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Out of the Fog, 11-10: ...& into the Gaga
Unlocking Naharin's System
By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2006 Aimee Ts'ao
SAN FRANCISCO -- Sometimes it is not just the
performance of a choreographic piece that has an
impact, but also the serendipitous events surrounding
that performance that covertly conspire to reshape
one's perceptions of that first viewing. And so my
recent experience with the Tel-Aviv-based Batsheva
Dance Company turned out to be far richer than I
could have imagined before I walked into the Yerba Buena
Center for the Arts Theater for the Thursday, October
26 performance of artistic director Ohad Naharin's
"Three." The next day, both interviewing Naharin and
participating in a company warmup gave me further
insight into the performance and deepened my
appreciation of these exceptional artists.
Granted, I had already been to YBCA the previous
Tuesday night to see two films, "Israel Dancing," a
documentary by Czech television and "Boobies," a dance
choreographed by Inbal Pinto and performed by her
company. The latter was so long and eclectic, or
derivative, that you could use it as the sole visual
aid to teach a course on the influence of every dance
and theater style of the 20th century on current work.
The former featured some interesting footage of
various Israeli dance companies as well as interviews
with choreographers. The one moment that lodged in my
mind was Naharin saying, "Everybody should dance
every day, for a few minutes at least."
Now it's Thursday night, as I take my seat after
conversing with other critics, dancers, and a couple
of my teachers in the lobby. It's quite gratifying to
see so many from the local dance community in
attendance. "Three" runs 70 minutes, with no
intermission. There are three sections (hence the name), which I later learn by searching online are called Bellus (beauty), Humus
(earth) and Secus ('otherwise' or 'to the contrary' in
the Latin legal definition; "this...not this" in
Naharin's more poetic rendering). They can
be performed separately as well as together, I also
|Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin's "Three." Gadi Dagon photo copyright Gadi Dagon and courtesy San Francisco Performances.
The opener, Bellus, is danced to a number of Bach's
"Goldberg Variations," recorded by Glenn Gould. (I
confess that I am a serious admirer of the late
Canadian pianist.) Basically the dance begins with a
solo section, then a second dancer enters and stands
to the side. As the first dancer exits, the second
continues with some of the same choreographic material
as well as new phrases, while a third enters, then the
second dancer exits and the third begins, and so on.
There is a pas de deux and a section of ten dancers
running and jumping in what I would call an imaginary
primitive folk dance. In the final section the
movement is both new and recycled from previous
sections, but seamlessly woven together, befitting the
nature of musical variations. For me,
there is one exquisite section in which the dancers
stand in a line across the stage facing the audience.
Each performer gently raises his/her arms straight up,
sometimes from the shoulder, sometimes only from the
elbow, at varying times and at varying speeds. There
is no readily obvious pattern, though the complexity
increases; then they shift into new material that
includes different gestures and epaulement (angling
the shoulders), executed while they're still in line. It
is so utterly simple yet so profoundly deep and
resonates with the spirit of Bach's music in a
mysterious way, visually reflecting its essence
without being a slave to the notes, motifs or
In Humus, to music by Brian Eno, nine women explore
weight, balance and gravity, first in a very slow and
purposeful manner then gaining momentum as they walk
or run around the stage to another location for
another exploration of the possibilities of their
|Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin's "Three." Gadi Dagon photo copyright Gadi Dagon and courtesy San Francisco Performances.
It is the last part, Secus, that is the most
substantial, both in length and choreography. Over
the course of 35 minutes, to Ohad Fishof's
compilation of music (Chan Chan, Kid 606 and Rayon
[mix: Stephan Ferry], AGF, Fennesz, Kaho Naa Pyar Hai,
Seefeel, and The Beach Boys), the dancers go ever so
gradually from the chaos of everyone doing something
different to the entire ensemble moving in unison.
One section has the performers in three groups. One
dancer from each articulates a brief phrase or action,
then goes to the end of the line while the next dancer
does the step in his/her own personal way. Usually
there are only two or three repetitions before the
dancers move on to new movement phrases. At one point
the women on the right turn their backs one at a time
to the audience, jump straight up in the air and
quickly pull their pants down and up, flashing ever so
briefly their derrieres. The men in the middle also
pull their pants down, again one by one, but facing
the crowd while concealing their private parts between
their legs, a la emasculated Ken dolls. In general,
the choreography for Secus is brilliantly crafted,
from the use of space, to the permutations and
combinations of movement phrases and finally to the
ominous ensemble marching around the stage, hunched
over, grabbing the air and chanting the word "welcome" as
the lights dim.
