Moving Without Limits: Gaga’s Modern Dance Style

by Julia Clausen

The new documentary “Mr. Gaga” by Israeli film directors Tomer and Barak Heymann tells the story of one of the most important names in modern dance: Ohad Naharin, creator of the revolutionary “movement language” called Gaga. Gaga refutes classification as a technique because it claims to be free from rules and standards, unlike other approaches.

After working as a professional dancer in New York for several years in the 1970s, Naharin had to have spinal surgery and was told he would never dance again. He blamed his previous instructors for teaching him what he believes was an incorrect and harmful way to carry his body, so he decided to develop his own technique, one that would allow his body to heal and be free from traditional technique.

When he returned to Israel to take over as artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company in 1990, he introduced Gaga to his students, and soon it became the foundation for their entire repertoire.

Gaga focuses on healing and training dancers in body intelligence rather than mimicry. There are no mirrors allowed in the rehearsal rooms, so correctness comes entirely from sensation and Naharin’s coaching. As Naharin describes in the film, Gaga “demands [we] listen to our bodies before we tell [them] what to do, and go beyond familiar limits every day.”

Gaga is meant to be a natural expression of mankind’s animalistic tendencies, and Naharin believes he was uniquely capable of developing such a movement language because he was “a lot more connected to the animal” inside him.

However, rather than delving into the meaning behind Naharin’s provocative and cryptic dance style, the filmmakers instead discuss his development as an individual. In the middle of voiceovers describing friends lost to war or his dissatisfaction in New York, the Heymanns cut to clips of his choreography. Rather than explicitly asking what the pieces “mean,” a common question for Naharin’s ambiguous but powerful work, the filmmakers seek to understand the man behind it.

In Israel, all citizens are conscripted into military service once they turn 18, as the country has always been in a nearly perpetual state of war, but when it was Naharin’s turn, he was sent as an entertainer for soldiers. Naharin’s choreographic journey began on the battlefields on the outskirts of his homeland. There are clips from the ‘70s of him singing and clapping in front of distraught soldiers as gunshots go off in the distance. Perhaps as a result, Naharin’s work often includes political messages or themes.

Senior in the UCI dance department Cayla Bauer studied for a year in Tel Aviv at a school with close ties to Batsheva. According to Bauer, Gaga has taken over the Israeli understanding of dance as a whole, since concert dance in Israel is only about 50 years old. Batsheva had the chance to establish Gaga as the foundational dance technique of the nation, whereas in Europe and America, even the most rebellious of modern techniques cannot escape the ballet at its core.

Born of Israeli innovation and the sense of unpredictability in a war-torn country, Gaga calls for exploration and removing useless limitations. It’s a movement language that’s always on the edge of its seat, which is where it leaves its audience as well. Gaga lives entirely in the present moment, because nothing else is guaranteed.

Naharin’s company established itself as a cultural and political influencer when, upon requests from Orthodox government officials to make Batsheva’s costumes more modest for their performance at the 50-year celebration of the state of Israel, Naharin’s dancers refused to perform, leaving thousands in the audience, including foreign dignitaries, waiting in silence.

The next day, protests against religious censorship inspired by Batsheva’s bold stance popped up around the country. From then onward, Naharin was a cultural hero.

This position seems to suit the man whose boundless confidence and particular vision have restructured the world of contemporary dance around his own ideas. He initially taught Gaga to his own dancers mainly because he “needed to be able to explain [him]self and create a physical and verbal language so [his] dancers could understand what [he] wanted.”

This indirectly points to a fact that the filmmakers were careful to emphasize: Naharin is difficult to work with. According to one of his former dancers, most rehearsals ended in someone “leaving, screaming or crying,” but they stuck around because they found his work so profound that it was worth the pain of understanding it.

“It takes the dancer away from the expectation of creating something and puts them in the experience of it,” Bauer said of Gaga classes.

At its core, the style is responsive and empathetic. In class, dancers spread out around the room, responding with improvised movements to the instructions and images provided by the teacher. The first time dancers try it, they often find it strange and uncomfortable, but ultimately very fulfilling.

“You’re always seeking, always exploring, always discovering something new,” said Emily Guerard, a fourth-year dancer at UCI who studied with one of the few certified Gaga teachers in the world at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance (SFCD). However, for all Gaga’s big promises, a common aesthetic rises from it. Guerard tries to explain, “There’s not right and wrong, but there’s a right and wrong.”

If Gaga is truly an expression of the personality of its creator, as the filmmakers argue, then, for all the freedom it espouses, Gaga is ultimately defined by Naharin’s strict preferences.

According to Bauer, it can sometimes frustrate people because it is a new way of thinking and feeling about dance that conflicts with their training. However, once American artists adjust, Gaga has the potential to revolutionize the contemporary dance scene and turn it into something as far-reaching as the movement it generates.