Modern movement language speaks to textures, instincts, and sensations
By Jennifer Kaplan
The U.S. modern dance world has been going gaga over Gaga. No, not the lady with the chart-topping pop songs and outlandish costumes, nor the babbling overheard on baby monitors. In the dance world, Gaga is an approach to movement that sensitizes dancers to the space around them and to the inner workings of their bodies.
Developed by Israeli choreographer and Batsheva Dance Company artistic director Ohad Naharin in the mid-1990s, Gaga has captivated a significant segment of the modern dance world—modern in both senses of the word. The Batsheva Company is a prominent modern-dance company, and Gaga is modern in the contemporary sense because of its forward-thinking approach. These days, dancers from North America and beyond are flocking to workshops on the methodology in New York and other major dance centers in the United States or even flying off to Tel Aviv for total Gaga immersion.
What’s the difference? In the U.S., classes are typically offered once or twice a week for an hour or two and workshops are offered periodically over a weekend or in one- or two-week sessions. But in Tel Aviv classes are held in Gaga’s home, the Batsheva studios, and are available morning, afternoon, and evening (depending on the time of year), while workshops are two to four weeks long. Classes for the general public are called Gaga/People, run for 60 minutes, and do not require any specific dance training. Classes labeled Gaga/Dancers are typically 15 minutes longer and might incorporate some specific dance techniques or terminology into Gaga-esque exercises. Otherwise, they’re similar.
What is Gaga?
“We call it a movement language,” Danielle Agami said last year from her home base in Seattle. The former Batsheva dancer was executive producer of Gaga USA, overseeing workshops and master classes and setting choreography—her own and Naharin’s—on professional and university-based ensembles, among them Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which added Naharin’s Minus 16 to its repertory last year. “To talk about Gaga is very hard, but it’s really dealing with strengthening, giving a healthy workout,” said Agami. “It develops our body in relation to our physical needs with [attention to] the smallest spots—joints, ligaments, muscles—where we really need to take care.” These days Israeli-trained, New York–based choreographer Saar Harari is the executive producer of Gaga USA.
To talk about Gaga is very hard, but it’s really dealing with strengthening, giving a healthy workout. —Danielle Agami, former executive producer of Gaga USA
But Gaga, which Naharin began developing after he suffered a serious back injury, is not primarily geared toward physical rehabilitation. Nor is it about the technical physicality of movement. In fact, technique—as it is understood by most Western-trained dancers—is beside the point. Agami explained: “It’s knowing how to move different parts in different textures and hear your body daily, on a regular basis. It’s very much about multilayered tasks: listening, using your instincts, your sensations, and connecting your sensations to how you move, why you move, when you move.”
Above all, Naharin, and his cohort of Gaga-trained teachers, most of them former Batsheva or Batsheva Ensemble dancers, emphasize the pleasure in moving and accessing the body in a very focused way.
Gaga for teachers
In Tel Aviv at the Suzanne Dellal Centre, where Batsheva makes its home when not on tour, Naharin and a few longtime dancers and educators have instituted the first certification course for teachers of the method. The first teacher-trainees graduated in August and are now certified to teach Gaga anywhere in the world. But can dance teachers in studios and university settings benefit from Gaga? Can this movement language enhance teaching, even if one doesn’t commit to throwing oneself full-throttle into an intensive and expensive training program?
By way of an answer, Agami said matter-of-factly, “But of course any experience a teacher has becomes part of them, and that is good.”
But other teachers have found that Gaga has enhanced their classroom teaching in specific and useful ways. Kate Jordan has been teaching for about a decade, most recently at The Washington Ballet at THEARC and CityDance Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Jordan took her first Gaga classes at Peridance Capezio Center in New York. She found the concepts and practices so fulfilling that she sought out opportunities to further her explorations, including a two-week stint this past summer in Tel Aviv, studying with Batsheva dancers and teachers.
Jordan finds principles of Gaga invigorating both for her own dancing and for her teaching, even for students as young as 6 to 8. “As an artist, as a teacher, as a performer,” she says, “knowing that every day I’m ready to experience something new keeps [dance] fresh and alive, keeps me curious and passionate about what I’m doing and how I want students to approach movement.” That freshness, the ability to look at movement anew, she says, comes from Gaga.
Inside a Gaga class
There are two types of Gaga classes: for dancers and for non-dancers. Both involve 60 to 75 minutes of continuous movement exploration. There are no mirrors, no barres, no steps or positions or specific exercises to learn. Although each class is approached as a challenge to those taking it, success is self-determined. Students move at their own pace, exploring their physicality according to individual needs. Mirrors are covered and observers are barred so that the dancers don’t worry about what they look like; the most important factor of a session is how the movement feels on an individual dancer, rather than how it looks.
