Limited access to Gaga guru
Mr. Gaga, the 2015 documentary effort by Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann, examines the life and work of famed modern dance choreographer Ohad Naharin.
Naharin is the sort of person for whom the documentary genre exists. A brooding genius, he is the kind of artist we imagine artists to be, yet Heymann fails to illuminate his subject beyond the charm and allure of his constant scowl.
The film opens with Naharin sitting in a folding chair to the side of a rehearsal stage. In the center of the stage, a young female dancer is mid-routine. She begins to quiver, her spasms grow stronger and with a thud she collapses to the floor.
“Way too much control, did you sense it?” he asks the dancer as she collects herself. Thud. She hits the floor again, and again and again. “Are you stressed?” he asks. “No,” she says. “So do it again,” he answers.
The film follows Naharin’s progression in dance, from his childhood in Israel, to the beginnings of his career in New York and to his appointment as director of the famed Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv.
The film’s title comes from the movement style known as Gaga, which Naharin developed at Batsheva. More a language than a technique, Gaga is a form of dance in which the body’s instinctual movements are valued over the constraints of classical training and form.
On the surface, this premise—the uncompromising virtuoso mixed with a disruptive take on a notoriously conservative art form—has all the features of a compelling documentary, yet the sum of this film is less than that of its parts.
The execution is at times confusing and the filmmaker’s intent is not always clear. Heymann intercuts many of the films segments with situated vignettes from Naharin’s productions. Typically this maneuver is used to highlight the artist’s progress toward actualization. These scenes are more a “best of” highlight reel and dislocate the narrative arch in which they are placed.
Compounding this, the timeline is further muddied as much of the archival footage jumps back and forth between periods of Naharin’s life without warning. There is a moment in the second act where Naharin, who also narrates the film, reveals a lie on which the first act was structured. Rather than pressing Naharin on this subject, the incident is passed over and is neither revisited nor reconciled.
Many aspects of Naharin’s personal life are only teased, leaving a true understanding of the man absent from the film’s overall discourse. In this respect, the film feels incredibly behind the times when stacked up against contemporaries in the genre.
Ultimately the film falls victim to the level of access Naharin granted it. Heymann appears to hesitate at any opportunity to be critical of Naharin. In avoiding conflict, Heymann deprives the film of any true drama. This would be half-forgivable if in turn the mechanics and innovations of Naharin’s style were closely examined, but here too the viewer is left wanting. The vernacular of modern dance is left esoteric and foreign and little is discussed of what made Gaga so groundbreaking.
Insiders will enjoy the access to Naharin, but for those not already familiar with his work, or the basics of modern dance, this is perhaps not the best place to start.
Sun., Apr. 23 (1 pm)
Mr. Gaga w/ opening performance by Mile Zero Dance Studio
Metro Cinema, $10