Ohad Naharin: Movement of the People
Ohad Naharin is one of the most important choreographers in the world and the mastermind behind the Batsheva Dance Company. Writer Elianna Bar-El and photographer Robert Wyatt spend some time the renowned choreographer, sit in on a dress rehearsal, and discuss some of his foundational values: listening well, falling in love, and working hard.
Ohad Naharin admits he is “absolutely” self-conscious. For one of the world’s most exceptional dance choreographers, one would think being hyper aware of oneself has long gone out the window. But, dancing is, at its core, one of the most self-aware things there is. Sitting beside the 60-year old Israeli artistic director, he seems much more wallflower at the dance than anywhere near the stage ready to be announced as Prom King. “I rarely went out dancing. I am really bad in crowds,” he professes. “I have a phobia of a lot of people and I don’t try to fix it. I can dance at home. I always dance in the shower…I actually shower so that I can dance.”
It is this steady observance, quiet perception of the smallest details and thoroughly caring to acknowledge the most human aspects of daily moments that encapsulate his genius.
Since 1990 Naharin has been at the artistic helm of the Batsheva Dance Company’s successful troupe of 18 dancers. Originally founded in the 1960s by Martha Graham and the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, the company is Israel’s foremost voice in dance and holds court over the Suzanne Dellal Center’s manicured courtyard, tucked into a charming pocket of Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s very first neighborhood. In tandem, Naharin also guides the junior company Ensemble Batsheva, a two-year apprenticeship of 18 dancers. Both groups are a stunning mix of Israeli and international dancers, and attract auditions from all over the world. In Naharin’s 35-plus years of work, his well-respected choreography has been commissioned by the likes of the Opera National de Paris, Sydney Dance Company, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and he has received countless awards, including the “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” from the French government, and a Doctor of Honors in Dance from Juilliard among others, for his impressive achievements in dance.
“It used to be harder for me to do interviews. I was clear about how I felt about things but I didn’t know how to articulate them,” he explains. “I am handicapped a little bit with words, not just with interviews, but also with my dancers and with friends. It was something I had to learn. I learned a lot of it through the act of listening, practice and Gaga. It enabled me to develop awareness and take myself out of the picture.” For those who have yet to hear of Gaga, Naharin developed the movement language over the course of the last several years. There is no main concept of Gaga. It is made up of various small gestures, codes and rules, one of which, above all, is to “listen to your body before you tell it what to do.”
Accompanying this rule is that in Gaga, mirrors are not allowed in the rooms – for a very simple, equally imperative reason: “You need to be aware of your relationship with the world, with the elements,” Naharin stresses. “If you are watching yourself, you aren’t looking at what is going on. You need to sense the idea of listening to a scope of sensations, to find your places of atrophy, your explosive power, texture, form, speed, dynamics, overstatements, understatements. All of these things connect to the act of listening, to identifying the availability of them and the existence of them – the flow of energy in your body, the weight of your body parts and gravity. These are things that are fundamental for us as humans and as animals and as artists.” As in dance and life, we are trained to judge ourselves. Gaga enables people – dancers or not – to become more in tune and more confident in their abilities. There are no comparisons being made, as everyone in the room is a reflection of one another.
Naharin recounts how he has been “listening” since he was five years old. Ever curious about sensations, forms, things that move and things that don’t move, but have shape, he started to dance at a very young age, growing up on Kibbutz Mizra in northern Israel, where his mother taught dance.
“Throughout my life I was confronted with different dance methods, and then I got injured and all of these things really initiated my research,” he continues about Gaga. “My own experiences and body, as well as my friends, colleagues and dancers that I work with became my laboratory. So I started to teach because I needed a language by which to talk to dancers and to help them interpret movements. Progressively, I developed, and continuously develop, Gaga.” The name, by the way, popped up years before that other well-known pop star, originating from an Israeli children’s game Naharin used to play in his childhood. The eldest of three kids, and the father to his 6-year-old daughter, Noga, with a former Batsheva dancer, he believes parenting has significantly altered his perspective on dance and life.
“It is still something so huge that is happening. I think that it helped me to establish how the act of loving is so much bigger then the act of being loved. I feel it already with my dancers a lot, but it is so clear with Noga,” he says. “I fall in love really easily with my dancers. They are generous, beautiful, creative, funny, sexy, and they are my colleagues. The relationship I have with them is the most intimate relationship I have with people. Even though I never see them outside of our work, we, together are very open, vulnerable, dependent and needy – all of this – but still it is all in the framework of ‘dancers and choreographer.’ We share a philosophy about why we dance, how we want to dance, why we want to be together, and we appreciate each other because it lends so much to why we live and how we can survive in this already difficult act of ‘living’.”
It is undoubetdly this collaborative reciprocation and mutual energy that pervades Naharin’s choreography and his celebrated works. With a solid repertoire of dances, Naharin maintains that he never goes more than one and a half to two years between creating new works and, much more than that, he never considers his past works entirely finished. Last Work [Batsheva’s most recent work], Max, Deca Dance, Sadeh 21, The Hole, are all pieces that are still in progress. “The premiere date is just the birth. I am constantly still working on them because it is so much about working with the dancers and helping them interpret the work through new tools and defining changes and development,” he says. “The tool may not be new, but the angle of approach can always be. I know that I am never done with a piece, but there is a deadline. I always show an unfinished product because all of my work will always remain unfinished in that way. There is a lot of daydreaming about what I will do next.”
