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.
On Being African at the University of Michigan
Moment in portrait of myself as my
father. Photo by Gennadi Novash.
Nora Chipaumire’s portrait of myself as my
father is a piece of many origins. All aspects of Chipaumire’s identity as an African, a woman, a black woman, an African woman, and an African-American woman seep into her work. In this “love letter to black men,” she explores the complex tangle of conceptions, stereotypes, expectations, vulnerabilities and strengths of the black African male.
Zimbabwean influences, unique venue
A dizzying combination of Zimbabwean and African dance traditions, garb, and music help to tackle these big questions. Traditional Zimbabwean music rooted in polyrhythmic beats combines with Zimbabwean dance, an art form which requires a considerable amount of strength and agility to perform. Chipaumire uses these tools to celebrate the strength, resilience, and inherent defiance of the black body. She fuses her Zimbabwean heritage with her contemporary dance training to create this piece. Wearing traditional African gris-gris (a talisman used in Afro-Caribbean cultures for voodoo) with football pads, Chipaumire explores the black male at the crossroads of two cultures and identities.
The piece is set in a boxing ring and will be performed in at the Detroit Boxing Gym, where a program to support kids living in Detroit’s toughest neighborhoods is based and focuses on helping young black males find fruitful after-school activities to grow and develop real-life skills with positive role models.
It is not only a fitting location for Chipaumire’s exploration of black masculinity in a postcolonial world but also serves as a perfect setting for her vigorous, high-energy performance. Chipaumire has also spoken out about the brutal policing of black sexuality and masculinity, and celebrates her heritage through her art.
On Being African at the University of Michigan
African students at the University of Michigan have a unique perspective on the challenges and stereotypes Africans experience in America. Tochukwu Ndukwe, a Nigerian-American kinesiology student born in Nigeria and raised in Detroit, spoke about how his identity as a Nigerian-American student informs his experiences at the University of Michigan. In a school that is overwhelmingly white (a mere 4.4% of the population is Black or African-American), he immediately stands out.
In fourth grade, Ndukwe met a Nigerian student who embraced his culture unapologetically. This student was unafraid to educate other students about why he brought a different kind of lunch to school, or the differences between his how his parents raised him in an African household. Ndukwe was inspired by this classmate, but did not to truly publicly embrace his culture until high school. Torn between wanting to fit in with other black students and wanting to celebrate his culture in public, Ndukwe was both surprised and excited by the strength, unity, and pride of African students at the University. He now serves as president of the African Student Association (ASA), an organization that arranges cultural shows, potlucks, and mixers with other ethnic organizations on campus. Their flagship event is the African Culture Show, a massive celebration of African music and dance that packs the Power Center every year. This year’s show is titled Afrolution: Evolution of African Culture, an inquiry into the future of Africa by African students.
Ndukwe lauds African music as a crucial tether for African students to relate to the culture in their home country. He says that music allows African students to connect with their culture no matter where they are, which is especially important in Ann Arbor, which lacks the music, values, and language of their home countries.
“African music and dance are becoming more and more American,” Tochukwu says. “People there look up to America, they want to be American. African artists are beginning to collaborate with American artists, and I’m like ‘No, don’t lose your culture! It’s so rich!’” Africans are bombarded with American media and feel an increasing pressure to conform music and dance styles to that of American–particularly black American–culture, Ndukwe says.
A very loaded question
We begin discussing gender norms in Nigerian societies (he says many of the Nigerian gender norms are found throughout Africa) and a broad smile spreads across his face. “Oh, boy…you’ve asked me a very loaded question. I don’t even know where to start.”
He says, “African men are expected to be the breadwinners. They’re supposed to be strong, stoic, devoid of vulnerability. They are expected to be the disciplinarian of the family while women are expected to stay home…cook, clean, care for the children.” He explains that the expectation for men to be “macho”, and “hypermasculine” oppresses women, and that the division between genders prohibits women from getting an education and becoming financially independent.
“Mental health hasn’t even begun to be a topic in the general cultural discourse. There’s no such thing as depression, as anxiety for anyone, let alone men. So many men suffer in silence because of it.” As pressures mount for men to be sole breadwinners, disciplinarians, protectors of the family–stoic and strong–many men are subsequently unable to express their emotions with the women they care about. Ndukwe’s background as a Nigerian-born man raised by Nigerian parents tightly bound to their culture informs his relationship with women today. On a personal note, he says that he struggles to express his affection with his significant other. This leads to gaps in communication and rifts in his relationships that are often difficult to repair.
portrait of myself as my
father comes at an especially important time. As the consequences of the narrow and stereotypical perception of black men enter the mainstream consciousness, this piece opens the door for discussion.
How does the representation of the black body impact the perception of self as a black woman, an African woman, and an American woman? How has colonialism seeped into the treatment of the black performing body?
Nora Chipaumire asks and investigates these questions in portrait of myself as my
See the performance November 17-20, 2016 at the Detroit Boxing Gym in Detroit.
This Day in UMS History: Laurie Anderson Meets the Great White Whale (Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 1999)
Multi-media dominatrix Laurie Anderson opened the 1999/2000 UMS season with three performances of Songs and Stories from Moby Dick in the Power Center. The piece took Melville’s great novel as its inspiration, with Anderson’s signature penchant for the technological edge highlighted by the debut of the “Talking Stick,” a digital sampling machine that could replicate virtually any sound at a granular level. Anderson’s interest in developing the piece evolved because she was working on a project for high school kids about books with another producer (the project never materialized). She chose Moby Dick, remembering the novel’s obsessive captain, but also remembering, with dread, the incredible detail about the whaling industry and its technical paraphernalia. She was completely captivated by the novel as an adult, read it five times, and began to hear the music and lyricism in the author’s voice. From that experience, she began her largest undertaking in 15 years.
This production was Laurie Anderson’s UMS debut (she has since appeared in 2002 with Happiness and in 2004 with The End of the Moon, and returns in January with Delusion). As a relative newcomer to the staff at that time, I traveled a few months before her Ann Arbor production to see the work in Philadelphia, at the Prince Theater. A night or two before I saw it, the actor playing Captain Ahab miscalculated the edge of the stage and fell into the orchestra pit, breaking his leg. I don’t recall the details of what happened that particular night — I think they canceled the performance — but by the time I arrived in Philadelphia, the actor was back on stage, manipulating his crutches through a surprisingly complicated stage choreography and making it seem as though that had been part of the design from the beginning. It turns out that although Captain Ahab is probably the most famous one-legged captain in literature, Anderson’s team had not considered using crutches until the accident forced the issue. By the time I saw the production in Ann Arbor several months later, the crutches had become an integral prop, perfectly incorporated into the storytelling.
Anderson’s ironic sense of humor permeated Moby Dick. In the program notes for the work, she noted, “Being a somewhat dark person myself, I love the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive.”
This performance brings back so many strong memories for me: how gracious Laurie Anderson was to break from tech rehearsals to give an interview to a public television TV show, how she willingly went to Detroit for a 20-minute interview on WDET, her generosity in allowing selected classes to see a dress rehearsal of the work in tech week. I also remember seeing an internet ticket order come in from somebody who lived in the same small town in Wisconsin where I grew up. This was in the early days of e-commerce, and it was shocking to see an address that was literally down the street from my childhood home, from someone renting an apartment in my late great-uncle’s house. Songs and Stories from Moby Dick was an incredible introduction to Laurie Anderson’s work and an amazing way to kick off the UMS season.