The film opens with Naharin quietly but authoritatively instructing a young female dancer on how to perform a painful looking backwards fall (“you need to find a way to let go”). Her virtually nude-coloured costume resembles an antiquated bathing suit and imparts to her an appearance of almost unbearable vulnerability when juxtaposed with the leather jacketed, jeans-clad choreographer, and the street clothes of assorted onlookers. The film returns to this initial image at the very end but this time in actual performance when the same dancer executes the same movement to perfection in front of a packed audience, hitting the stage deck with a thudding, vaguely ominous finality.
There are many examples of Naharin’s work featured throughout the documentary, some of it grainy and antiquated -such as footage of the 1970s Army Entertainment Group with whom he performed in the Golan Heights, all cheesy plaid outfits with choreography to match- but most of it compelling, beautifully shot accounts of his more recent work. If there is a cavil here it is that there are moments when, taken out of context, the muted colour pallets and simple elegance of the multi-racial dance troupe’s costumes can make you feel like you are watching a particularly artful Benetton ad. The longer sections -showcasing Naharin’s sinewy, frenetic, dislocating style that is all manic energy one second and eerie calm the very next- fare better.
Beginning his dance career comparatively late (he was 22) with the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva company, Ohad Naharin was spotted by Martha Graham (“she fell in love with me” he proclaims in the film, clearly not a man to engage in false modesty; he later describes how he used his looks to get into Maurice Béjart’s troupe) and was whisked off to New York, where he met his first partner -both dance and life- the Alvin Ailey star Mari Kajiwara. I said at the beginning that the film is surprising and so it proves as Naharin who, despite oodles of screen time, remains fascinatingly unknowable: he admits near the end how much of the important biographical detail he told us at the outset is in fact a fiction (“making up a story is the best answer to something that is a little bit elusive.”)
Naharin returned to Israel in 1990 to take up artistic leadership of the Batsheva Dance Company and the film interestingly documents the controversy surrounding his creation
“Echad Mi Yodea”, which features dozens of dancers stripping from their sombre black suits into their underwear to the strains of a traditional Passover song. Due to be the centrepiece of the 50th Anniversary of Israel in 1988, the disrobement down to undergarments confused and upset powerful religious leaders and an attempt was made to get the dancers to wear full leotards beneath their suits. In the ensuing row, Naharin resigned and his loyal dancers refused to perform. From the footage we get to see, the piece itself is bold, wild and thrilling, with the renting of the constricting formal wear down to the bare minimum of clothing proving liberating and oddly moving.
In the last half hour, the film delivers something of an emotional sucker punch as it describes Mari’s not-entirely-happy life alongside Ohad in Israel (despite relocating there she never took her wristwatch off NYC time; and we see Naharin’s formidable relatives berating her for not learning Hebrew fast enough) before her untimely death of cervical cancer at only 50 years old. On top of this, there is beautiful footage of Ohad leading dance workshops for a hugely varied group of people of all ages, some of them severely disabled, powerfully and persuasively underlining his conviction that everybody should engage in dance. This is further supported by a clip from a Batsheva piece featuring a heavy-set male dancer free-styling joyously alongside more traditionally shaped performers.
Of the Gaga movement technique -connecting extreme physical effort with pleasure, listening to the body before instructing it how to behave/perform- that Naharin developed and teaches, the documentary is surprisingly vague, given the film’s title, although it does feature a ringing endorsement from film star (and Gaga fan) Natalie Portman. The film is far more focused on the cultural and geographical influences that have informed Naharin’s choreographic work: he makes it very clear that the return to Israel from the US in the 1990s was essential to him both artistically and personally.
The film covers Naharin’s current relationship with fellow dancer Eri Nakamura, who bears a passing resemblance to the late Kajiwara and with whom he has had a child; there is a revealing scene where Ohad orders their somewhat vocal child out of a rehearsal he is conducting, and minutes later Nakamura grabs her bag and storms out, ignoring Naharin’s entreaties to stay. The subsequent long shot of the choreographer sitting alone staring into space after her departure speaks volumes about the isolation and demands of the artistic spirit versus normal family life.
Naharin is seen at his most appealing being subversive, playful, flamboyant: taking a curtain call with his company, clad in a ruby red floor length gown -a nod perhaps to the perceived androgyny of his dance persona- while his cast sport the same sanguine colour but in skimpier outfits; some delightful footage of him stumbling to the ground while walking up an outdoor staircase, then turning to the camera in apparent embarrassment before continuing the climb and repeating the exact same fall…..
This film is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in contemporary dance, and offers a fascinating insight into the life and influences of one of its most dynamic and original practitioners. An elegant, revealing, engaging, if occasionally frustrating, piece of work.
Alun Hood writes for Whatsonstage and is an Olivier Judge. He has worked in
theatre for over 25 years.