dancers dancing
Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, in a scene from "Mr. Gaga." (Photo/Gadi Dagon)

Documentary goes ‘Gaga’ over Israel’s modern dance marvel

Ohad Naharin is an enigma.

In the early part of the documentary “Mr. Gaga,” the famous Israeli choreographer says he was first drawn to dancing because his grandmother used to dance to try to draw his autistic twin brother out of his shell.

But near the film’s conclusion, Naharin confesses that he made it all up, saying it’s OK for artists to fabricate such stories in the media.

Yet earlier in the film, we saw home movies of the grandmother dancing, and of a 5-year-old Naharin dancing alone — though his autistic twin is never seen onscreen.

So what’s the truth?

Maybe a few more viewings of “Mr. Gaga” will help. The 100-minute film, which came out in 2015 but just opened in theatrical release in the United States last month, is playing limited engagements at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael starting Friday, March 10.

In Hebrew and English with English subtitles, the film tells the story of the revolutionizing choreographer and artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Among Naharin’s many claims to fame is his creation of a movement language and pedagogy called Gaga, which has defined the company and characterized contemporary Israeli dance.

The film suggests that Naharin was fueled by rage, that he was greatly affected by the carnage he saw in the Golan Heights while performing for Israeli Defense Forces troops during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

One thing is for sure: The 64-year-old has never been afraid to take risks.

When the Batsheva Dance Company was asked to perform at an Israeli Independence Day festival in 1998, Naharin created a piece in which dozens of dancers were to appear onstage in boxer shorts while singing the traditional Passover song “Echad Mi Yodea?” (Who Knows One?). Though it involved no nudity, the piece attracted the ire of Orthodox leaders, and the company opted not to perform rather than wear more “modest” outfits.

Naharin began dancing at age 22. As “Mr. Gaga” recounts, he was spotted by dance legend Martha Graham in Tel Aviv and was invited to join her company in New York. Soon he was attending classes at the School of American Ballet and Juilliard and gaining a level of success in America, but when he was offered a job in 1990 as the Batsheva company’s artistic director, he jumped at the opportunity to go home.

Most of the film focuses on Naharin’s strong work ethic and passion for what he does. Clips of Naharin directing his dancers are juxtaposed with onstage performances. In many sequences he appears to be a kind and gentle teacher, yet some of his former colleagues recall a taskmaster.

ohad naharin
Ohad Naharin

Naharin was in San Francisco less than a month ago for three sold-out performances of his “Last Work,” a piece he talks about in the film. In one part of “Last Work,” Batsheva dancers wrap themselves in duct tape, perhaps a reminder of the 1991 Gulf War when Israelis were instructed to use duct tape and plastic sheets to seal their homes in the event of a chemical weapons attack.

In the film, Naharin often speaks of the power of dance to heal, and he has had quite a lot from which to heal. He had to undergo back surgery because of dance-related injuries, and was devastated by the death of his wife, American dancer Mari Kajiwara, from cancer at age 50.

To that end, Naharin created Gaga, a form of dance and instruction intended to increase knowledge and self-awareness through the body. Gaga can, according to Naharin, increase stamina and agility. In open Gaga classes, dozens of students of all ages and sizes improvise movements together. Some are professional dancers, some are not. We see a young mom dance as she holds her baby. We see seniors smiling happily as their bodies are re-energized. We see another mom dance before her disabled child, doing for the child what his grandmother did — or didn’t — do for his autistic brother all those years ago.

“Mr. Gaga” paints a fascinating portrait of a man who dedicates his life to his craft. The film, directed by Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann, offers a great deal of insight into who Naharin is and how his work was impacted by the circumstances of his life. But at the same time, it doesn’t reveal too much.

Naharin bares his emotions when he dances and via the performance pieces that he creates, yet keeps his soul and his innermost thoughts to himself. The result is a film that may leave some viewers yearning for more. Perhaps there’s more to be found when seeing a dance company performing an entire Naharin piece.

“Mr. Gaga” opens Friday, March 10 at Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. In Hebrew and English with English subtitles (100 minutes, not rated)

David-Elijah Nahmod
David-Elijah Nahmod

David-Elijah Nahmod is an American/Israeli half-breed who has lived in New York City and Tel Aviv. Currently in San Francisco, his eclectic writing career includes LGBT and Jewish publications, and horror movie magazines.