Movies

Movie Review

‘Mr. Gaga’ takes a fascinating look at dance

A scene from Tomer Heymann’s documentary ”Mr. Gaga.”

Gadi Dagon/Abramorama

A scene from Tomer Heymann’s documentary ”Mr. Gaga.”

Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv and the subject of Tomer Heymann’s fascinating if frustratingly discursive documentary “Mr. Gaga,” does not seem gaga at all. On the other hand, he is a bit like Lady Gaga in that his staging of his performances is striking and original.

Basically, he seems much like other visionary artists, such as Pina Bausch in Wim Wenders’s “Pina” (2011) or Benjamin Millepied in Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai’s “Reset” (2015), except maybe a little more imposing.

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So what is the “Gaga” business all about? Heymann never explicitly explains. But slowly it emerges that Gaga is Naharin’s “dance language,” a way of expressing one’s inner being through external movement. Gaga is dada — for dancers.

Luckily, “Mr. Gaga” does not settle for such mystifications. Heymann had access to Naharin’s family home videos and other archival material, and so we see Naharin at various stages of his life. We see him as a toddler romping with other naked children at a kibbutz, which for him was a kind of Eden before he was torn from it at an early age. He appears as a young man serving in an entertainment unit of the Israeli Army during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, singing what he describes as “bad songs” while tanks burn and bodies bloat on the Golan Heights.

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Other landmarks in his career pass by — his membership in the Martha Graham dance company, his marriage to Mari Kajiwara, a lead dancer in the Alvin Ailey company, his return to Israel to resurrect the moribund Batsheva Company — all laconically commented on by Naharin in voice-over.

Best of all, Heymann shows generous glimpses of Naharin’s startling, funny, and disturbing choreography. They range from a piece from the 1980s, in which Naharin himself dances with a shopping cart, to “Kyr,” based on the Passover Seder, which was performed in 1998 for the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. In it, rows of dancers dressed in identical suits are seated in folding chairs. They chant a Passover song, undress to their skivvies, and toss their clothes onto the floor.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders found it to be sacrilegious and demanded that the dancers wear something decent. Instead, Naharin resigned and the company refused to perform. Pro-Naharin demonstrations sprung up, Naharin took his job back, and the performance of “Kyr” went on as intended.

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Sometimes freeing bodies can open minds.


MR. GAGA

Directed and written by Tomer Heymann. Starring Ohad Naharin. At Kendall Square. 101 minutes. Unrated (sometimes suggestive dancing). In English and Hebrew, with subtitles.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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