Saturday, December 17, 2016

February US opening for film on Gaga's Naharin

Choreographer Ohad Naharin
(photo: Gadi Dagon)

Mr. GagaTomer Heymann's 2015 documentary film, delves into the life and maverick work of Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Tel Aviv's Batsheva Dance Company. It will open in US theaters in February of next year.

Clips from an early film of young Naharin flipping and tumbling in the grass around his childhood home suggest the roots of his genius creation, Gaga dance. Son of a dancer, the youngster took obvious pleasure in physicality without fear or rules. The mature artist would come to offer students and dancers a pathway to the freedom he had always sought.

We see the contemporary Naharin in the studio urging dancers to "find a way to let go...just let it happen. The more you let go everywhere in your body at once, the softness of your flesh will protect you." Later, Heymann introduces archival footage of a callow-looking Naharin, serving in an army entertainment unit during the Yom Kippur War. We consider how being surrounded by danger and death might have influenced the intense, liberating aesthetic of Naharin's future work.

He began dance training late, at 22, he tells us as we glimpse clips of a sturdy young guy with confident presence and a sense of what was right or, more to the point, not right for him. Martha Graham was not. Maurice Béjart decidedly was not. At Juilliard, he got by, smartly imitating the technique he observed in ballet class. You clearly see his efforts did not go deep.

An injury led him to explore new strategies to heal his body and allow it more authentic expression. And it was something more, a connection to "feminine forces," as he describes them in the film, "delicacy and aggressiveness at once." Dance teacher Gina Buntz later speaks of Naharin's "Mediterranean spine...very womanly," and Heymann shows the dancer indeed working that glorious spine.

In one teaching moment, Naharin instructs a young man to dance "like you're going to save somebody's life and, if you don't, it's gone." In another scene, we watch a gorgeous, vigorous male duet as Naharin tells us, "Dance is the opposite of macho. Movement, in its purest source, is about gender." Regrettably, we do not hear more about this idea or really learn what makes Gaga work from the inside out. The movement often looks grotesque and mind-blowing. Heymann's sampling of it--lots of it--can make your heart race.

Filmmaker Tomer Heymann
(photo: Mari Laukkanen)

The filmmaker weaves in the story of Naharin's passionate life and partnership with his first wife, Mari Kajiwara, a beloved Alvin Ailey star who quit that company and followed him to Israel. He emphasizes that Kajiwara's grasp of Naharin's often elusive ideas and demanding methods was crucial to their effective transmission to dancers. Sadly, Kajiwara succumbed to cancer in Tel Aviv on Christmas 2001. The choreographer is now remarried and a father.

Celebrated worldwide, Naharin has not escaped controversy in his homeland. Ultra-religious parties took issue with the notion that his dancers, invited to perform in a gala celebration of Israel's 50th anniversary, would tear off their clothes to dance to a Passover Seder song in undershirts and shorts. Under pressure, the choreographer agreed to more modest costuming and then immediately resigned. When his dancers backed him up, refusing to perform at all, Naharin quickly resumed directorship of his company.

In a stunning moment in the film, he chides his nation as "a country infected by racism, hooliganism, widespread ignorance, abuse of power and fanaticism." He continues, "This influences the government we elect. This government has put at risk not only my work, but the actual survival of us all in this country, which I love so much.”

That's tough love, as his dancers would surely recognize it. As Heymann reveals, the choreographer thinks nothing of barking disapproval from the wings--and that's after reportedly sending performers onstage with this tender blessing:

Don't fuck with me. My life depends upon you.

Mr. Gaga (100 min./English/Hebrew) opens in US theaters on February 1, 2017. For further information on international theatrical release and festival screenings, click here.

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