Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company based in Tel Aviv, was recently in residence at Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Chelsea studio teaching a training method he developed called “gaga.”
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet will perform Naharin’s Decadance, from June 7th—July 1st. The work includes segments created over two decades from ten dances. Naharin spoke with Susan Yung between Decadance rehearsals.
Susan Yung (Rail): Gaga—how did it come about and how is it used to train?
Ohad Naharin (Naharin): It was a correlation between me having a serious injury and the need to articulate what I learned in order to give it to the people I work with as a choreographer. I didn’t only develop what was good for me, but I had to develop what was good for other dancers: recognizing one’s weaknesses, getting in touch with efficiency of movement and multi-dimensional movement, explosive power, the connection between pleasure, pain, and effort…things that constantly push my dancers beyond familiar limits. Respecting “old school” but learning to not recognize it in your work. It’s not meant to replace anything, but to help people like Cedar Lake’s dancers, because they’ve never done gaga until a month ago. They were beautiful dancers already, but in the month we’ve worked together I see how far they came by utilizing it.
About eight years ago, a non-dancer in my office said, “We want to dance too.” I met with six people, none a dancer, twice a week. Out of that came something very influential to the development of gaga—that it is a way of conditioning and taking care of your body that has nothing to do with the ambition to be onstage. Four years ago, we turned gaga into the way the company is trained; before, it was ballet. It was then that I gave it the name gaga. Now it’s really the heart of what we do. Gaga is not so much the choreography; gaga is more taking care of the body. The choreography is not trying to be loyal to or show gaga—like you can train yourself in tai chi or ballet— but the choreography will be just the language of the choreographer. You don’t want to recognize the method gaga. We just use gaga to help us become more sensitive, more alert, more quick.
Rail: Does it also help to shed the affectations that come with classical training?
Naharin: Absolutely. It’s one of the most important things. It’s very hard to dance with the idea of what not to do. By replacing what not to do with what to do so it’s different. Without affectation, you can achieve a lot. Because when a dancer does this (flairs hand) and you tell him don’t do it, then he doesn’t know what to do! But if he learns how to replace it with something else and can still enjoy it, the affectation goes away and everything can still feel total and comfortable.
Rail: In your work, some movement phrases seem to be accumulations of unrelated gestures. Are they different gestures strung together, or are they acontinuous thought or impulse?
Naharin: I think there are a lot of reasons behind movement; it’s never one idea. It’s about trying to abolish the clarity of the reasons, even though I have many reasons and each reason is very clear. It can be the pleasure of movement, and can be the research of multi-dimensionality, of exaggeration, sensuality, geometry, coldness, temperature—so it can be a lot of things all in one gesture. Somehow the balance of all the things I just said changes, and this is why the gesture changes, because it is made of different balances.
Rail: Do you set work on many other companies than your own? And how is it to set work on a company other than Batsheva?
Naharin: I don’t choreograph on other companies. At Cedar Lake I re-choreographed a few things because I have a chance to visit and I can make it [the work] better and also I enjoy it better. I only choreograph for my company, but a lot of companies do my work. For me it’s always a learning experience to work with new dancers—It makes me look fresh at the material. Sometimes it’s not something Batsheva is doing anymore. So it’s nice to keep it alive, and many times when we bring it back to my company, then it will affect the level and the freshness.
Rail: Is there much collaboration with the dancers in your choreography?
Naharin: A lot. Here when I teach something, it’s a little bit less, and they’re not used to it. But at Batsheva when I choreograph, they’re not just interpreters; they’re also inventors of movement. I listen to them, to their opinions; they influence me.
Rail: Why do you include so much audience participation in your work?
Naharin: It’s not so much. Out of my body of work, maybe there are three works with audience participation—Telophaza, Anaphaza and Mamootot. In Telophaza it came from my belief that everybody should dance… to give people open to it an opportunity to feel something through dancing, that they can then do it on their own. And remember that we can get pleasure and regeneration, or whatever, out of dancing. It’s also always a moment of composition, of organization. When you have 1,000 people move in an organized way, it’s a moment of composition. It can also create a social comment, or a social conscience. It can be many things –funny, silly— it can connect you to memories, to sentiment. It’s just like any other moment in that sense, of composition without the audience.
Rail: When creating an evening-length piece like Anaphaza, how do you decide what to include?
Naharin: The first version of Anaphaza was supposed to be a one-time experience. I was commissioned to do an opening ceremony for the Israeli Festival and I agreed. The idea of doing something just for one performance was exciting, it put me in a different state of mind. But then we liked it. I took a different version and developed it three months later into Anaphaza. When I did the opening ceremony, it had this feeling of being kind of all over the place, in sections—it became many ideas. But for me, it’s important to create a coherency. I can tell many stories, partial stories, and I don’t feel I’m committed to finish them. But I’m committed to put them together in a coherent way, which is the show.
Rail: Did you study music, and are you going to play more guitar, like you did in Anaphaza?
Naharin: I studied piano, guitar and recorder. I have my guitar here. I have a one-man show in a club in Israel. I haven’t done it in a year because I was busy, but now I’m going to do it again. I call it one-man, but I have two dancers with me. On a very small stage… like this table, but it’s a real club. I hope to bring it to New York one day. I have to translate it because it’s in Hebrew.
Rail: In a section of Naharin’s Virus, the groupings begin separately, and then build and coalesce to a kind of visual crescendo, like a symphony. Do you think of musical structure at all when creating?
Naharin: Not consciously… I think my education and love of music helps my sense of composition, and a buildup, like you said, a crescendo… there is a correlation. But it’s not conscious; I don’t think of it.
Rail: Text can be visual and aural texture, as in Virus. Do you ever look at dance that way—that it can be textural, rather than weighted with meaning?
Naharin: Totally. Texture is one of the most meaningful things to me, in dancing—to recognize it as a spectator, but especially use it as a performer. And for me the meaning comes out of recognizing those elements. For me, the meaning of a good dance is in realizing the composition, the tension between the elements, the dynamics… that’s the meaning of the work; it comes out of there. That’s why you cannot tell a dance. And if you can tell a dance, it’s maybe not a very good dance.
Susan Yung is a New York-based writer specializing in dance and art.
Ohad Naharin rehearsing Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet company. Photograph by Paul B. Goode.
Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.