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Danielle Agami Brings Israeli Dance Craze to L.A.

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Dancer Sarah Lyman | Photo: Scott Simock.

For the past year, Danielle Agami, founder and artistic director of Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY, has been spreading the gospel of Gaga across Los Angeles. No, not that Gaga, but a distinctive movement art form out of Tel Aviv, Israel, that's been enjoying its own ardent fan base around the globe.

Agami, a former Batsheva Dance Company (BDC) dancer and choreographer, is an ambassador for Gaga U.S.A., the organization that fosters the Gaga movement language developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin as a tool to enhance performance qualities for dancers and as a way to build flexibility and strength for non-dancers.

Gaga movement is much like it sounds: playful, sumptuous and alternately precise and powerful, with the ability to evoke humor, vulnerability and strength. There are two teaching tracks of Gaga, one for professional dancers and one for untrained "movers." For the non-professional student, Gaga training is quite different than with other forms of dance and movement; there are no arabesque lines to hit or poses to hold. The movement is improvisational, guided by imagery, so it's not uncommon to hear the instructor say things like: "soften your flesh and move your body as if you have no bones" or "move only your bones as if you made of wood." And there are a few house rules: There is no looking in the mirror (which is covered); and no guests are allowed to sit and observe. This allows students to move with abandon and use their imaginations and senses, not their reflections, to explore their movement.

In Tel Aviv and other parts of the world, Gaga is an absolute craze, similar perhaps to the yoga or Pilates movement in the U.S. though without the accompanying apparel lines. In Gaga classes, T-Shirts and loose fitting shorts seem just fine.

Since arriving in L.A. in 2013, Agami has held dozens of Gaga training workshops and developed a smattering of devotees who flock to her Sunday open classes where anyone is welcome. On a Sunday in December, about 20 students packed into a room at Arabesque Studios, ranging from middle-aged "regular" people to professional dancers. The class began with a slow warm up to wake up the body and parts of the anatomy that typically aren't activated, like the middle toe or scalp. During class students explored ways of moving designed to heighten sensitivity and build strength and flexibility. Throughout the hour-long class, calmly guided by Agami, students were in constant motion; crawling on the floor, walking, falling, wrist circling, head rolling, arching and kicking through space. Agami ended class by "getting your groove on" that began subtly and then exploded into movement that had every part of the body gyrating -- raw and controlled all at once.

"Gaga is revolutionary," says Agami, who at 29, is one of only 50 Gaga teachers worldwide. "There is no right or wrong in Gaga. It includes moments of understatement together with moments of exaggeration."

Agami, who was born in Jerusalem, trained at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance High School and was a member of BDC from 2002-2010. Growing up she had set her sights on practicing medicine, but that all changed when she began her training at BDC. Through Naharin she was schooled on Gaga, and within a year began teaching the movement to company dancers.

Duet | Photo: Denise Leitner
Duet | Photo: Denise Leitner

In the midst of her Gaga ambassador duties, Agami has also built her own professional contemporary dance company, Ate9, which she transplanted to L.A. from Seattle as its official home base a year ago. Gaga is a tool she uses on a daily basis while choreographing her original repertory, where she supports leaving room for improvisation and individual exploration.

The troupe performed its first evening-length work, "Sally meets Stu," at Café Club Fais Do-Do this past summer--a stunning, award-winning piece that has been met with critical acclaim along the West Coast. Ate9 will perform the piece again on Feb. 8, 2014 presented by the Carpenter Performing Arts Center. A new piece, "mouth to mouth" with an original score by Los Angeles based composer, Jodie Landau, is also in the works for an April debut. The 55-minute contemporary dance explores the individual personalities of the Ate9 dancers, Agami says, and "touches upon what we all have in common -- communication, the lack of communication, the things we miss, the things that get old, and the gaps in between."


mouth to mouth in process from Danielle Agami on Vimeo.

On Jan. 24 and Jan. 25, 2014, Agami will hold an intimate performance of "mouth to mouth" followed by a Q&A to show "the seeds of the new creation" at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.

According to Agami, the combination of open classes to the public and a local performing company has helped people to embrace the Gaga concept by being able to connect with the movement on different levels. Her L.A. strategy seems to be working; Israel is sending in some re-enforcements. In February Schachar Binyamini from BDC will join Agami from Tel Aviv and help Agami launch a Gaga summer intensive for professional dancers in L.A.

"They are committed and willing to invest in LA," she says.

Dancer Danielle Agami | Photo: Denise Scott Simock

At the same time, she's been building her name by choreographing new works for various projects, such as the highly acclaimed avant-garde opera, Invisible Cities with The Industry and LA Dance Project, and the Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration. She also continues to set Naharin's choreography on professional companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Atlanta Ballet and It Dansa, Barcelona.

"I hope to create a very stable home in L.A. I think this city is big enough for us and we have a fair chance to change the perception of dance here," she says. "We (as a company) are very complete with this decision."

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