Mark Reviews Movies

Mr. Gaga


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tomer Heymann

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 2/1/17 (limited); 3/31/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 30, 2017

At one point in Mr. Gaga, Ohad Naharin, the documentary's subject, admits that he has lied to the filmmakers and, by extension, us about a key part of his biography. He apparently has been lying about it for as long as people have been asking him the question: Why did he start dancing?

The answer to that question is kind of important. It's the sort of question that's usually in the top three of ones to ask someone who has revolved his or her life around a specific field. It's basic stuff, and Naharin has created a fiction about it.

Usually, this is the moment when we start to distrust someone, but Naharin has a good reason for the deception. It's simple: What would be the point of answering that question? The man, who's seen in home videos twirling as a child, didn't actually take up any professional dance training until the age of 22. That's pretty late, as even he admits. He served in the Israeli military in a program for entertaining soldiers, where he choreographed a few things—before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War made such activities seem trite. He was still an amateur then.

No honest answer will satisfy anyone asking it, so he created a story about a twin brother with autism, a grandmother who could connect with the brother through dance, an unexpected death, and the desire to take the grandmother's place in breaking through to his brother. It's a nice, compact story, filled with the sort of feel-good pathos that sounds good in an interview and looks good in print.

He's still a bit honest when he offers the story, saying that the whole brother-grandmother thing isn't the only reason. There were probably others, but he either can't put them into words or can't recall them. If we got an honest answer from Naharin, it would probably be that he dances because he wants to and needs to. That doesn't sound or read as well.

It's the truth, though, and it's the through line of Tomer Heymann's enlightening documentary about a dancer and choreographer who created a new language in dance. The word "technique" is never spoken in regards to Gaga, because its practitioners come from all walks of life. Some, like the members of his company, are professionals, but he also holds classes in which anyone—of any dance training and experience—can participate. We see him leading a massive space of people—young and old, healthy or infirmed—instructing them in terms of feeling and basic motions. There are no right or wrong ways here. There's only the freedom of exploring how a person's body can move.

When it comes to his company, though, that's an entirely different matter. The film presents Naharin as a sort of contradiction: a dancer who loves freedom of expression and a choreographer who wants his pieces performed in a very specific way. A few dancers tell stories of a younger Naharin, who quickly moved up through the world of New York dance, yelling at them from the wings of the stage to give them notes during a performance. Another dancer recalls being scolded by Naharin after a duet performance with the choreographer's now late wife Mari Kajiwara. The man thought he had performed well, but Naharin complained that he smiled too much and told him that the dancer would never perform any of his pieces again.

What we learn from behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals, as well as recordings of the choreographer's pieces (from the 1980s through 2015, when his "Last Work"—titled as such, just in case—was performed), is that Naharin's work is all about internalization. He wants his dancers to deeply feel the emotions behind a work but not to express them as much as they feel them. If that makes sense, it should give an idea of both the rehearsals and the performances—somehow both free and rigid. At times, dancer performing one of his pieces looks as if his or her body is out of control, shaking and flailing as if within a state of convulsion, but we see that it's precisely choreographed. If he wants a dancer to fall to the stage, though, he wants the dancer to fall to the stage. After all, a little pain is necessary in art.

The Naharin we see in the film is a man who has learned from his dance. He's no longer the firebrand that some of his dancers say he was in the past. He's calm and almost relaxed (We can see something behind his eyes when he's giving notes, but he's either good at controlling some passionate urge or just looking with a critical eye). It's almost a shame that there's no footage of a younger Naharin at work choreographing here, if any even exists. We get a flash of his outright passion when the Israeli government (He returned to his homeland in 1990, after simultaneously attending Julliard and the School of American Ballet, as well as a good amount of work in New York) censored his piece for the celebration of the nation's 50th anniversary. The official act set off protests across the country.

Essentially, Naharin is the kind of man who would lie about part of his biography because there's little point explaining the inexplicable. We learn what we need to know about him through his art and through the preparation of his art, because that's where he explains it best. Mr. Gaga knows this is the case, and Heymann smartly lets the art speak for itself and for Naharin.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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