By Deborah Friedes Galili
This article was originally published in Ohad Naharin 25 Years Catalogue.
As 10:00 nears, Batsheva Dance Company members weave through the courtyard of the Suzanne Dellal Centre and, ascending two flights of stairs, enter the light-filled Studio Varda. Depositing their bags along the periphery of the spacious room, they sprawl on the gray marley floor, casually unfurling limbs into languid stretches. Ohad Naharin fiddles with the sound system, and soft crackles and pops from the stereo gradually overtake the undercurrent of chatter from the dancers. They rise nimbly to their feet, and further flouting gravity, they float.
A quiet atmosphere of shared purpose pervades as Naharin strolls towards the center of the room, spurring the dancers to subtly rearrange their constellation around him. Listening attentively to their bodies, the dancers’ ears perk up as the low tones of Naharin’s resonant voice glide through the space. He, too, is immersed in a world of physical sensation, layers of bone, flesh, and skin transmitting messages as he moves with ease. Synthesizing keen observations of his company with information gathered from his own molecules, Naharin overlays a series of instructions.
So begins Batsheva’s daily ritual of morning class, a class notably different from the ballet regimen practiced when Naharin took the reins of the troupe in 1990. Yes, the dancers may still visit their plié, fold their supple legs into a passé, rise into relevé, and tilt forward into penché, one leg extended skyward in a vertical split. Yet the barres are nowhere to be seen, and the mirrors have long been banished from Batsheva’s studios. Gone is the linear order of exercises providing the framework of a traditional ballet class; the French terms that once guided every movement now serve a supporting role. There’s another language at play here: Gaga.
Naharin’s prodigious body of work comprises not only his celebrated choreography but also encompasses Gaga, his movement language. And besides serving as Batsheva’s training practice, Gaga’s influence has spread far beyond the 75-minute morning class to transform the company and Naharin’s repertory. Indeed, the catalog of Naharin’s choreographic works—and just as crucially, how these works are performed
There is no clear start date for Gaga’s development, no single revelatory instant of origin, no simple, straightforward narrative with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. There are, instead, many meaningful moments, and the story is still unfolding. One beginning, perhaps, was the implementation of the weekly “class of Ohad” in Batsheva’s training schedule during the 1990s. Another beginning can be traced to circa 1998, after a member of the company’s wardrobe team told Naharin of her desire to dance; in response, he led three years of bi-weekly morning classes for an expanding group of non-dancers that included Batsheva staff, friends, and family. Still more beginnings came in the early 2000s: the introduction of classes for the general public in 2001, Batsheva’s shift to train primarily in Naharin’s movement language around the start of the 2002-2003 season, the adoption of the name Gaga in 2003. Throughout, Gaga continued to grow. A vocabulary coined by Naharin—lena, biba, pika, ashi, tashi, oba, dolfi, tama, yoyo, magma—continues to evolve today. Other terms and images—quake, shake, groove, spaghetti in boiling water, snake of the spine, rope of the arms—flesh out the language.
The impetus for Naharin’s development of a movement language, at least in part, has been the choreographer’s need to communicate with dancers and aid them with their interpretation of his repertory. Gaga has become a shared dialect between Naharin and the Batsheva company, and daily class is an ongoing conversation among many interconnected parties: Naharin and his body, Naharin and the dancers, the dancers and their bodies, the dancers and their colleagues. All are engaged in an ongoing give-and-take that immeasurably enriches both their individual skill and their ability to function as an artistic unit. When rehearsal starts at 11:30, the dancers are primed physically and mentally. The research from class may continue to be explored inside the artistic process, and the tools that Naharin has given both today and throughout the dancers’ exposure to Gaga, while also highly applicable in other dance contexts and in everyday life, are utterly indispensable to the performance of the choreographer’s repertory.
Rather than focusing on the “what” of the movement—particular steps or shapes—Gaga often emphasizes the “how,” illuminating an array of qualities and options. Naharin’s language insists upon an awareness predicated on listening to the body and its interactions with the surroundings, and upon availability, an openness to—and nearly animal readiness for—a plethora of possibilities. On top of this foundation of sensitivity, Gaga builds the Batsheva dancers’ facility for gradations of size, speed, texture, and intensity. Limits are challenged, and physical extremes—from minute to enormous, slow motion to lightning fast, delicate to explosive, fluidly soft to densely thick—are explored. During class, the dancers map the spectrum between each nadir and zenith, and they learn to traverse the span from understatement to exaggeration in an instant.
