He’s easily one of the world’s top choreographers, but his nickname makes him sound like a birthday party clown or the fiancé of a certain over-the-top pop star.
“Mr. Gaga” is the title of a kinetic new documentary about Israeli dancemaker Ohad Naharin, the man who developed a unique style of movement and called it “gaga” long before there was a lady in a meat dress at the MTV Awards.
Tomer Heymann’s wry, well-made film assumes that its viewers have at least a passing acquaintance with Naharin and Batsheva, the national dance troupe he elevated from a Tel Aviv novelty act to a global avant-garde juggernaut. There’s no mention of the many Naharin protégés who have graduated to lead their own companies, and no footage of Batsheva performing in fancy halls around the world. (The troupe nearly sold out Northrop auditorium in January.) Instead, Heymann focuses narrowly on Naharin’s life, his own dancing and his rehearsal halls.
“I was lucky that I started my formal dance training so late, at 22,” Naharin says in English, early in the film. His voice is deep, smooth and unapologetically sexy, which, he says, “keeps me more connected to the animal that I am.”
The underpinning of the film is made up of interviews with him. This is not one of those fly-on-the-wall, follow-around-a-choreographer dance documentaries that are otherwise en vogue, like “Reset” (Benjamin Millepied) or “Ballet 422” (Justin Peck).
Yet the tone is never self-aggrandizing. Naharin’s chronological life story, beginning with his 1952 birth on a kibbutz, is seamlessly interspersed with shots of his present-day company in rehearsal and performance.
Interviews with former collaborators indicate that he wasn’t as easy to work for in 1980s, when he founded a New York pick-up troupe with his late wife, the former Alvin Ailey dancer Mari Kajiwara. One veteran dancer bemoans that Naharin expected them to read his mind. Many rehearsals ended in shouting matches, we’re told.
None of those are shown here, but there’s still a treasure trove of studio footage. Naharin is shown in class with dance greats Rudolf Nureyev, Martha Graham and Maurice Bejart. Earlier in the film, there’s grainy footage of him doing the caterpillar as a teen and the tango as a member of an Israeli Army entertainment troupe.
In 1990, Naharin returned to Israel to revive Batsheva and soon had dancers disrobing during a techno Hebrew prayer. That didn’t go over well with the Knesset, but Naharin survived.
Watching Mr. Gaga develop as a dancemaker is as entrancing as watching Batsheva perform live. That Naharin speaks eloquently of his art only adds to the film’s ardor.
“Dance is something that I love,” the choreographer says, “something that turns me on, something I love watching, something I enjoy doing.”