Rarely do I see such emotionally powerful dancers.
They are not mere automatons replicating steps. They
touch us in a profoundly human way because their
movement is born from intensely personal depths.
The next morning I meet Naharin at his hotel for an
interview. We find a quiet corner in the atrium on
the mezzanine and settle in. As we talk for more
than half an hour, what follows are only a few main
points of our conversation:
Aimee Ts'ao: You seem to resist being called an
Ohad Naharin: It's trivial information in terms of
what I really do. Because [then] you put all the
Israeli choreographers in one box. I think the
community of choreographers shouldn't have national,
ethnic or religious connotations. I'm also an
American citizen, by the way. So you can call me an
American-Israeli choreographer. My grandparents were
from Russia and Poland, so maybe you can call me a
Russian-Polish-Israeli-American choreographer. Being
Israeli is not even a race; being Israeli describes
geographically where I'm from. It doesn't tell
anything about who I am or what I am.
AT: I'm reading a biography of Gertrude Bell called
"Desert Queen." She was a British woman who lived and
worked in the Middle East from the 1890s through
the 1920s. It's all the same problems we still have
today. Nothing has changed. It really reinforces for
me that the world doesn't really change that much in a
very fundamental way.
ON: That's reassuring too.
AT: But it's sad on the other hand.
ON: Very sad, I agree.
(Later, responding to a follow-up question in which I
ask his opinion on the Israeli occupation, the wall
and Israel's recent actions in Lebanon, he offers:
"The current situation is not new, it shows ignorance
on the part of our leaders and many people, and it is distorting the
desire for peace. It is the same as what is going on with the current
government in the USA. It is not stupidity, this ignorance is
intelligent but a one-way one, in which our leaders react only to their own
reflections while totally blind to what is really in front of them. It
means that they are not in touch with reality -- while
possessing so much power they create innocent victims, unnecessary
suffering, and a much less secure world.")
AT: What made you start to dance?
ON: I don't know exactly what you mean, but when I
think of starting to dance, it's starting to live. As
long as I can remember I'm dancing. Not dancing in a
classroom, but being very aware of my body, my
weight, being aware of the pleasure and joy I got out
of movement, of the extreme physicality and effort. I
think a lot of how we dance today has to do not with
just our training, it has a lot to do with how we grew
up, our genes, and what we did since we were born,
with our body development. Our weaknesses, our
strengths, our sexuality, our intelligence, our
awareness of the universe has a lot to do with how we
AT: How did you arrive at developing Gaga [as
Naharin calls the movement language he uses in daily
ON: In order to be able to talk about it, I have to
decide to make it more systematic than it really is.
I've decided to talk about two important points, or
maybe three. The first point will be my back injury.
More than 20 years ago I had a very serious back
injury, where I shattered a disc and I was paralyzed
in my left leg and I didn't think I'd be able to
dance. I had a serious operation, but I was already
choreographing, so coming back from the injury I
needed two things: to get my body to move a little
bit and also to be able to give other people the keys
to the way to move in my work. This process of
finding keys for me and for my dancers brought me to
deal with my weaknesses and efficiency of movement. I
needed to be so efficient because I was so limited. I
developed an awareness that had to do with finding
where in my body I'm not hurting and where in my body
I have unused muscles, unused movement. I discovered
my explosive power, the efficiency of movement. I
started to really be able to connect between pleasure
and pain, and between effort and joy. At the same
time I needed to articulate it because I needed to
give it to myself and others. So it became a language
and a method. That was one, then about ten years ago,
almost as a joke I started meeting [with] a group of
non-dancers, workers of Batsheva company who are not
dancers [but] who wanted to dance. So I started
meeting [with] a group of five people twice a week in
the morning. Very quickly I realized in these
meetings with non-dancers, I learned a lot about
movement, movement habits, all the things I described
before but in a new light because none of them had the
ambition to be on stage. They just wanted to feel
better, and to move better and to get stronger. So
then Gaga became something that had nothing to do
with performing arts, just had to do with the
maintenance of your body. Healing your body, finding
pleasure and joy in movement and nothing to do with
ambitions to be on stage. That became a very serious
thing in my life -- working with non-dancers. Today
we have a venue with hundreds of non-dancers who come
to take Gaga classes.
