Mr. Gaga: A Moving Portrait
“This is a blessing for a dancer… to be part of a process that will change the world of dance.” – Ani Udovicki
The new documentary by Tomer Heymann about passionate, renowned choreographer Ohad Naharin shows a nuanced portrait of a dance director who has reshaped the modern landscape of the art. Following Naharin and his troupe for over six years, filmmaker Heymann gained access to many of Naharin’s most personal moments as well as the chance to interview many leading dancers and even Naharin’s former student, Natalie Portman. Dancers who have studied alongside and performed for Naharin sing his praises and express frustration at times, but all show deep respect for the craft he has brought to the form. For a documentary based on a key figure, Mr. Gaga satisfies: we see interviews with his father, footage from his childhood and early adulthood in Israel and, after he was hired by Martha Graham, in New York. Best of all we see moments of dance performance footage that highlight the formal and emotional elements that set Naharin’s work apart. The work of Batsheva has not been without controversy; the troop was censored by the Israeli government when their costumes did not meet religious conservatives’ standards. Naharin made the censorship public, and has spoken out about the “bullies” within his embattled country’s leadership. For a dance documentary, Mr. Gaga presents a look at the complexities of Jewish statehood via its arts culture in the new era.
In addition to Naharin’s striking, energetic, and boundary-less choreography, one of the most crucial parts of the film tells the story of the love between Ohad and Mari Kajiwara. When they met she was a leading dancer and assistant to Alvin Ailey. Naharin was an upstart in New York with barely any formal dance training. Their relationship and creative partnership brought them to Israel where, having both established strong reputations in New York, Naharin was invited to lead the famed Batsheva Dance Company and Kajiwara became a dancer and rehearsal director for the company. Much of this period is covered only briefly, but we see the depth, mutual respect and inspiration of their marriage. The film treats Kajiwara’s death in 2001 from cancer with grace and respect for this tragic loss. Mr. Gaga is unexpectedly moving on a personal level. Naharin, who has given Heymann extensive access to his life and his work, says of his wife’s passing, “To mourn a big loss and to dance… they don’t contradict. They live in the same space.” A celebratory dance of hundreds of people ensues, honoring the life and dancing of Mari Kajiwara with a massive dance party.
Naharin’s many influences include growing up on a kibbutz farm in Israel, having a twin brother who responded to dance and little else, and serving in the Israeli Army as a young man, all of which has resulted in an expansive repertoire of dance works. Unfortunately Heymann has difficulty editing these selections down to a few, and the film feels slow in the middle section. Standouts are sections from Sadeh 21 (2011), Naharin’s Virus (2002/ongoing), and Three (2005) that explore militarization, sensuality, and gender. Where Heymann succeeds is the seamless, fast-paced editing and musical tie-ins that effectively integrate the performance footage with interviews and rehearsal footage for much of the film. The effect is a close, somewhat enamored look at an artist rich with talent, ego, and so much creativity that he invented his own new dance language – the eponymous Gaga – that continues to define both Israeli and contemporary dance to this day.
Mr. Gaga plays March 15 – March 23 at the Northwest Film Forum.