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Twenty years into his tenure at the company, Naharin revived excerpts from Kyr (1990) and Z/na (1995) for the Batsheva Ensemble. Reflecting on the changes between the original works and the resulting Kyr/Zina (2010), he first explained that the earlier dances possessed a fervent, full-throttle feel, as if they had burst from a “raging pressure cooker.” Then noting the finely-tuned infusion of delicacy into the restaging, he offered an analogy drawn directly from Gaga: “The image I have [now] is of a very strong motor that works at 30%.” Indeed, steeped in Naharin’s movement language and wielding a well-stocked toolbox assembled by their artistic director in the intervening years, the young cast renewed the choreography with a skillful sense of nuance. The dancers’ masterful modulation magnified the explosive torrents of energy that they periodically unleashed and enhanced the work’s dynamic range.
The rejuvenating impact of Gaga on Naharin’s earlier choreographic gems should not be presumed nor downplayed. The differences in the training backgrounds of a dance’s original cast and that of a restaging’s performers often do not work in the choreography’s favor, and not all choreographers can apply an accumulation of insights so fruitfully when reviving their repertory (nor, for that matter, can all dancers successfully enact these insights). While Naharin’s acclaimed repertory may have aged well even without Gaga, it has doubtlessly aged better with it—and with the dancers’ presence refined by the choreographer’s movement language, the restagings hum with a vitality that reinforces their place in the present.
More significant still is Gaga’s impact on the pieces Naharin has created since his movement language took root as Batsheva’s daily practice in the early 2000s. Always known for luscious movement, Naharin’s new repertory even more prominently spotlighted the layered, supremely articulated physicality nurtured by his morning classes. Mamootot (2003) transported Naharin’s choreography into the studio and positioned the audience mere inches from the performers. Surrounded on all sides, the dancers’ richly multi-textured, three-dimensional movement was on full display, and spectators could drink in every finely detailed gesture. Three (2005) returned Naharin’s choreography to the proscenium stage, but it highlighted inventive, idiosyncratic movement no less. Reminiscing about Three’s creation several years later, Naharin noted, “this common language [Gaga] held the keys to the process.” In the clever compositional structures of MAX (2007), the dancers fluctuated between an often-percussive precision and a breathtaking abandon, slipping between forms and qualities with dexterity. And discussing Hora (2009) just before its premiere, Naharin revealed that he encouraged cast members to connect to their silliness, their ability to laugh at themselves, and their passion to move; while this lighthearted yet ardent attitude was invoked during the creative process for the piece, it has long been cultivated in Gaga classes.
Although observers sometimes confuse the two, Naharin’s choreography is not Gaga itself, and Gaga is not choreography. There is, however, a constant dialogue between these components of Naharin’s oeuvre, an exchange that at times wafts in nearly undetectable whispers and at others resounds clearly. The volume of this dialogue is amplified in Sadeh21 (2011) as the company’s women casually line up and groove across the stage. Uniting in simple repeated movements, they riff off of a clapping exercise sometimes featured in Gaga class. Gradually, the dancers progress from nonchalant marking to unbridled exuberance, and as their gestures grow larger—noiseless claps, tilting steps, arm circles, punches, loose-limbed kicks—they move faster and faster to maintain the rhythm. In the midst of great effort, they stay soft, let go, yield, and use far away engines.
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10:00 nears again. Upstairs in Studio Suzy, a former Batsheva dancer is exhorting the participants in a “Gaga/people” class to quicken their pace or enlarge their range of motion, and the energy swells as the entire group counts down throatily. Downstairs, company members wind their way into Studio Varda for the start of another workday. Naharin assumes his place in the center of the room, listens to his body, sees the dancers, and speaks,
“Sense the weight of your body parts . . . Feel the air on your skin, the touch of your clothes on your skin . . . Receive from afar . . . More available for ball movement in your joints . . . Let your bones float inside your flesh . . .”
He finds a new beginning.