Where that “next” happens to be is a constant variable. Right now there is fluttering talk of moving Batsheva’s homebase from the moneyed and established Suzanne Dellal Center (the company’s home since its inception) to a newly burgeoning arts complex in south Tel Aviv’s gritty industrial district. Although he counts Tel Aviv as home without pause, he is sure that he will leave Batsheva at some point in the future. “If I decide to leave Batsheva it’s probably because I don’t want to do what I am doing anymore. In the scope of possibilities, I can see myself making music and I love to be in nature. But I will always dance and the development of Gaga is something I will do until I die. I don’t need Batsheva to develop that. I need and will leave at some time and I want to leave before someone tells me to leave.”
In the meantime, his raw, human interactions on stage are what leave audiences and critics alike breathless. The otherworldy pairing of Naharin’s unconventional techniques and the collaborative aspects between choreographer and dancer enable a version of self-expression that is rarely tapped.
“I feel that I create the work with them. They are not my tools, they are my colleagues. They really affect me and influence me. They can show me things I couldn’t even imagine exist,” he explains thoughtfully. “By interpreting my ideas and my movements, they are very meaningful. The act of composition is something that I love, the act of making movement is something that I love, but at the same time, I like to discover in other people their creativity and ideas, so it is more like I create a playground. I make the codes and the rules of the playground, but often times, they can show me how to play.”
This sense of play finds its truest form in Gaga. The verbal, hyper-real visual cues have an emotional effect, leaving people with a profound connection that propels them to move in a certain way. Through Gaga, one is able to interpret and translate words in movement – more importantly – precise movement. It’s no wonder that Batsheva dancers’ talents are only heightened by such on-point, accuracy. They have words to move them – literally and figuratively.
“The thing is that we learn over the years that we can be very far from being perfect while still creating magnificent things. The idea of perfection is actually deadly and numbing,” Naharin explains. “I am interested in creating new sides, in helping my dancers to dance in a sublime way. Being conservative and conventional coexist with perfection. But far from being perfect, and even being handicapped, and producing magnificent moments, is much more interesting.”
Gaga’s influence goes far beyond working solely with dancers. As a teacher, Naharin pulls even a prolific non-dancer out of his comfort zone to gyrate, shuffle, shimmy and meditate on the humor, power and sexiness of language and dance. Gaga classes are held weekly in Tel Aviv by trained teachers and Batsheva dancers. The movement language classes have become so popular that ongoing classes take place U.S.-bound in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, and abroad in Japan, Switzerland and South Korea, while intensive seasonal sessions are held everywhere from Rhode Island and Vermont to Belgium and Poland. There are Gaga programs for people suffering from Parkinson’s, trauma victims, and many in wheelchairs.
“Sharing Gaga with people is one of my biggest passions,” Naharin says. “The wheelchair is not a factor. There is adaptation…commonalities between a professional dancer and someone who is in a wheelchair. We all have places of atrophy in our bodies; we all have blockages and movement habits that can be bettered with new ones. Someone in a wheelchair can still connect to gravity, to yielding, to developing the ability to laugh at oneself. You can still connect to the idea of collapse and horizontal movement and the flow of information in your body, dynamics, texture – they are all relatable.”
I joined a couple of Gaga classes in Tel Aviv to get a feel for what it is like. To preface this properly, I am not a dancer by any means. I’m relieved to walk without hurting myself most days. When I witness the grace, flexibility and sheer ease with which dancers move, I am in awe. Sitting in the audience of a performance, I often ask myself how it’s possible for dancers to move so fluidly – the thrill of watching a mass of talent undulating in unison, not one toe off beat. Their lithe limbs in movements so calculated and the artistry of solo moments and seemingly effortless choreographed ensemble sets are beyond inspiring. But knowing that Gaga is really about letting loose and trying something new, I head to the backyard courtyard of Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center.
The morning class is held in a rooftop studio with wide open windows facing terra cotta roofs extending to the azure Mediterranean Sea. A breeze floats in as I look around the bright white, spacious room. A motley crew of ages and styles are sprawled about, some people laying flat on their backs in meditation. Others stretching. Most everyone barefoot, in loose-fitting garb free to move around in. The class was equally male as it was female. The female teacher stood up front, moving, out of nowhere, as if in her own world, and everyone started to mimic her movements. She instructed the class to watch her, listen to her verbal cues, and then create our own interpretations. I was filled with the curious need to gape at everyone around me: The 60-something hippie’s salt and pepper afro bouncing to the music in her head; the handsome, mustachioed hipster in striped tube socks drifting in and out; and the German tourist decked out in hyper-color 80s athletic ware incorporating aggressive, unexpected kickboxing moves into her mix. It seemed as though I were the only first-timer. I felt very self-conscious up front, closest to the teacher, and there was no security blanket of moving to the back; I had already staked my claim.
