The 64-year old Ohad Naharin is no longer an “up and coming” choreographer, but Batsheva Dance Company – under his direction since 1990 – still garners the kind of excitement and attention usually reserved for “hot,” “young,” “enigmatic” choreographers whenever the troupe visits town.
Naharin, an artist who generally shuns the spotlight himself and can be cryptic in interviews, is unusually omnipresent in New York at the moment. While Batsheva performs the New York debut of his latest piece Last Work, the award-winning documentary about him, “Mr. Gaga,” will have screened in three theaters (BAM, Film Forum, Lincoln Center) this week.
The film, a near decade-long project taken up by filmmakers Tomer and Barak Heymann, is a deeply intimate portrayal of Naharin. The chronological narrative of Naharin – from his early youth to budding artist and master provocateur – is interspersed with rehearsal footage. After compulsively denying Heymann any hint that he had archival footage of his early years, Naharin finally gave the filmmaker access to a basement full of tapes. The archive proved immense and thorough. Among the clips used in the film are excerpts of Naharin thrashing and tumbling on the grass as a child, his years in New York performing with Martha Graham and Maurice Bejart, films of his earliest choreographic experimentations, and dancing with his late first wife, Alvin Ailey dancer Mari Kajiwara.
Naharin, not prone to revealing much, is unusually vulnerable and even candid in the film. In addition to his wisecracks about dancing for Graham and later Bejart (“the worst year of [his] life”), he admits to lying in previous interviews when explaining why he started dancing: he invented an entirely falsified family backstory involving an autistic twin brother, his grandparents and a car accident. But for those curious about Naharin’s aesthetic, forever entwined with his own movement language known as Gaga, the film reveals his penchant for challenging gravity, crashing, violence and a sinuous sensuousness is evident in his earliest years, prior to him receiving any formal dance training. Documentation of his early, formalized choreography shows much of the essence of what he continues to do today but in a more raw and reckless manner.
Last Work is not an enormous departure for Batsheva. The piece is permeated with flexed spines, hip juts and the deep, carefully calibrated, squats Naharin is known for. A woman, in this case the dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, runs on a treadmill upstage in a long blue dress for the full duration of the 65 minute piece. The atmosphere is bleak. The music is a commissioned score by electronic composer Grischa Lichtenberger, which incorporates Romanian lullabies and at the end, thumping house music. Bodies crawl along the floor with their hips leading the movement in slithering, worm-like undulations. In another segment, dancer Zina Zinchenko crawls across the stage, her legs splayed at 180 degrees and writhing like a cephalopod with no time to lose. Bodies take shapes and move like babies trying to crawl and explore movement for the first time.
In an interview with the New York Times’ Gia Kourlas, Naharin admits to instructing his dancers to incorporate three words into their movement: baby, ballerina and executioner. He claims he doesn’t “care at all if you realize it when you watch the piece.” The child-like movements are the most obvious choreographic overtones, followed by brief flirtations with balletic movement, however he takes it to a literal realm when he puts one dancer in a tutu and has another polishing a machine gun. For someone who doesn’t care if the audience picks up on these references, he supplants some literal imagery. The gun eventually fires confetti, and the stage erupts into a burst of anarchic chaos with dancers thrashing around to thumping house music.
Last Work is not unlike other Batsheva pieces which use an assemblage of vignettes, however it doesn’t hang together as cohesively as say, Sadeh21. The sections don’t flow, nor does the lack of fluidity create its own structure. Maybe it isn’t supposed to. As is common in Naharin’s work, dancers tap the animalistic aspects of the human body, crouching, rearing up their arses and humping each other. Limbs are amphibious, and bodies embrace the grotesqueries of Bosch. But for a troupe which has built much of its reputation on sensuous articulation, Last Work is oddly sterile, lacking both the ferocious feralness and organic sensuality that Batsheva is so good at. It feels calculated, if not computerized. When the dancers begin to groove wildly at the end, a female dancer takes it all the way, while the mob around her silences her, trapping her in a veritable human straitjacket. In another sequence, a dancer wraps packing tape around each of the dancers, roping them up in a brown cobweb. Maybe Last Work feels constricted, repressed even, for this troupe for a reason. If it was trying to say something about society’s insistence on control, censorship and homogeneity, we got the message loud and clear, and it isn’t very pleasant.