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How Israel's Most Influential Choreographer Created a New Language of Modern Dance

Ohad Narahin has been called the most influential and innovative choreographer alive today.

A documentary eight years in the making has been released—and with it, audiences get a glimpse into the extraordinary life of choreographer, Ohad Naharin in the film Mr. Gaga. With a reputation among the dance community as one of the most innovative and influential choreographers of our time, Naharin has been on the cutting edge his entire career. His choreography is brave, liberating, and always surprising—its detail speaks to a deep understanding of the human body.

Partly due to a serious back injury, Naharin had to learn to take care of his body and move within its pain. The movement language he developed is called Gaga, and it’s less of a technique than a constantly evolving attitude towards dance: Naharin explains that he’s never invented anything, only discovered these ways of moving.

After growing up in a kibbutz and serving in the Israeli army, Naharin began his dance training at Batsheva Dance Company (where he is now artistic director) in his twenties, very late in dance terms. When the great Martha Graham came to visit Batsheva, she singled him out and invited him to work with her in New York. It was clear from the start he was something new. He trained for a bit at both the School of American Ballet and Juilliard, dancing with Graham and later with Maurice Béjart. But he grew dissatisfied and ultimately left them to start his own company with a group of international dancers, including his wife, the Alvin Ailey star Mari Kajiwara who died very young. Leaving the entourage of such pedigree names was a bold and surprising move. But to him, it was much less dramatic than it seems: “I was just doing what I was doing,” he tells The Creators Project. “Following curiosity, the ability to not have a long term plan, and to feel that I’m doing something meaningful and recognize when I’m not.”

While the dancing may sometimes appear wild and unhinged, there is deep mindfulness to the way Naharin approaches and speaks about dance. To him, “research method and spontaneity live in the same room. You think about spontaneity as living in the moment, but living in the moment is never without remembering where you come from. And where you come from is your research.”

Practiced both by the highly professional dancers in his company and non-dancers in open classes, Gaga is intensely human and accessible to everyone. When performed on stage, it is characterized by supreme physicality, inventive form such as people falling off walls into darkness, and spontaneous collapses onto the floor, and almost maddening repetition. He says, “Gaga is not about losing control. It’s about finding freedom within better perspective.”

The director Tomer Heymann, met Naharin quite serendipitously when the former had just moved to Tel Aviv as a young man and was swept away by the power of Naharin’s art. Heymann’s lens into the life of Ohad Naharin creates a film about the tension between individuality and community, the relationship between life and art. Along with Heymann, we fall in love with the art first, then learn about the man behind it, but we always come back to that original powerful movement. Throughout the years, the two have grown close and Heymann sees Naharin’s attitude as an inspiration to young artists: “It’s very hard to be individual these days,” he muses, “we have this illusion of connection between all of us. We listen to the same music, we admire the same people, we see the same TV show, and then you think—no, I need to find my own language. It’s about courage.”

The film is ultimately explanatory, and those who claim to prefer not knowing the artist’s biography will be proved wrong. Naharin is so thoughtful about his work that getting a glimpse into his mind deepens our understanding of the dance. Though combining film and dance is treacherous—documentaries feed on drama, but dance is ultimately abstract. Heymann describes it as a “fight between the two mediums.” There is plenty of emotion and catharsis to go around in Mr. Gaga—and it also happens to be beautiful.

Mr. Gaga will be released Feb. 1. For tickets to see Batsheva Dance Company perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, click here. Find Gaga classes in your area here.

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