Film Review: Mr. Gaga

This weighty, masterfully crafted documentary investigates the life of acclaimed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company and inventor of Gaga, a groundbreaking, sensation-based approach to modern-dance training.
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A courageous documentary, Mr. Gaga examines the life of Ohad Naharin, inventor of Gaga. A thought-driven, yet animally physical, sensation-based approach to modern-dance training, Gaga is captivating contemporary-dance students worldwide and fuels the startlingly imaginative choreography Naharin creates for Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, of which he has been artistic director since 1990.

Masterfully crafted by filmmaker Tomer Heymann, the documentary is weighty, surprising, affecting, darkly humorous and marvelously informative, though not in a facts-and-figures fashion, but rather like a great novel shedding light on the big questions defining human existence. When one’s human subject defines his existence as a groundbreaking choreographer, those big questions become: Why does he create dances? How does he do so with such brilliance and originality? And where do his choreographic visions come from? Nobly, Heymann tackles these daunting inquiries head-on, exploiting the intrinsic relationships between the highly visual and kinetic qualities common to both cinema and dance. The result is a deeply gratifying filmic exploration of a dance-infused human life.

Attacking the thorny question of where Naharin’s choreographic ideas come from, Heymann repeatedly juxtaposes archival footage from Naharin’s personal life with stunning snippets of his choreography, so as to underline, with striking clarity, connections between Naharin’s off-stage experiences and the dances he creates. Born in Israel in 1952, and raised for the first five years of his life on a kibbutz, Naharin served in the Israeli army during the Yom Kippur War. In one of the film’s most shocking scenes, we hear him talking in voiceover of seeing blown-up dead bodies all over the ground as we watch grainy black-and-white newsreel footage showing just such bodies. Suddenly, Heymann cuts to a full-color shot of a stage floor littered with dancers contorted into grotesque body shapes. They’re performing a piece of Naharin’s choreography.

Its investigation of the elusive “Why does he dance?” question provides one of the documentary’s most disquieting surprises. I won’t give away the answer, but just say that it comes late in the 100-minute film and contributes to the decline in likeability that Naharin suffers as we learn more about his romantic relationships and hear of how brutally he was said to have treated his dancers. One dancer tells of how it was not uncommon for them to hear Naharin, in the wings, saying, “You’re boring me” when they were onstage performing his work. The superhero choreographer we worshipped, felt for and cheered on at the start becomes progressively more human as the documentary unfolds.

Heymann also takes the entire film to sort out that tricky question of how Naharin creates his unusually compelling physical language. The documentary is neatly bookended with footage of the same dancer executing the same frightening movement: a collapsing backward fall. At the opening, we see her in rehearsal attempting the move over and over again, her each trial generating sharp, negative criticism from Naharin. But the film closes with just one quick shot of her, onstage, performing the fall magnificently. The transformation of her movement—from a painful physical action into art—is wowing. We feel we should be able to figure out how it happened, considering how much we now know about Naharin. Wisely, Heymann gives us all the information we need, but also the freedom to add it up however we’d like.

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