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Choreographer Ohad Naharin on developing the dance language Gaga

Ohad Naharin has been artistic director of Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company since 1990.

Gadi Dagon

What is Gaga? Instead of a dance technique that uses steps and positions (like ballet), Gaga relies on concepts and abstract interpretation to make movement. Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin describes his famous dance language as an anti-technique that doesn't care about style. For the acclaimed Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company, of which Naharin has been artistic director since 1990, Gaga is both a matter of daily training and the starting point for new choreography.

Since formal perfection is never the end goal, the form has also become a movement craze for non-dancers, with classes led by certified practitioners around the world. But there's nothing lax about Gaga's methodology. One of the things that makes Batsheva so exquisite is the degree of physical rigour the company achieves by pushing the limits of what their bodies can feel and express.

As Batsheva prepares for a four-city Canadian tour, The Globe and Mail spoke with Naharin by phone from his home in Tel Aviv.

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Why do you make dance?

I think dance answers a lot of questions about fulfilment and giving meaning, first to the sense of research and discovery, then to communication, sharing, learning about myself, learning about myself from other people. It's fun – there's the great pleasure of dancing. Choreography takes me to places I couldn't imagine exist. I sleep better when I choreograph.

What do you think dance allows you to express that a different art form wouldn't allow?

Well, first, when you ask about dance, are you asking about choreography or the act of dancing? Because to dance, you don't need an audience or music. You just need a little space and time. That's the very basic element of what a choreographer does: the act of listening to your body before you tell it what to do. It has to do with overstatement, understatement, flow of energy, texture, ability to laugh at ourselves, explosive power, delicacy – all the qualities that connect to the scope of sensation, but then also connect to why we live.

You mentioned research – what kind of research do you do?

It's something to do with going beyond our familiar limits on a daily basis. It's the sense of endless possibility in what we're doing. It has to do with our skills. It has to do with sublimation: taking a feeling inside of me – an anxiety, a laugh, whatever – and putting it into the clarity of a form.

How does it actually happen? I mean, you think of research as reading, pursuing a particular question or line of thought. How do you research with the body? Is this happening in rehearsal?

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Sure, it happens in rehearsal, but with relation to the body, every time we're awake – or even when we're sleeping – there's always a possibility to be doing research. It has to do with how familiar you are with your habits, your atrophy, your speed, your efficiency. How big is the gap between what you think you're doing and what you're really doing?

Why did you develop Gaga?

Gaga came from the necessity to communicate with the people I work with – I needed to take care of their bodies and my body. It became something that really reflects on how and why we dance. And it has a lot to do with what I told you before about going beyond familiar limits: We couldn't have done this without Gaga and without the toolbox of Gaga.

I understand that Gaga relies on a codification – an actual alphabet. Does that enable you to express more or does codification introduce limitations?

It's a good point. You know, I don't call Gaga a technique; I call it a language that evolves. We keep looking for new ideas and we have no difficulty letting go of old ideas. The coding that you mentioned is more like a suggestion. For example, instead of saying "the flow of energy" you can just say a word. It's a kind of shortcut to describe something that doesn't have a closed idea, or doesn't have an opinion – it's more like something that helps you to listen to your body in a particular way. It's not about style. Some codes of dance limit you because they lock you in a style. The whole idea of Gaga is to appear as though you have no style.

I've read that the idea of "collapse" is an essential part of Gaga. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

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In Gaga, we have a term that says "collapse into movement." It actually means that we're not shaped by gravity; we're shaped by a force that opposes gravity. The importance of collapse is to help you to measure the force that you need to oppose and play with gravity.

Where does your work begin from – the ideas, the genesis?

It's hard for me to answer that question, because I don't know exactly where things start from. When I meditate on a new piece, I allow ideas to visit me. I create a playground that is specific for each piece, codes that are specific for each piece. There's also the idea that I want to discover something that only the process can show me. There's always a gap between what I think I'm going to make and what actually happens.

What do you look for in a dancer?

All the dancers in my company (except for one) came from my junior company. If I can generalize anything about the group – because they are very different from each other – they are all very intelligent, creative and generous.

Would you consider your dance to be political?

Part of why I do what I do is because I am a man with a conscience. And with awareness, perspective, feeling, love and anger. All of this gets sublimated in my work. I have very clear political views; I'm very clear with where I stand. It's not interesting to me to convey those ideas when I choreograph. But, as a byproduct, these ideas sometimes penetrate the work.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

The Batsheva Dance Company will perform in Ottawa, Jan. 11-12 (National Arts Centre); Toronto, Jan. 14 (Sony Centre); Quebec City, Jan. 17 (Grand Théâtre de Québec); Montreal, Jan. 19-21 (Danse Danse, Théâtre Maisonneuve).

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