'Mr. Gaga': Film Review

A fascinating portrait of an artistic gadfly.

Tomer Heymann's documentary chronicles the life and career of Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of Tel Aviv's Batsheva Dance Company.

As revealed in the documentary chronicling his life and career, Israeli dancer/choreographer Ohad Naharin is well suited for his role as an artistic provocateur. Charismatic and intense, craggily handsome and still athletically lithe in his mid-sixties, the artistic director of Tel Aviv’s famed Batsheva Dance Company would be perfect casting for a film about a driven dance auteur. Tomar Heymann’s documentary Mr. Gaga, currently receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York's Film Forum and Film Society of Lincoln Center, provides a fascinating if uneven portrait.

Interviewed extensively throughout the film, Naharin comments about his colorful background and the reason he became interested in dance. He had a developmentally disabled younger brother who would only come out of his shell when their grandmother danced for him, and when she died, Naharin became determined to fill her role. It makes for a great story, even, as he later admits, it’s entirely made up.  

Having grown up on a kibbutz, Naharin found his calling when he served in an Israeli army entertainment unit. Although he didn’t study dancing until the relatively advanced age of 22, he was talented enough to move to the U.S., where he became a member of the Martha Graham and Maurice Bejart companies. Dissatisfied with his dancing career, he began creating his own works, and in 1990 moved to Israel to accept an offer to head the prestigious Batsheva company. He was joined by his wife, Mari, who gave up her role as a leading dancer in the Alvin Ailey company so he could pursue his dream.

The film includes extensive footage of Naharin’s choreographic creations, their pictorial quality varying dramatically since they span many years. Also included are many scenes of Naharin working with his dancers in alternately tough and tender fashion, including, most memorably, the opening sequence in which he attempts to teach a female dancer how to fall to the ground forcefully but also gracefully. He’s clearly a stern taskmaster, with one of his dancers saying that he’s prone to yelling such things as “You’re boring me!” from the wings while they’re performing.

Among the dramatic episodes recounted are his wife Mari’s early death from cancer — Naharin, who has since remarried, comments, “To mourn a big loss, and to dance, they don’t contradict each other” — and the controversy that arose in his native country when he withdrew his company from a gala celebrating Israel’s 50th anniversary when its organizers tried to force his dancers into wearing less revealing costumes.

Mr. Gaga isn’t always as informative as it could be. Its title derives from the unique style of dance that Naharin popularized, but despite comments from both him and such personages as actress Natalie Portman, casual viewers will be left hard-pressed to exactly understand what it all means.

Production company: Heymann Brothers Films
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Tomer Heymann
Producer: Barak Heymann
Director of photography: Itai Raziel
Editors: Alon Greenberg, Ido Mochrik, Ron Omer
Composer: Ishai Adar

100 minutes