The members of Batsheva Dance Company look dangerous, predatory. They're feral cats, at once totally in control and totally wild. You feel like they're always on the verge of boiling over—always just about to explode.
I saw these creatures perform Batsheva director Ohad Naharin's Hora at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night. And though the work, like all of Naharin's pieces, was a good time—darkly funny, set to synthesized snippets of very familiar melodies (the Star Wars theme, anyone? or maybe a little "kill the wabbit" Wagner?)—it was the dancers who knocked the wind out of me.
While they're fantastic movers, the Batsheva dancers aren't all technicians in a traditional sense. I don't think I'd want to see most of them in a ballet class. Then again, maybe I would: They make you want to watch them do ANYTHING. I would gladly watch the hypnotic Iyar Elezra tie her shoes for hours. She's a tractor beam—you're immediately drawn in. And there's something fascinating about the way all the dancers arrive at positions. There's no balletic "here-I-go-from-point-A-to-point-B." They settle into a shape the way you might wriggle into a pair of jeans: a few calculated adjustments before everything zips together.
The most remarkable parts of Hora—of any of Naharin's pieces, really—are when the dancers move in unison. They harmonize well; there's zero confusion about what the choreography is supposed to look like, and a current of electricity runs from body to body, connecting them all. Yet every dancer's treatment of each phrase is utterly his or her own. They somehow embody both community and individuality at the same time. How is that not an oxymoron? I don't know. But it isn't.
A lot of the Batsheva dancers' unique qualities come out of Gaga, a movement language Naharin invented (years before Lady Gaga came around, for the record). Gaga is all about self-awareness and visualization; verbal instructions like "imagine the floor is getting very hot" or simply "thick" inspire ways of moving. Naharin often has his dancers improvise as he choreographs, giving them a prompt and letting them go. So watching parts of his dances is like doing a puzzle backwards: What instruction did Naharin give that generated all these different responses?
As you can probably tell, I'm having a hard time putting my finger on what it is, exactly, that makes these dancers so extraordinary. And in dance, if a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video is worth 1,000,000. So here are some excerpts from Hora. See the magic for yourself:
In a mirror-less dance studio, your teacher asks you to move as if you’re in the shower and the hot water has suddenly disappeared. What do you do? You twitch, you vibrate. You can almost feel that freezing-cold water pelting your shoulders. As you shiver, you imagine how that movement affects each molecule in your body. Without mirrors, you’re able to let go and dance with abandon. You’re in a Gaga class.
Choreography by Gaga’s creator, Ohad Naharin, is popping up in the repertoire of top companies around the world. These days, dancers in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal all speak Gaga. And that means it’s becoming a must-have tool for aspiring professional dancers.
A Brief History of Gaga
Naharin took the helm of the Batsheva Dance Company—located in Tel Aviv, Israel—in 1990. He began experimenting with a different kind of warm-up—a movement language he had developed to work through his own injuries. He named it Gaga, and it soon became the basis for training in the company, in lieu of ballet.
Gaga classes are now offered regularly across the U.S., particularly in major cities like NYC, Chicago and San Francisco, and in university settings like The Juilliard School, Stanford University and The Ohio State University. Classes are taught by Batsheva company members (current and former), as well as certified teachers.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Jessica Tong and Jesse Bechard in Ohad Naharin's Passomezzo (photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy HSDC)
Why You Need It
“Gaga isn’t a technique. It’s a movement language,” says Bobbi Smith, a former member of the Batsheva Dance Company who currently teaches Gaga at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and at Stanford. “You can use what you find through Gaga in ballet, Cunningham or Graham classes. Or out on the dance floor at a club, or when you run a mile. It gives you the keys to make your engine stronger.”
Other styles focus on perfecting form, but Gaga is different. “Ballet has a known aesthetic that you try to emulate. With Gaga, there is no sense of perfection, there is no absolute,” says Glenn Edgerton, artistic director of Hubbard Street. Gaga “is about electrifying the body as opposed to looking at your lines,” says Hubbard Street’s Jessica Tong, who has performed a number of Naharin’s works.
What to Expect
“Connect your effort to your pleasure.”
“Listen to how your skin touches the air around you.”
“Connect to your floating spine.”
“Be delicate with the availability to snap.”
“Connect to your groove.”
These are all phrases you may hear from your teacher in a Gaga class.
Teachers use detailed imagery to help dancers awaken specific body parts. “You bring focus to your legs, thighs and shoulders, but that moves into your fingertips, your palms, the back of your hands, the joints of your feet, your cheeks, your earlobes,” Tong says. “You get a tingly feeling when you’re that awake.”
Don’t expect any two Gaga classes to be the same, though. “Each class changes depending on the mood and energy within the room, from dancer to dancer,” Edgerton says.
Make It Work for You
“Dancers who are new to Gaga might feel self-conscious—you’re bouncing and shaking around a lot,” Tong says. But remember, finding freedom in the form is the whole point—and you’ll get out what you put in, just like any other dance class.
“As a teacher, I’m giving specific instructions, but it’s really up to you to explore and determine what the volume of your effort is going to be,” says Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer Navarra Novy-Williams, who teaches Gaga regularly in NYC at the Gibney Dance Center and Mark Morris Dance Center.
If you’re a dancer who is always in performance mode, even in the studio, Tong suggests sticking with Gaga and moving through the uncomfortable moments. “It can be so liberating to break the rules.”
Remember that feeling you used to get on Christmas morning, as you ran downstairs to see what presents were waiting for you under the tree? That's how I felt walking into the Juilliard Dances Repertory concert last night. The annual showcase gives Juilliard's stable of dancers a chance to tackle well-known contemporary works. And every year, new faces have big breakout moments. Hence the Christmas-tree feeling: What phenomenal young dancers will surprise us this time around?
This year's lineup includes works by Jose Limón (The Waldstein Sonata), Nacho Duato (Gnawa) and Ohad Naharin (Secus). Three very big names—and three very different styles. It was wonderful to see Maddie Swenson, one of last year's Cover Model Search finalists, come into her own in Gnawa, and to discover the delightfully odd Kyle Scheurich (who reminds me of recent Juilliard alum Billy Barry—right down to his topknot) in Secus. But I left thinking less about individual dancers and more about the remarkable range all these young artists have. To be able to transform themselves into celestial innocents in the Limón, sensual mystics in the Duato and alien flashers (!) in the Naharin—how extraordinary is that?