Float. Pull your bones. Smear your flesh on the ground. Connect to your pleasure. Quake. Stretch your face. Find the snake in your spine. Put a good taste in your mouth. Melt. Connect to your form. Take an ice cold shower. Boil like spaghetti. Find your groove. Above all, don’t stop moving.
These are some of the dictates of Gaga, the sensory-based movement language created by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Gaga, less a formal dance class and more a practice in building sensitivity, has become the principle approach to understanding movement at Batsheva. Batsheva, considered one of the premier contemporary dance companies in the world, finds its distinction not only in its repertoire but also in the interest that has sprung around Gaga in the past decade. From a little known outcropping of dancers in the Middle East, Gaga and Batsheva have grown to become a tour de force in dance, influencing movement and choreography everywhere they go.
Naharin, who began his tenure as artistic director of Batsheva in 1990, began playing with the components that now comprise Gaga many years ago in an attempt to find more access to movement in his body while recuperating from a back injury. The resulting Gaga is now the official training practice of Batsheva. Classes are an hour long and are basically a guided improvisation. Dancers are asked not to leave the room or stop and watch. In addition, there are no mirrors. This allows the dancers to let go of any inhibitions about what they may look like and dance from a more honest place.
The biggest edict of Gaga is to not stop moving, even if that consists simply of floating in space and letting the blood pulse. It is important to note that although motion is constant in Gaga class, Gaga is not necessarily meant to be cardiovascular. Rather, the movement builds and ebbs in waves, asking the dancers at times to physically push themselves and at other times to take inventory of their body’s capacity to feel. Unlike more conventional dance classes that consist of repeatedly doing a step or phrase and then stopping to evaluate, Gaga approaches dance as unlocking the body through movement.
Bobbi Jene Smith has been a dancer for Batsheva Dance Company since 2008. When asked how Gaga informs her understanding of dance, her answer reflected a rich, sensory soulfulness: “Since falling in love with Gaga my relationship and understanding of dance has flipped in the best way. Gaga has helped me to connect to something that I didn’t know I had lost. I didn’t know that dancing could feel so good and so necessary. Gaga creates a place for my body to run to. It connects my effort to my pleasure. My pain to my pleasure. My weakness to my passion. My texture to my form. It reminds me why I love to dance. It reminds me that I want to move people and be moved. I now see dance in everything and I know that I am always dancing. I used to have many rules of what I thought dance was. Now, I feel like I am dancing when I’m doing the dishes, when I’m laughing really hard, or when I’m sitting quiet. Dance is much larger than the choreography, or the training, or the performance. You don’t have to be a dancer to dance. Gaga gave me that (and it’s huge).”
Perhaps then the genius behind Batsheva’s Gaga is not that it is particularly new or innovative, but that it celebrates the universal human ability to feel on the strenuous level of professional contemporary dance. While technically engaging, Naharin’s choreography also demands a high level of sensory availability from the dancers, asking them to really embody a certain feeling and allow it to manifest in their bodies. When pressed about the relationship between Gaga and Naharin’s choreography on Batsheva, Smith replied that for her, “those things complete each other.” Gaga provides a means of deepening her understanding of what it means to move, while Naharin provides her with a demanding environment to move that way in.
Since 2008, Smith has been coming to the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance each summer as Naharin’s personal emissary to teach Gaga and Batsheva repertoire to the students enrolled in the summer intensive. In addition Gaga classes are routinely offered to the general public. In this way San Francisco became one of the first places outside of Tel Aviv to offer Gaga. Batsheva is understandably very protective of Gaga, and only people who have either danced with Batsheva or have spent time studying with the company are allowed to teach it. Through such restrictions Batsheva hopes to keep the practice of Gaga pure and not diluted from its founding precepts.
San Francisco will have the opportunity to experience Batsheva in all its Gaga glory this February 23-25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Novellus Theater. Batsheva is touring Max, a piece that can best be characterized as percussive, masculine and aggressive. There is a tense kinetic energy to the dance, as if the air were electrically charged. Gestures, deep lunges, and a heightened sense of musicality are other distinguishing features in this highly physical work. Here it becomes obvious the link between Gaga and Batsheva. In the dancers one sees how available their physicality is to them. Having repeatedly plumbed the depths of sensation in Gaga, the dancers approach movement with a grounded openness making them both quick and thoughtful in movement. These dancers are beasts in their own right.
The luscious sensuality behind Gaga and the terse, forceful movement in Max are evidence of a larger dance movement happening in Israel of which Batsheva is only the most visible element. On the one hand, Gaga has become a movement phenomenon in Tel Aviv, with classes for non-dancers growing ever more popular with the general public. On the other hand, smaller Israeli-based dance companies like Inbal Pinto, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and Barack Marhsall Theater Dance create similarly gestural, percussive, tense work. The Gaga craze contrasts the dominant mode of choreography: soft suppleness is juxtaposed with harsh choreographic attack. The result is a definitive dance style characterized by elasticity and adaptability. Perhaps a consequence of the tumult of the Middle East or of the long history of Judaism, there seems to be a decidedly Israeli approach to dance, an approach rooted in the history and instability of the region. In more ways than one, the movement coming out of Israel seems to be a reflection of the social and political environment.
Exposure to Gaga, Batsheva, and other choreography coming out of Israel can do more than simply teach dance enthusiasts about the latest trends in movement and choreography; it can also act as a cultural exchange. We can share what is current and germane in our respective cultures in the hope of building greater connectedness and understanding. Through Gaga classes in places like the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, in New York, and elsewhere abroad, and through Batsheva’s international touring schedule, a uniquely Israeli way of dancing can bear relevance on our own unique ways of dancing.
See Batsheva. Experience Gaga. While dance can indeed be fluid, pretty, and ethereal, it can also act as a cultural barometer for what’s important and what’s resonant, making dance not only a spectacle but also a cultural communion as well. By experiencing Gaga and Batsheva, participants and audiences have the opportunity to revel in the microcosm of Israeli dance as well as in the universality (inherent in Gaga) of the human body to feel and move.
For more information on Batsheva’s upcoming performances in San Francisco visit ybca.org. For more information on Gaga at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance visit sfconservatoryofdance.org.