Never underestimate what ordinary people, untrained in dance, can accomplish. Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the much-heralded Batsheva Dance Company since 1990, tells how a handful of non-dancers, administrative staffers of the Tel Aviv-based company said they wanted to learn to dance. Almost as a lark he set up a special class for them. Naharin discovered what modern dance teachers of adult beginners everywhere know, that ordinary people who don’t know a plie from a jete can think up movement more interesting than steps devised by dancers who have spent years at the ballet barre.
Naharin’s unusual class morphed into an entirely new technique that he casually called Gaga, and this thing called Gaga has taken the dance world by storm. It eschews the standard technique syllabus, and it forbids mirrors as well. Purpose: To get dancers to move “from the inside out” to connect the imagination to the body.
“The Gaga body language encourages the dancers to be very alert, always sensing, all the time,” says Naomi Bloch Fortis, co-director of the company, in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv. “It allows them to use their bodies in organic, unique, never-ending ways, to connect pleasure and effort to produce exploding power.” When the dancers do not move — Naharin is known for building movement silence into his dances — they present many different dynamics in their stillness.
If Gaga is the hot new trend in dance, Batsheva company dancers are its best examples. They will perform an evening-length work, entitled “Three,” at McCarter Theater on Monday, February 2.
Naharin does not discuss politics, preferring to express himself therough dance. And he has made dances with political issues, such as “Naharin’s Virus,” which protest how barriers prevent Palestinian-Israeli peace. “Three” is not one of them.
According to published descriptions, the first section of “Three,” called “Bellus” or “Beauty,” has plenty of Naharin’s signature stillness plus a virtuoso man’s solo and is set to Glenn Gould’s version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Ten dancers face the audience “with calm interest,” wrote Tobi Tobias for Bloomberg News. Then a male dancer does a solo “of peculiar moves linked simply by the dancer’s fluidity and physical power. Some of these moves are undeniably beautiful, but as if by accident; others are downright weird.”
A transition features a dancer with a television “hat” that broadcasts program notes read by the choreographer. “Humus (Nature)” is set for nine women to the softish music of Brian Eno. Wendy Perron of Dance Magazine describes how the women “push their pelvises forward, not seductively, but like they are each a slowly bending tree trunk. Then they jerk their hands out low to their sides, as though they are all hiccupping in unison. Every phrase was unpredictable, not like it was trying to be different, but because that’s how people are. It was an intensification of the many aspects of humankinds.”
The last part of this 70-minute triptych, performed without intermission, is set to various pop songs, including those of the Beach Boys. “They shrugged shoulders, retracted legs, flailed arms, stretched necks,” wrote dance critic Janice Berman of a San Francisco performance. “They shimmied, did tangos and splits, made odd noises deep in their throats, poked their faces with their fingers, navigated the stage on their butts, quivered hands, and extended tongues. Oh yeah, and dropped trou. A few did, anyway.”
“Three” was a smash hit at the sold-out Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall, says Fortis. Married to the Israeli rock star Rami Fortis, she manages the company, leaving Naharin free to choreograph. She explains that Naharin has a special relationship with New York audiences who have been connected to his work for nearly three decades and are eager to see how his work evolves each year. “They were raving,” says Fortin. “They were really prepared to see ‘Three.’”
Batsheva also tours to McCarter every few years (2004 was the latest appearance) and two years ago audiences saw a Naharin work, “Minus 16,” performed by the Chicago-based Hubbard Street Dance Company. “The Princeton audience is also connected to us,” says Fortis. That’s truer than she realizes, because it was more than 25 years ago that Naharin first came to Princeton.
Born on a kibbutz in 1952, to a dancer mother and psychologist father, Naharin participated in folk dance, gymnastics, and music, but his first formal dance experience came at the age of 22. He took a two-week course at Batsheva, founded in 1964 by Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild of the French banking dynasty and an avid patron of Martha Graham. He wowed his teachers and was invited to join the company.
After one year at Batsheva, Graham invited Naharin to New York. He also studied at the School of American Ballet and at Juilliard, and took classes with Maggie Black and David Howard. Then he danced in Brussels with Maurice Bejart and in Israel with Bat-Dor, the second company that Rothschild founded.
Naharin spent the ‘80s working and performing in New York. He formed a company in partnership with his wife, Mari Kajiwara (who died of cancer in 2001). In 1987 he was a guest choreographer at Netherlands Dance Theater, and his works are in the repertory of noted companies worldwide. He has won two “Bessie” awards (for New York performances) and the Chevalier de l’ordre des Art et des Lettres from the French government.
But in 1982, when he was just starting out on his own, Naharin performed at 185 Nassau Street at the invitation of Ze’eva Cohen, head of dance at Princeton University. To quote myself (I was writing for the Trenton Times then), he showed “intriguing choreography and a powerful, daring technique, with risk-taking acrobatics used for dramatic purpose.” He did a quizzical but powerful solo with a shopping cart. “On it, he careened, off it, he jumped, and the dance ended with the cart’s gate flapping idly like the doorway to an abandoned ghetto building.” (October 29, 1982, Trenton Times).
All of our personal history is reflected in our movement, he said to interviewer Aimee Ts’ao, West Coast bureau chief for Dance Insider magazine: “Our weaknesses, our strengths, our sexuality, our intelligence, our awareness of the universe have a lot to do with how we dance.” So it makes sense that this extraordinary choreographer, who came late to dance, “from the inside out” as his inspiration.
That doesn’t mean he discards more traditional techniques. Even though Naharin trains his dancers in Gaga, he believes dancers should start out with classical training. He won’t hold children’s classes in it either, preferring to overlay the traditional technique with extra layers of sensuality and sensibilities.
So what’s a Gaga experience? Last fall Naharin spoke, after a concert, with the BAM audience and gave this example (as noted by Dance Magazine’s Perrone). First, pretend your chair is shaking so your whole body trembles. When you have figured out how to do that, make a fist with one hand but keep it still. When you can both shake your body and clench your fist, move your head slowly, smoothly, from side to side.
Doing three things simultaneously can put your senses off balance and leave you more open to experiencing different impulses and textures. Naharin wants dancers to have fabulous technique, but he also wants them to open themselves and reach deep into their psyches to connect their emotions with their movement. After all, as Martha Graham would say, “Movement does not lie.”
Batsheva Dance Company, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Monday, February 2, 8 p.m. “Three (Shalosh),” an expansive three-part work, is set to music from Brian Eno, the Beach Boys, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Contains nudity. $41 to $44. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.