Little did I know that the class was very quickly going to be moving around in every which way and there was actually no “place” to be at all. I found solace in closing my eyes, and immediately understood why Ohad bans mirrors from his classes. I somewhat started to find my rhythm – what I can equate to a combination of Lilith Fair hands rolling upwards to the high-beamed ceiling coupled with my legs slowly lapping to the low, lyrical background music. The teacher was engaging and cute, telling us to have fun and play. All of a sudden the 40 plus people in the room erupted in spastic movements – running, jumping, free-falling like a class of kindergartners being released to the playground for recess.
“Make a seaweed spine!” she rang out in her sing-songy voice while turning her being into a jelly mold, consciously slipping to the floor. And then, just as quickly “You are bubblegum! Tight – having been chewed for a long time.” Each person in the class offered their interpretation up to the room in unison: one took to rolling on the ground, wound up like a firm ball and another transformed into a wad of goo, hands outstretched and then firmly wrapped around himself, frozen in place. The cues, like unexpected excerpts from short poems, hung in the air and wrapped our minds up in humorous, carefree thoughts to be acted out and then replaced by another freestanding moment of language and action. I left one hour later feeling exhilarated.
In Tel Aviv, Naharin himself periodically hosts Gaga classes and the turn-out is shocking. During a recent class, a distinctly Mediterranean evening air wafted in from the rafters of the massive studio with hundreds of people crowded in, an electric energy bonding complete strangers. Sitting on the sidelines, once again, I am struck by the diverse group of participants before me. Obvious dancers greet one another enthusiastically and spaz out about current goings on. I recognize some current Batsheva dancers in the hundred plus crowd. Older men and women. Spiritual-looking New Age types with a bit of the crazy eye. Beautiful, artsy minimalists clad in all black, no make-up and septum rings. Serious Gaga-goers with towels draped around their necks. It feels a bit like arriving at the mess hall of adult summer camp and not exactly knowing where to put your hands. Everyone is waiting for the guru to arrive, and once he does, the complete power he holds over the crowd is instantaneous. Most rational people wonder how cult leaders are able to entirely mesmerize their audience to the point of puddy. Or how Justin Beiber manages to make tween girls collapse with awe. Naharin has that affect when he moves. Each set of eyes in the room affix to his every step. And, astoundingly, with his mere presence, he is making eye contact with each and every person present.
He glides to the center of the room, instantly commanding a sense of place, and the room engulfs him in a mass of bodies, following his every motion. Yet his approach is a bit different than my first Gaga experience. He rouses triggers with his body, speaking less and coaxing his audience to follow his movements – sometimes frenetic, sometimes calm, always fluid.
“Control your arms as if your heart is coming out of them. Control them with your heart,” he growls in his deep voice, speaking in English with an articulate Hebrew accent. A mass of smiles ignite at the thought and everyone’s arms follow suit according to interpretation – some heavy, some languid, others animated and energetic. “Pretend you have cups of water in your hands and jiggle your body like the water needs to come out,” he instructs, all the while moving intently to his own directions, watching each participant and accepting their interpretations of his words. “Push through the water with all your limbs,” his voice rises and urges. The movement of the people is dynamic and all-encompassing. It is hard to digest what is more exciting: Naharin’s hypnotizing poise or the feeling of being in this crowd, entirely immersed in such magnetic energy. It’s the boggling feeling of being provoked to laugh and cry at the same time, so you involuntarily do both.
He coaxes the group to anticipate his movements. There is never a moment of not moving, and with that he reminds us to breathe. “Look to the stranger next to you and make eye contact as if he or she knows all your secrets…and be okay with it,” he soothes. Giggling, smiles, awkward moments and weird faces abound. There is more and more movement and like a dance performance culminating in a climactic moment, he has everyone freeze – instructing a minute’s worth of free dance – telling everyone to let out their silly. And just as the crescendo of house/trance/electronic music lifts he yells “Abaita!” (“home”, in Hebrew) and disappears as unsuspecting as when he arrived.
Recently walking home with my husband through Neve Tzedek’s dimly lit alleyways and charming low-level houses adorned with plants and blue-paned windowsills, we strolled our sleeping two-year old home and my husband said something that stuck. “You know, someone off-handedly told me the other day that he thinks being an adult, for the most part, is finding things to do and ways to live in our everyday life that are convenient and comfortable, whereas childhood, adolescence and even being in your twenties is all about spontaneity and not knowing what kind of moment can arise.” That got me thinking about dance, and Gaga in general. Perhaps the reason why this movement language is so relatable to so many people, despite having no dance background, is its unexpectedness. No matter how much we can choreograph our lives, Gaga’s free flowing hour of throwing ourselves into spontaneity is just that. I think back to the Naharin-led Gaga class and something he said in our interview: “The distance between excellent and mediocre is not far, but the difference between excellent and sublime is huge. But excellence, almost always, obeys the codes and rules that have already been created. Excellence answers to what we already know. To be sublime pushes and creates – and that is what invokes change.”