AT: Is it possible for someone to start as a child and
be completely trained as a dancer? Or do you need to
supplement with other forms?
ON: Right now I think of Gaga as the higher
education of dance. You do elementary school, high
school and go to college. So Gaga is this part of
your education. We do have schools which approach us
to teach kids. I'm more interested [in working] with
adults. This year we allowed Gaga to be in the
curriculum of the performing arts school in Jerusalem. But that is for 17-year-olds and over, not for kids. All the people already have [dance] training. The
important idea is to make people excel in the method
they already know. It's not to abolish or cancel or
change their techniques. If someone wants to be a
ballerina, then Gaga can help her to be a ballerina.
You should come and take Gaga class with us. We do
it before the show as a warmup.
AT: I wanted to ask you about your choreographic
process. Is it something that evolved, that you
started in one spot and then the more you did it, you
got more ideas of how you work? Not the actual
choreography, but your whole way of thinking about it.
ON: Evolved is the key word. It's evolving. It's a
process that takes me to places I've never been
before. Otherwise I would be bored with it. The
sense of discovery is always there. I think it has a
lot to do with how my relationship with my dancers
evolved, too. They [have] become more and more
meaningful contributors to the process, especially
since we started doing Gaga as our training about
four years ago.
AT: I wanted to ask about music, because it is
obvious that it's an important element for you.
ON: Yes, yes. There's something about music and
structure and order and mathematics. There is
something particular about this Bach piece ["Goldberg
Variations"] and the way that Glenn Gould is playing
it that the beauty of it really comes from making the
music very bare. It's so beautiful without any
decoration. You really feel how the structure of the
piece and the rhythm and the logic of it actually can
create all the emotions and transport you into this
landscape. This music is also almost like the sound
of a metronome. Something so clean and minimalistic
about it. Somehow meditating with it brought me to
create the system of lifting the arms [in the Bellus
section], which is really different from the system of
the music. But I still feel loyal to it somehow.
AT: You also have a sense of space.
ON: It's space that gives me the reason I can dance.
I consider the importance of space in my existence
more than time. I feel time passes anyway. I have no
control over time, but I have control over space. I
can really change the space and create the space, but
I cannot change time and I cannot create time. I'm
aware of time, how long it takes to do something, and
I make a decision how long I want to do something,
but it's more about how long it takes to go from one
place to another and that has more to do with space
than with time.
AT: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
ON: Every interviewer asks me that. Yes. Cover your
mirrors or break them. Don't use mirrors when you
dance. Don't use mirrors when you live. They are
very limiting, they are an illusion. They have really
stopped dance from developing as far as it could go
without [them]. That's for sure. Every time I come
to a ballet company to choreograph, I cover the
mirrors. At the beginning it is so difficult, but at
the end of the process, the dancers are so grateful.
Much later the same day I arrive at the stage door of
YBCA, wondering if trying to do the Gaga warmup is
really such a good idea. Nearly two years ago, I was
hit by a car while walking across a street. The
whiplash from being thrown at least eight to ten feet
still plagues me and I have had major setbacks from
such minor events as picking up a flowerpot. The
ballet classes I do every day are at least a known
quantity and quality, but what am I really signing on
On stage the company is getting notes from Naharin,
and I watch the dancers run through several sections
of "Three," which I saw last night. Finally they get
a 15-minute break before warmup and I continue my
stretching even more as a prophylactic against
re-injuring myself. I need not have worried. Gaga
turns out to be very liberating. I can just tune into
what my body is feeling and then figure out what it
needs. I am listening deeply to what it is telling me
about its limits, but it reminds me, too, that there
are strengths. Watching Batsheva's members doing Gaga
also shows me why they are so powerful on stage,
individually and as an ensemble. By the end of the
warmup, my body feels looser and more fluid than it
has for a long time. I am positively exhilarated.
I'm a convert; I'm thinking about incorporating some
of it into my daily routine. You might even say -- I'm
going ga-ga over Gaga.
To read Aimee Ts'ao's previous review of Batsheva, click here.
For information on advertising on Out of the Fog, Aimee Ts'ao's new column from San Francisco, e-mail email@example.com.