The only mandate artists have is to make things happen: Being articulate about what they do is an option. But when someone can talk as well as they create, the rewards are considerable, as the documentary “Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance” convincingly demonstrates.
The artist in question is Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company. If you are familiar with his mesmerizing work, nothing more need be said; if you’re not, this feast of dance illustrates why others are.
A detailed look at Naharin's life, career and philosophy, “Mr. Gaga” was made over an eight-year period by Tomer Heymann, a close friend whose first experience of the choreographer’s work 25 years ago made him feel like “I was on drugs without using drugs.”
His film has made sure to include numerous examples of Naharin’s eye-widening choreography, including “Anaphase,” “Ehad Mi Yodea” (its title taken from the traditional Yom Kippur song), even his 1980 debut, the memorably named "Pas de Pepsi."
Enhancing all this, as noted, is the chance to hear Naharin expand at length about his personal and professional life, to hear from the inside about the forces that led to his distinctive theory and practice of movement.
“Mr. Gaga” opens with Naharin, charismatic, handsome and focused, rehearsing some of his dancers. It’s apparent at once that he is a demanding taskmaster who knows exactly, but exactly, what he wants and won’t rest until he gets it.
The son of an artistic family (his 80-year-old mother does a dance routine on camera), Naharin emphasizes that he danced as far back as he can remember: “It wasn’t the future, it was the present. It was physical pleasure, what it means to be alive.”
Still, Naharin did not take formal dance lessons (with the Batsheva company) until he was 22, unusually late for a professional dancer. Almost immediately, the legendary Martha Graham spotted him on a visit to Israel and brought him to New York to be part of her troupe.
That arrangement did not last long, but Naharin’s style was so seductive that he ended up being accepted for classes at both Julliard and the School of American Ballet and turned an encounter with Maurice Bejart on a New York street into a season with his celebrated company.
Because of his longtime connections with the choreographer, director Heymann is able to fruitfully explore two key formative aspects of Naharin’s New York experience, his relationship with his future wife, the dancer Mari Kajiwara and his stormy beginnings as a choreographer.
It was almost literally love at first sight for the then-unknown Naharin and Kajiwara, who at the time was a star dancer for Alvin Ailey. They were married within a few months of meeting each other, and the scenes of her dancing display an almost magical purity and fluidity.
Much more fractious were Naharin’s early work with an informal group of pickup dancers in Manhattan. The choreographer’s overwhelming personality, his penchant, for instance, for yelling at dancers during a performance led to continual crisis, with one participant noting that dancers would storm out of rehearsals on a daily basis either crying or yelling. “They all came back,” he reported, “because the work was worth it.”
Naharin returned to Israel when he was offered the Batsheva position, and it was there that he developed the theories of movement and body language he called Gaga, a system that the film touches on lightly and has come to be taught to non-dancers as well as professionals.
“Mr. Gaga” also deals with the difficulty of being a public cultural figure in as fractious a place as Israel, detailing both Naharin’s 1998 battle with the country’s religious establishment and the reasons he called a 2015 piece “Last Work.”
“Maybe it is my last work,” he says on camera. “Our country is infested with racists, bullies, fanatics. How long are we going to be here?” Those who view “Mr. Gaga” will hope the answer is a long, long time.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Playing Laemmle’s Town Center, Encino, Playhouse 7, Pasadena, Monica Film Center, Santa Monica, Regal University Town Center, Irvine.