Going Gaga

March 18, 2009

Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, led by choreographer Ohad Naharin, is by turns fierce and gentle; raw and polished; funny, awkward and sad; highly technical and starkly human. So what’s the secret behind the dancers’ amazing versatility? They train almost entirely in a movement language Naharin created, called Gaga.

Last spring, Gaga classes were cropping up around NYC, and as an admirer of Naharin’s work, I had to check it out. I took two classes, first in March at Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s studios (the company was prepping to present Naharin’s Decadance), and two months later as part of Dance New Amsterdam’s modern guest artist series. Not only did I have a great time, but I also gained a better understanding of what makes Naharin’s dancers tick—not to mention twitch, writhe, ooze and shimmy. Want to know more? Read on.

What is Gaga?

Naharin originally developed Gaga—the word itself is meaningless to him, just something to call his movement language—more than 20 years ago, following a devastating back injury. As he rehabilitated, he focused on discovering how his injured body could move more efficiently and on finding unused potential in other body parts. Later, Gaga further evolved into a language that could give dancers a portal into his choreography. Now, it’s the official training method for Batsheva’s dancers. (Though many of them come from ballet and modern backgrounds, company members only take one supplemental ballet class a week.)

So what’s the end goal of the technique? “There is no goal,” laughs Shani Garfinkel, the Batsheva dancer who led my class at Cedar Lake. “It’s just a way to make the body much more sophisticated and smart, and to learn to do a lot of things at once—coordination.” Through Gaga, you locate and acknowledge the places in your body that are feeling weak or tight. At the same time, you’re learning to take pleasure in your movement, and discovering how your body moves in a way that is unique.

Gaga in Class

In a Gaga class, there are no mirrors—one of Naharin’s most oft-quoted sentiments is that “the mirror spoils the soul.” Though there is a basic structure to the sessions, which usually last a little over an hour, each Gaga teacher has the freedom to bring a bit of him or herself to the class. Imagery and imagination are key, as much of a Gaga class is spent in what is essentially structured improvisation. The teacher calls out images and movement cues, and the students translate those directives into movement. Some images, like feeling the flesh melt away from your bones, are used often. Others are specific to individual teachers; Shani, for instance, asks her students to twitch as though covered with tiny ants, a powerful image that left my skin crawling.

Throughout the class, you’re working to awaken and warm up each body part, from the core to the arms and legs to the fingers, toes and head. Even during pliés, tendus and développés—yes, there are a few recognizable “steps”—your upper body retains the fluidity and flow from the guided improv. Several times during class, you build up to what Shani calls “climaxes of effort, of trying to put a lot of things together.” Then, just as quickly, you drop back to small, subtle movements, without losing the sensation in your entire body of the work you just did.

Gaga Onstage

After just two classes, I started to sense the connection between Naharin’s choreography and the Gaga training, and how his dancers are being prepared for the unique demands he places on them. Onstage, Naharin’s dancers transition from utter stillness into explosive, space-eating movement phrases, and subside just as quickly. The kinesthetic awareness they gain from Gaga enables them to move with speed and clarity through choreography that is complex and often contorted. Because they trust their technique, they’re free to focus on their performance energy, whether they’re asked to stare blankly into space or to work themselves into a maniacal, laughing frenzy.

When I watch Batsheva perform, I see dancers that love to move—and it’s hard not to want to join in. I finally got my chance in the class I took at DNA, taught by Batsheva dancer Adi Salant. We spent the last 45 minutes working on an extended phrase of Naharin’s choreography, which I couldn’t have performed half as well without the Gaga warm-up beforehand. I felt aligned and hyper-aware of my extremities, able to move each limb independently of the rest of my body through the fast-paced, aggressive phrase. And the fact that the mirrors were covered was freeing—once I got used to it. When you’re not looking at yourself to see if you’re doing it right, you can work on how the movement feels and really throw yourself into your performance.

My taste of Gaga definitely left me wanting more. As a dancer, it’s easy to get caught up in wanting to be technically perfect and always in control of your body. But, as Shani explained after our class, sometimes “you have to separate the movement from yourself and let something happen without your control. Gaga is about being able to separate body and mind.” And above all? “You can’t take it so seriously,” she says. “Connect the effort to the pleasure, the joy and the passion of dancing.”