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The Making of Mr. Gaga: A Fascinating Duet Between Choreographer Ohad Naharin and His Filmmaker

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You could say that the first time Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann saw the Batsheva Dance Company perform, it was a religious experience. Upon seeing the seminal piece “Echad Mi Yodea” on stage in Tel Aviv in 1991, he ran to the shore next to the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre and threw himself into the ocean.

“I was drunk with no alcohol. A junkie without smoking. No drugs, no nothing. I was high. Only from watching a piece of dance from someone I never heard of,” says Heymann, then 21. “He had taken this text that’s in my blood and in my history and completely switched it around so it was about sexuality and gender. I had never seen anything like it. Ever.”

That someone was renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. And the piece, translated as “Who Knows One?” is based on a traditional children’s song recited around the table during the Jewish Passover Seder. Naharin’s riveting interpretation has the dancers dressed in dark suits, white shirts and black hats. It’s hard to decipher any of the dancers’ gender. They sit in chairs in a semicircle on the stage and methodically repeat verses of the song, from one to 13, while performing powerful movements tied to each phrase.

It’s no wonder that Heymann’s new documentary about Naharin’s life, "Mr. GaGa: A True Story of Love and Dance," which makes its west coast premiere at the USC Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center as part of Dance Camera West, begins with the company performing that work. While it continues a successful run in Israeli theaters, Los Angeles is the second stop for Heymann’s "Mr. GaGa" (following New York) as it travels the U.S. presented by Abramorama. The film, which shows at Laemmle Theaters February 10-16, has received high praise on the global festival circuit including being named Audience Award Winner at SXSW, best documentary at Sofia International Film Festival, audience choice at IDFA and San Francisco Film Festival, among others.

Mr Gaga
Batsheva Dance Company performing | Courtesy of Gadi Dagon

The film provides perhaps the first-ever holistic look at Naharin’s life and career, because, surprisingly, "Mr. GaGa" distinguishes itself as the only documentary on the famously enigmatic choreographer that exists. Its title comes from the innovative movement language created by Naharin after injuring his back on stage, which he calls GaGa, and uses as a tool to enhance his dancers’ performance and push them as artists to explore dance in profoundly different ways.

Heymann utilizes Naharin’s tremendous breadth of work (including "Kir" in 1990 and "Z/na" in 1995 and "The Last Work" in 2015) to connect the many “puzzle pieces” of the award-winning choreographer’s fascinating life, from growing up on an Israeli kibbutz to performing for soldiers in the Israeli army, and then his critical formative years spent in New York simultaneously attending Juilliard and the School of American Ballet. While in New York, Naharin danced for such companies as Martha Graham and Maurice Bejart's Ballet — and feeling artistically unsatisfied left each shortly after he joined. During his New York years, Naharin also met his future wife Mari Kajiwara, a star of the Alvin Ailey dance company. Naharin and Kajiwara would collaborate for many years until her death from cancer in 2001. 

The story about how Heymann and Naharin finally came to collaborate on a film could itself be fodder for a screenplay.

As a new arrival to Tel Aviv, 25 years earlier, a young Heymann began working as a waiter in a small coffee shop. Meanwhile, the same year, Naharin moved to Israel with Kajiwara after he was asked to be the artistic director for Batsheva Dance Company, which was in need of a fresh artistic approach.

Every Saturday, he waited on an “impressive” couple, who stood out to him because they were both “sexy, charismatic, beautiful, strong, different.” It was Naharin and his wife, Mari, and he remembered them also because they “always tipped him 30 percent,” he said.

Following the evening of Heymann’s baptismal experience in the Mediterranean Sea, he returned to see Batsheva perform 30 more times that month. He also became involved romantically with one of the dancers and found himself back stage one night after the show with his camera. He and Naharin, who at that point only knew one another from the context of the coffee shop, were astonished to confront each other in the theater. “I said, ‘Wow, what are you doing here?,’ and he said, ‘Nice to meet you. I am Ohad Naharin and I created this show. Take your camera off and never dare to shoot my show again.’”

Mr Gaga - Ohad Naharin
Ohad Naharin  | Courtesy of Gadi Dagon

And he wouldn’t shoot the company again for a long while. Heymann put in his years establishing himself as a filmmaker, and then Israel’s Channel 8 documentary television station commissioned him to create the film as part of a new series they were planning on exploring various cultural professions in Israel. He pursued Naharin who repeatedly refused to allow filming. Frustrated and angry, Heymann finally sat down with the choreographer to understand why.

“He told me, ‘Tomer, you want to kill me. You want to kill my soul.’ And of course this shocked me. And then he said, ‘You might shoot a piece 20 or 60 times, but at the end of the day you will choose one frame you feel serves as the narrative of the movie, not the narrative of the dance, and you’re going to freeze it forever for those who are coming to see the movie. The frame they see from whatever you choose is forever what the piece will be. This is against my agenda and against my ideology. The reason I do what I do is so that the power of my work isn’t frozen forever.’”

“This was our duet: a dance between the wish to be vanishing and the wish to have something captured forever,” Heymann said.

It wasn’t until Naharin invited him to film his work on a company, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York, that things finally got rolling. Heymann spent five days in studio in New York filming and the end result was a 50-minute documentary on Naharin called "Out of Focus."

Following that shoot, Heymann told Naharin: “Now I want to make the movie about Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company. It doesn’t make sense the movie I created about you has no Batsheva inside it. And then I started doing 'Mr. GaGa.'”

89c_0166-mr.-gaga-photo-by-gadi-dagon.jpg
Batsheva Dance Company performing | Courtesy of Gadi Dagon

The filming was originally supposed to take a year. It took eight. Heymann recalls there were many versions of the film, and his funders were starting to lose trust that he could complete it. “They thought I had lost my way and I was afraid to finish it.” After nearly bankrupting his production company that he ran with his younger brother Barak, actress Natalie Portman — who he calls “modest and beautiful” — came to their rescue. She was a GaGa devotee and agreed to be part of a Kickstarter campaign that would ultimately revive the project by raising $84,000.

And so they continued to film. Heymann himself saw no end in sight and felt unsure if he’d ever know when to finalize the “labyrinth” he was creating of Naharin’s life. Then, one night he found himself in the editing room, and went through the film as it existed scene by scene.

“I closed my eyes and I just heard the sound of the movie and I started to see if I remembered it by heart,” he said. “I told myself if I’m stuck, then the movie isn’t ready. At that moment, the movie and I felt at peace, we were good to each other. I loved the movie and from this moment I am not influenced by what anyone will tell me. I have a commitment to the integrity to this creation.”

Something also important to Heymann was bringing Mari back to life. “Most don’t know Mari’s story. Mari was forgotten by many. She was devoted to dance and to Ohad. So the movie was about love. And the pain and price you sometimes pay.”

He also says it sends an important message to aspiring artists. “You have to be brave and listen to yourself. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and go against the mainstream.”

And what does Naharin think of seeing his life laid out on film?

“You know, I don’t feel like I’m watching my life laid out. I’m watching my life through the eyes of Tomer. It’s fun,” said Naharin by phone from New York. “Some of it is true, some of it is how Tomer chose to manipulate and portray it. And at the end it’s very true to the idea that I live like I have nothing to hide, so it’s fine.”

For ticket information for 'Mr. GaGa' and filmmaker Q&As, please go here. For more information about Dance Camera West’s upcoming 16th Annual Dance Media Film Festival and other DCW activities, visit here.

Top image: Batsheva Dance Company performing. | Photo: Gadi Dagon

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