Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann gesticulates wildly talking about Ohad Naharin, a much-awarded choreographer, the artistic director of the Tel Aviv based Batsheva Dance Company. In town in early January with his exceptional, evocative documentary, Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance, a highlight of this year’s Jewish Film Festival, Heymann exudes, “Ohad is an amazing character, perfect for a movie. I met him 25 years ago when I was a waiter; here was a sexy man with a beautiful Japanese woman, his wife, dancer Mari Kajiwara, a very unusual couple. They gave me a big tip.”
“I knew a “hora;” said the filmmaker who made Mr. Gaga with his producer and brother, Barak, “that’s what I knew of dance. When I was offered a free ticket to “Kyr,” a Batsheva Dance Company performance, it changed my life forever.” Eight years in the making, Mr. Gaga will premiere this week at Film Forum and the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in tandem with Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company’s premiere of “Last Work” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Just prior to these openings, I had a chance to speak to Ohad Naharin, indeed handsome, with a quick and ironic wit, about the film, the birth of Gaga, Natalie Portman, and the vagaries of politics and art.
Of all the filmmakers to approach you, what made you trust Tomer?
Who says I trust him?
Is there anything in Mr. Gaga you didn’t want him to show?
I would not control him. I did the film from the point of view that I have nothing to hide. That’s how I live my life too. I only wanted a say in how the dance sequences are shot and edited. We were happy working together.
You had an auspicious start to your career. What was it like working with a legend like Martha Graham?
I respected her but was unhappy dancing in her company. I did not feel I belonged. I was not satisfied with her movement vocabulary, and didn’t feel at home. After 10 months I left. I remember her as huge, with a big personality. I met her when she was already in her ‘80’s. Martha Graham came to Israel to choreograph. She invited me to come to New York. She liked me because I reminded her of a dancer she liked, Robert Powell. He was soft, unlike the rest of the men in her company. I met him when he was ill. He was still special.
Was it difficult when you had to stop dancing?
I stopped when I was injured, but I never stopped. Now I dance more than ever. For me dance is not about being onstage. I dance when I am alone, without music. I dance when I am cutting onions, making salad. I dance in bed. I dance with my dancers because I research and develop my movement. I do it everyday.
Why do people consider you difficult?
Do people consider me difficult? The documentary made that up. Alternative facts. Have you heard of this? Logic is my religion. Or more in Hebrew, precision.
How did you develop your movement language, Gaga?
From necessity, realizing research can take me places that I did not imagine could exist. Dance constantly shows me new solutions, not only in terms of movement, in how to live my life, how to communicate with my dancers and how to take care of my body and their bodies. First I listen to my body. I listen to other bodies. I consider my dancers my best teachers.
You know we associate Gaga with a Lady of that name. What is Gaga?
Gaga came before Lady Gaga. I liked the name because of the sound, a kind of baby talk. I like the way it looks when I write it both in English and in Hebrew: Gimmel, aleph, gimmel, aleph.
Natalie Portman talks about Gaga in Mr. Gaga. When did you work with her?
A few intense days early in the development of Gaga, over 10 years ago. We were thinking of doing a project together. We still talk about our long-term project. She is very intelligent, graceful and coordinated; we had a meaningful meeting together.
Mr. Gaga opens with a performance to “Who Knows One.” I am loosely translating the name of a song associated with the Passover seder. Later on, the performance becomes politicized when it was supposed to represent culture at an Israeli anniversary celebration. Is art that powerful in Israel?
We were an excuse, targeted because we used a Passover song, and at the same time dancers were taking off some clothes. I don’t see this as a statement of the power of art, but the weakness of the political system. In Bibi’s coalition, six or seven religious people threatened to resign. The small religious part came to Bibi and said, don’t allow them to perform. So, Bibi’s government told me to change: ‘If you don’t change it, my government will fall.’ It was ridiculous. This was fear, and disrespect.
Do you fear your own criticism of his government will hurt you or your company artistically?
I am not afraid of that. I am afraid of what will happen to all of us. I know that already influential people have tried to prevent things from happening but that does not influence how I make my decisions. On the contrary, I hope that people will get a perspective on how things are in Israel. A lot of people object to the government and the army. We are a democracy with elections every four years. Bibi Netanyahu gets elected again and again. And I don’t see an alternative to him right now. I am an American citizen too: both my countries are led by maniacs. It’s a destructive force. It is so easy to destroy and so hard to build. A lot of wise people are doing stupid things. And there are a lot of stupid people. That combination creates a majority. Many people have thoughts similar to mine, but we feel powerless.
We all feel powerless politically today, but empowering physically, can Gaga help me with my arthritic knees?
Gaga can help any condition. I work with trauma patients, Parkinson’s. Gaga creates a flow of energy, helps with balance, brings dopamine to our brain, pleasure through effort, strengthens a small group of muscles often neglected. That’s why we offer it to people who are not dancers. I work with people in wheelchairs too. [He gets up and demonstrates, commanding me.] Stretch your legs forward, straighten, hard, and move your pelvis. Take your feet up but keep straightening your legs. Bend and straighten. Just keep doing it.