rehearsals and events featuring the company. Even after he had already begun to study cinema, in the 1990s, and filmed Batsheva at various opportunities, Heymann would be told by Naharin: “You realize that you can’t do anything with that.”

This attitude, the opposition to documentation, is one of Naharin's well-known traits. In the Batsheva archive, at least the part open to the public, there is no video footage documenting entire works by him and his troupe. In past interviews, he has described how he threw out hundreds of video cassettes that he himself filmed, so firm was his opposition to preserving a moment in an art whose power lies in its being a one-time experience.

But Heymann continued to accompany him, the two became friends and from the moment Naharin agreed to let the filmmaker produce a documentary about him, he opened everything to Heymann: the studio, the performances, and his homes in Tel Aviv and in Klil, a communal settlement in northern Israel. He gave the director his private archive, including cassettes and other film footage whose content he couldn’t even recall.

There was no censorship. Naharin’s only condition was that the dance selections included in the documentary would first be approved by him.

So why had he agreed to be stuck for so many years, adverse to such a project?

“I also ask myself that question and the answer goes back to Tomer,” Naharin says now. “I didn’t know him as a documentary filmmaker. He became a well-liked and familiar figure, non-threatening. Afterward, I realized that he makes films and when he came to me it was easier to open the door to him. Tomer is a very convincing man."

“And in my work too, when I create codes or rules, I like to break them. If there’s a good reason I break them," he continues. "I felt that I had a code: I don’t document my works, but maybe it would be interesting to break it? I’m not fanatic about anything I do and not about that either. So instead of throwing a batch of tapes into the garbage, I gave them to Tomer. I don’t have [the material] and it’s not in my hands. He has it and why not let him do whatever he wants. There’s a process here that could be considered part of life: It’s not always under control.”

But you actually have a serious thing about control.

“I am a control freak. The issue of documenting or not documenting stems from the fact that I’m such a control freak. By giving in to myself or to someone else and offer permission, I’m repairing something in myself.”

Of the creator and his art

The result – after long years of filming, editing, raising money online and elsewhere for additional filming and more editing, then setting aside the material and again reediting it – is a complex film about creativity. “Mr. Gaga” tries to get to the roots of the connection between the life of the creator and his art; between his own life story and his sources of inspiration; between Naharin’s childhood on Kibbutz Mizra and his language of movement; between what he saw while serving in an army entertainment troupe during the Yom Kippur War, and militaristic elements in his works.

The movie also deals with the way that all this cultural baggage influences the relationship with the audience and the not-necessarily-intellectual power of dance as art.

One of Heymann’s decisions was to dedicate the film to Naharin’s late wife, Mari Kajiwara. Naharin met Kajiwara – a marvelous Japanese dancer who died of cancer in 2001, at the age of 50 – in New York in the early 1980s. She was lead dancer in the renowned Alvin Ailey dance company, an outstanding ballerina; at the time he was an Israeli with poor English, great ambitions and a bad temper.

For quite a while, as he was taking his first steps as a choreographer, she supported the two of them. Slowly but surely, however, the balance between them changed. Kajiwara resigned from her job in order to dance alongside her partner in the contemporary ensemble he had started, but as his star rose hers faded. The cruelty of the dance world toward women as they age played a part in that.

When Naharin was appointed artistic director of Batsheva in 1990, the couple settled in Israel, but Kajiwara never became accustomed to, nor wanted to become accustomed to, life in Israel. Meanwhile, her partner became a big star.

Is it possible to decipher the personality of Naharin that lies behind his ability to create such extreme beauty? He has the ability to create worlds of lucidity, with rules of their own and such strong images that they become etched in one's memory. Such is the dancer who turns on her axis like a dancing doll in a jewelry box in “Furo”; the duet for a man and a woman, embodying bestiality and humanity, in “Anaphase”; the mass “suicide” in “Virus”; and the lyrical delicacy of “The Hole.”

The movie seems to try to peel away layers of a figure although there always seems to be yet another layer, sometimes one that contradicts those that precede it.

This is also an experience that is always present in a conversation with Naharin. He can talk about politics or present a lofty and intricate explanation about art, and immediately afterward confess with a smile – but with utter seriousness – that the main reason he is considering an offer to restage “Anaphase” is so that he can once again wear the red dress he wore in the original dance. This complexity is not usually reflected in his usual image: cold and distant, arrogant and solemn. It’s not that those traits don’t exist, but it seems that they are only one element of a whole with many facets and corners.