The Studios of Milk and Honey: Gaga Moving Up and Out of Tel Aviv

One of my teachers put it best, “It’s a language. Technique is something you do. A language is something you learn and becomes a part of your life.”

I moved to Israel in September 2011, and am taking part in the inaugural Gaga teacher training program. Until now, only Batsheva members have become teachers. In this program, we have class every day with a variety of teachers, current and former company members, and Ohad Naharin. The way of acquiring the knowledge required to teach Gaga is different from other academic or pedagogic methods. We work until Gaga is written in our bodies, until the tenets of Gaga become our default movement patterns. My mentors give the metaphor: “The book is your body.” Gaga is not written down, nor do the Gaga-powers-that-be aspire to achieve such a Gaga tome. We learn mainly through the evolving physical language being transmitted. In many ways, this goes against what I would expect to be the path to becoming a teacher. We become Gaga dancers first; if you can do it, you can teach it. This means truly embodying and owning Gaga. Being it.

Gaga has a steady presence in New York, Japan, and all places that Batsheva travels and Gaga teachers go, but like a mothership, the only place to study this practice deeply is at the source in Tel Aviv. To become a teacher of any form, one is required to spend a considerable amount of time devoted to the practice. Gaga is no different, but in many ways it is a nebulous journey—there are many paths to the top of a mountain. There are no marked routes to become a Gaga teacher, there is no checklist and no set number of hours one must float or shake. Rather, I have found that it is up to the community of Gaga teachers and mutual consensus of an individual’s readiness to teach.

I spend my days at Suzanne Dellal (the complex that houses Batsheva and many other companies) in Neve Tzedek, an old neighborhood on the coast where Yemeni Jews settled in the 1880’s. The streets are like alleys, narrow, dead-ending, there are cats wandering about, and noisy construction in pocketed areas of gentrification. From the top floor of the main building I look out of the studio’s windows and see palm trees, red-clay-tiled roofs, and the Mediterranean Sea. I feel inspired by the surrounding environment and bodily intelligences existing within these studios, theatres, and courtyards.

When people ask me “What is Gaga?”—whether here in Israel or at home in the States—my explanation is tailored according to their level of interest, personal relationship to the world of movement, attitude, and available time. People who are close to me get a complete history, deep explanation, and an impromptu demonstration on the sidewalk. Others may get a more truncated version. I give image-based descriptions for more creative visionary people, anatomical task-based explanations for concrete logical people, and improvisational examples for those who seem to connect to the free possibilities in moving the body. If I say “float like you are seaweed in the ocean” to my Masters-in-Business-Administration-brother for example, he will shake his head at my choices in life, but if I say “try to lengthen your navel away from your sternum,” he connects to a measurable system tangibly grounded in the body. Some people activate by hearing prompts about energy and texture (“see and feel”), while others gravitate to expression and fantasy (“be and become”). I love the system of Gaga because it meets practitioners where they are. Anyone can enter into Gaga starting from a place inside their comfort zone and continuing into mental and physical effort and challenge.

Gaga helps find possibilities in the body. Think of more tools in the toolbox, more options as a mover. In a typical one-hour class, we are given prompts to never have “dead flesh.” By keeping all of our faculties alert, alive, and active we develop our sense of awareness. We hear, “Be aware of your fingertips. What is the back of your neck doing? Bring life and awareness to your armpits.” Having our senses heightened and available enables us to keep sensitivity in all parts of the body, multi-tasking every one of our trillions of cells. Teachers may help develop an awareness that deals with imagination and visualization by saying, “each time you step, your ankles are fat and juicy,” or “imagine your skin is too big for your body, you are swimming inside of it.” We are constantly challenged to be aware of the varied textures and qualities traveling through and around us. It is a never-ending and never-dull journey of research and exploration. The beauty of Gaga is knowing that as long as you stay curious there is always more to physically discover.

In my daily practice of Gaga, I have found that my richness as a mover has increased. When I receive prompts to “ride the lines that exist in space” I also notice my ability to delve into this idea is immediate. I am elongating my scapula down my back and smoothly across my ribs, and extending my arms from this place of availability. In the same moment, I am researching my pelvis to move independently from my ribs and arms, it has a direction and clarity of its own. I am exploring a soft shake in my pelvis while I am riding the lines of my arms in space. The juggling act of these seemingly non-complementary directives in my body, egg me on further. I change level, twist my spine, and bring life into the tips of my fingers and toes–and still there is a soft shake in my pelvis and more to give.

After immersing myself into Gaga, traveling to Israel on multiple visits, and studying with Batsheva, my opinion is that Gaga had to come from Israel. Classes for both the company (Gaga/dancers) and the community (Gaga/people) provide a cathartic experience, a sort of meditation and an opportunity to release whatever needs releasing. Imagine shaking your body for minutes, increasing the frequency, and then collapsing to the floor at the height of effort to feel your skin alive and vibrating. Gaga offers an internal and personal experience, as well as a communal safe zone to explore extreme physical and energetic places. Reality is often harsh for Israelis (and Palestinians), and Gaga gives its practitioners tools to deal with conflict.

In the time I have spent in Tel Aviv, I have been able to get a peak at certain aspects of Batsheva. I noticed the unique “scene” of Gaga and Batsheva immediately—a sort of relaxed intensity, an effortless coolness, and a virtuosity inside the banal. The fashion, attitude, and culture in the classes is quite particular. Bright red lipstick and oversized dark colored shirts or dresses are donned by many of the naturally gorgeous women; argyle socks and calmly grown beards adorn the incredibly handsome gents. Akin to this culture, I did not find it out of the ordinary to hear that Natalie Portman has taken Gaga classes here, and I was nonplussed after noticing that Mikhail Baryshnikov was in the studio with us during his recent tour.

Gaga is the reason I am here in Tel Aviv, Israel. It’s not the food, it’s not the culture, it’s not the men, it’s not the women, it’s not the history, it’s not the religion, it’s not the political situation—it’s Gaga. Everything else is icing on my vegan cake.

Gaga is relatively new; it is an approach and a devotion to researching and developing the moving body and the knowledge of this body. Dancers notice, choreographers notice, the world notices when things like this happen. We notice because this force of energy, focused entirely around the dancing body and its potential, is becomes a giant blip on our movement radar. I am thrilled that San Francisco will soon be able to answer these questions by floating, shaking, grabbing, and going deeper by practicing Gaga and opening themselves up to an array of possibilities.

James Graham is a Tel Aviv and San Francisco-based writer, videographer, dancer, and choreographer. He will be a certified Gaga teacher in September of 2012. He can be reached at jamesness78@yahoo.com.

PUBLISHED January 1, 2012

POSTED IN In Dance

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