The word Gaga evokes a certain popstar for most people, but Ohad Naharin has a very different association for the word. The Israeli choreographer, now 64, uses it to describe the movement language he invented to deal with a dance-related back injury he suffered in his 20s. As he aged, chronic pain threatened his ability to dance.
The name Gaga is nonsense, of course, but its purpose is anything but. While recovering two decades ago, Naharin started improvising in the studio, leaning heavily on his imagination while listening closely to his body. He focused on soft, undulating movements of his spine and limbs, pushing slightly further until the pain took over.
Meanwhile, the former Martha Graham Dance Company member tapped into the playful wonder that children know instinctively and adults often repress. His curiosity grew. And as Naharin improved physically, taking tentative steps, he saw his outlook on dance completely transformed.
“You should feel happy about what your body can do,” said Twin Cities-based choreographer and writer Judith Brin Ingber, who taught Naharin in Israel when he was a young man, still in the army. She later watched him flourish as artistic director of the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company while developing his Gaga method. The babyish sound reminds her of “starting at the beginning, more like when you’re just learning to talk.”
Now Batsheva is known internationally for its daring repertory, but also for its distinct Gaga training approach. When the company performs Tuesday in Minneapolis, audience members will see a bold and uninhibited style. They also might glimpse the foundations of an accessible and healing art. And, as luck has it, the Twin Cities are one of the few U.S. metro areas with a certified Gaga teacher in our midst.
Berit Ahlgren performed with St. Paul’s TU Dance before traveling to Tel Aviv for a one-year intensive Gaga teaching program, gaining certification in 2011. After graduating from New York University with an MFA in dance, she returned to the Twin Cities to teach and perform. She leads Gaga classes twice a week at TU Dance Center and Zenon Dance Company, plus teaches modern dance at the University of Minnesota.
After a recent class at Zenon, Ahlgren said Gaga was something she didn’t realize her body craved until she tried it. “I’ve definitely become so much more aware of the physical experience of dancing rather than just executing something someone told me to do,” she said. She said it has brought longevity to her career. “I can see myself dancing for years and years.”
Ahlgren leads two types of classes: Gaga/People and Gaga/Dancers. The former is open to everyone, no matter their ability, while the latter is geared to advanced students and dance professionals. Either way, participants encounter an environment designed to minimize distractions. Mirrors are covered so students don’t obsess over body flaws. No observers are allowed — if you’re in the room, you’re dancing.
Gaga’s vocabulary of movement, which is always growing, engages the senses, Ahlgren said. Participants are asked to consider “the snake of the spine” or “a good taste in your mouth” as inspiration. As with Tai Chi or yoga, they dive deep and discover the spaces between their joints. Along the way, they learn — and celebrate — the particularities of their own bodies. Ingber said the experience can be ecstatic. “You get invigorated, and you can feel your blood thrumming,” she said.
The Gaga/People classes started early in the form’s evolution, when one of Batsheva’s wardrobe staffers asked Naharin about lessons. “He invited her to join him in the studio the following morning,” explained Gaga scholar Deborah Friedes-Galili, based in Tel Aviv. “Along with other members of the Batsheva office staff, they began to meet twice weekly.” Soon the group included Naharin’s friends, family and eventually the general public.
Now, Ahlgren and Ingber said, there’s a wide array of participants in Tel Aviv, including breast cancer survivors and people living with Alzheimer’s. And as Gaga gains popularity in Minnesota, Ahlgren is seeing a similar diversifying in her classes.
Elevating pro dancers
Luc Jacobs, Batsheva’s senior rehearsal director, used to perform ballet professionally, but working with Naharin changed his perspective. “It was like going back to the source of why I started dancing,” he said via Skype. “There’s no agenda to it. It was for the joy and the passion.
“There’s a lot of ambition involved with ballet and criteria invented by other people for you,” he added. “I tried to be Mikhail Baryshnikov. It took me a while to realize that it might be a better idea to become myself.”
When Batsheva performs Tuesday, audiences will see how the Gaga method can elevate the skills of world-class dancers such as Jacobs. He said Gaga helps dancers explore “how to go further by letting go, how to be extremely delicate and the next moment be extremely explosive.” Dance critics consider the Batsheva troupe among the most versatile and fearless in the world.
The company’s Minneapolis performance is dubbed “Decadance 2017” and features a mash-up of 10 choreographed repertory works created from 1990 (when Naharin became artistic director) to 2011. Naharin selected sections from these older dances before rethinking them and then creating a new collage.
There’s not really a plot to follow, Jacobs said. Rather, Naharin uses the sections to weave a narrative that doesn’t have a pat ending. “In Gaga you instigate, you have fresh starts, you don’t have to finish.”
Naharin, he continued, “takes you on a journey that has an arc and flow. He drops you off at some point.”
In this way, said Ingber, Naharin is a “poet of the body” and Gaga is simply the language he uses to express himself.
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.