Going Gaga for Gaga
Photo: Batsheva Dance Company. The company performs Last Work January 7-8, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
On January 7-8, Batsheva Dance Company bring their new work Last Work to Ann Arbor. Led by critically-acclaimed artistic director Ohad Naharin, this piece is devised using the Gaga movement language, the movement form for which the company and the director are best known.
Based in Tel-Aviv, Batsheva Dance Company was created by Martha Graham and Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild in 1964. The company has evolved its movement style from the Graham-based technique into the Gaga movement language, integrating emerging Israeli choreographers throughout its lifetime before Ohad Naharin took the helm in 1990.
Bodybuilders with a soft spine
Ohad Naharin created the Gaga movement “language” in the 1990s during his first few years as artistic director at Batsheva. Partially inspired by his observations of existing techniques as well as a non-dancing Batsheva employees request to learn how to dance, Naharin created Gaga in response to the rigid perfectionism that permeates some dance styles. He describes this type of perfectionism as a “deadly burden,” and the antithesis to accessing true movement and physical expression.
All movement stems from sensation in Gaga. Movement is a sensual experience: Dancers learn to love their sweat, the burning of their muscles, and their interior sensory experiences as they move. Gaga teaches dancers and movers to focus on the rhythm of their bodies, not the music. Focusing in this way helps movers find their inner ambition, discover themselves instead of focusing on dance as an external experience based on learned techniques.
Naharin uses Gaga to teach his dancers how to be “body builders with a soft spine.” He works to break dancers free from their technique, which is necessary as a structural component of dance training but also can restrict dancers from finding movements not found or prevalent in particular dance styles. In fact, while creating choreography Naharin discourages dancers from using improvisation, which he says often lures dancers back into their habitual movement patterns.
Gaga comes to the University of Michigan
Naharin’s movement language has spread to dance companies across the world, partly because of Batsheva alumni like Bsomat Nossan. Nossan was a guest lecturer in the Dance department at the University of Michigan in the Winter 2016 semester.
We spoke with U-M BFA Dance students Johnny Matthews and Kasia Reilly, both students who have studied with Ohad Naharin or his company members.
Reilly says that Gaga is not so much a technique as a “vehicle to dance with; it increases sensitivity to the conversation between one’s inner kinesthetic experience and the external feedback one receives while dancing.” For Matthews, Gaga is an essential part of his dancing education. Matthews decided to study with Ohad Naharin and Batsheva after seeing L-E-V Dance Company, a dance troupe started by a Batsheva alumna Sharon Eyal. (The company performed at the Power Center in Ann Arbor as part of the 2015-16 UMS Season.) “I was amazed by the raw power these dancers had,” he says. “The way they could manipulate their bodies into unimaginable shapes, then return to a neutral state in an instant.” Gaga was instrumental in helping Matthews unlock the opportunities within his body, to move in ways he never did before by looking inward instead of simply “putting movement onto [the] body.” This method helped Matthews to find new ways to approach movement even in technical or shape-driven styles like ballet.
According to Reilly and Matthews, Gaga sessions can vary widely from instructor to instructor. The rules are simple: “No mirrors, no late entry, no one can watch class, and you never stop moving,” says Matthews. Gaga movement is centered around the idea of “floating” through space, meaning your body is unencumbered by gravity and thus is available to move in limitless ways. These sessions involve exercises with instructions such as “draw circles with different body parts,” “imagine the floor is getting hot,” or “become a string of spaghetti in hot water,” and other sensory-based exercises to help dancers access unfamiliar movements. Gaga teachers encourage students not to miss class because “Gaga class is all about building tasks on top of each other to push the limits of how much information your brain can process at one time,” Matthews says. If students are feeling slow or low-energy, they may work at their own pace, working at “40%, 30%, 20%, or float,” but they must never be stagnant.
Gaga movement language creates a way for both dancers and non-dancers to access new movements. According to Matthews, Naharin was severely injured at the time he created Gaga and devised the language in part to rehabilitate himself. Gaga pedagogy is broken into Gaga Dancers and Gaga People. Non-dancers are actively encouraged to explore the technique, and Gaga People classes are created to train people to be better attuned to their own body and their own needs.
Naharin’s influence can be felt globally. Batsheva alumni such as above-mentioned Sharon Eyal (founder of L-E-V Dance Company), Andrea Miller (Gallim Dance Company), and Daniele Agami (Ate9) have used their artistic prowess to spread Gaga throughout the world. Ohad Naharin’s movement language has become one of the most popular contemporary dance philosophies of today. “I would call it almost uncommon now to meet a dancer who hasn’t taken at least one Gaga class before,” says Reilly, adding “the rawness, athleticism, and sexiness of his works are addictive to watch,” and the success of his company has lead to an uptick in mindfulness-based somatic movement work in the dance community.
The opportunity to see the company where it all began awaits. See Batsheva Dance Company’s Last Work in Ann Arbor January 7-8, 2017.