Leading Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin is profiled in “Mr. Gaga,” possibly the most exciting documentary for fans of edgier modern dance since “Pina.” With a complex, compelling lead character and plenty of striking performance footage from throughout his tenure to date as director of Batsheva Dance Group,” helmer Tomer Heymann (“Paper Dolls” and “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?”) delivers a feature that should travel widely in various formats. So far it’s won a handful of fest prizes (including the audience award in its category at SXSW) and theatrical release in several territories.
Still fit, limber and driven as ever in his mid-60s, Naharin served in the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War, albeit in an entertainment unit (an injury kept him from combat assignment). Afterward, his mother urged him to continue dancing, though it seemed daft for him to begin professional training as late as age 22. Nonetheless, he did pursue the art form seriously, winning spots in the prestigious companies of Martha Graham and Maurice Bejart. Those were unhappy experiences, however, which fueled his desire to create work he found more personally meaningful. He began doing so while living in New York, where he married fellow dancer Mari Kajiwara, who eventually left her plum spot in Alvin Ailey’s troupe to participate fully in his projects.
She wasn’t thrilled when he accepted an offer in 1990 to take over Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Company, though she dutifully relocated with him and became its rehearsal director. The 25-year-old company’s then-older, conservative audience wasn’t thrilled, either, when he chucked its relatively undemanding staple fare for some adventuresome new works of his own. But their electric impact, incorporating jagged, unpredictable movement, occasional spoken text, multimedia factors, sociopolitical themes and other challenging elements, quickly attracted new patrons — and critical admiration that greatly increased the institution’s international stature.
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Naharin became a “cultural hero” to many Israelis otherwise disinterested in dance when he refused to bow to pressure brought on the government over a military-themed piece scheduled for performance during the nation’s 50th-anniversary gala celebrations. Religious zealots objected to the dancers’ limb-baring costumes in standard-issue military underclothes; he and the company surrendered their prestigious slot rather than accept the artistic compromise of more “modest” dress. (As Naharin notes now, however, the influence of religious fundamentalism has risen so much in the years since that he worries about the company’s continuing existence.)
Between riveting excerpts from individual dances — those more recently filmed seen in high-grade, multi-camera footage utilizing different aspect ratios to heighten their vivid stage imagery — Naharin is shown rehearsing his company and creating new pieces. Although probably on good behavior while the camera’s running, he can be a harsh taskmaster who frequently berates his very diverse, international company — not for technical faults, but for insufficient emotional commitment. He demands they give their all and then some, a sacrifice they say is rewarded by the work itself. A hint of temperamental turbulence otherwise left off screen surfaces in an odd, pointedly included sequence when his current dancer-wife, Eri Nakamura (Kajiwara died of cancer in 2001), stomps out of the studio. We have no idea just what she’s furious over, but the implication is that he not infrequently wears others’ patience thin.
Of course, “difficult” personalities seem almost de rigueur when it comes to choreographic brilliance. Handsome and charismatic, Naharin may have an arrogant side, but then he arguably is a genius. Apparently he spent many years refusing the Heymann brothers’ pleas for documentary access, then was skittish about the crew’s disruptive presence. The result here may not be fully revealing of his process, but it’s as close as we’re going to get.
One thing that definitely could have had more light shed on it, however, is “Gaga,” the movement vocabulary Naharin has invented. While we grasp that it can be used for health and recreation by amateurs as well as trained dancers, its essential nature and applications are poorly explained here despite a brief appearance by actress-dancer-fan Natalie Portman praising it.
Assembly is excellent down the line, allowing for some less pristinely shot archival footage.