Depending on the space available and number of students, the instructor either stands in the center of the room with students surrounding him or her, or at the front. Either way, the teacher dances along with the students—an important Gaga tenet is that the instructor learns and explores equally with the students. Both teacher and students respond to prompts that start with the feet and lower limbs and move throughout the body.
Music is taped and is the instructor’s choice, typically drawn from pop repertory—it’s a Naharin principle to use commonly heard music—but students are encouraged to find and explore their own internal rhythms. The instructor and students start by standing with eyes closed, and the teacher provides prompts. As the class progresses the movement quickens, the dancers get more comfortable, their joints and muscles become more oiled and supple, and their inhibitions diminish. They may move into the floor, and the images offered—“let your arms feel like ropes,” “feel the pleasure of your skin,” “let your spine undulate like seaweed”—accumulate as the mind begins to make associations and connections throughout the body.
But why the funny name? When Naharin began to teach the movement form that he’d developed through his own explorations, people told him he had to give it a name. The story goes that he didn’t want to settle on using his own name and pulled a nonsense word out of the air. Gaga stuck. This was years before Lady Gaga became a phenomenon.
Naharin developed Gaga for adults and does not allow classes for children, believing that children still have the curiosity, imagination, and boldness to explore the world without mediation. It’s adults who need the permission to free themselves that Gaga provides. But this permission can provide a roadmap for teachers interested in exploring in their classrooms, with students of all ages.
Jordan uses the fundamental ideas of Gaga for even very young students. “The tools that spoke to me really powerfully were the imagery and the creativity of feelings. ‘Feel that you’re stretching against your skin. Feel the length of your arms like a rope from one finger to the other.’ This rich imagery takes you away from the mechanics and the anatomy” of a typical dance class, she says. It allows Jordan and her students to explore and investigate, which for children makes the abstract—especially ideas like turning out and pulling up—more tangible.
Gaga can offer many surprises for class participants, and for audiences watching a Naharin piece. Two summers ago George Staib, a professor of dance at Emory University in Atlanta, was surprised to find himself on a plane bound for Tel Aviv, heading across continents to immerse himself in Gaga. Staib had never taken a single class in the method. He had never even seen a live performance by Batsheva. What got him on that plane was seeing Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performing Naharin’s Decadance.
“I saw what happened to the Cedar Lake dancers,” Staib says. “I had seen them before, but after they had studied Gaga and worked on [Naharin’s] material, they were dancers who were on fire from inside.” He wanted that.
Staib’s dance background is in both ballet and modern dance, particularly the José Limón technique, and he admittedly avoids improvisation like the plague. “I love technical things, people who can get their legs really high, because I can’t,” he says. What he saw in the Cedar Lake dancers was technical accomplishment, but also an ability to access emotional depth in compelling performances. “The gaze—their ability to stand there and not do anything but be the most compelling performers—that intrigued me,” says Staib. “And choreographically there’s form and there’s abandon. I didn’t have to guess the story, but I felt so much. I felt like I was moving with them. I was hooked immediately.”
Determined to unearth the secret of how they achieved all this, Staib found his way to Tel Aviv, where he took three classes a day for five weeks, including some with Naharin himself. “It has revolutionized my teaching,” Staib says. “It’s made me more confident as a teacher. It’s allowed me to see dancers differently. It’s also made me a different choreographer—cleaner.”
In the classroom
For beginner dancers at the college level, Staib finds that using principles of Gaga helps them shed some of their inhibitions and the austere approach of focusing on only technique. “When I’m working with a brand-new ballet or modern dancer, the hardest thing is understanding the connection of the upper and lower body.” (Jordan notes the same problem with dancers ages 6 through 8.)
Staib tries to devote at least 10 or 15 minutes in his classes to a Gaga-inspired warm-up. Because he’s not certified, he’s careful to tell the students that he’s only drawing from the Israeli method, not teaching it. Then he pulls the curtain across the mirror. “That takes away the nervousness—the images you have of what you might look like or should look like.” He proceeds with the class standing around him as he moves with them.
“In Gaga, you start with the feet and have to go through the body, through the pelvis, say, for something to come out in the arm,” says Staib. “So the focus on the center, the whole pelvic region and the abdomen, is a really great conduit, a place to let movement emanate from.”
Staib finds Gaga concepts equally valuable for advanced dancers, honing a connection between all the body parts and allowing them to become much more expressive. “What I told my class this morning,” he says, “is that although we’re doing pliés, I want you to think of everything else that’s happening but the plié. You already know how to bend your knees. Hopefully you’re lifting in your arches, maintaining your turnout. But what else is happening? Are your ribs engaged, is the back of your neck sensitive, are the insides of your arms alive and awake?”
Staib encourages dance teachers of all genres to try a few Gaga classes—he suggests a one- or two-week workshop if possible. “Gaga provides teachers with a different lens. It really does clarify things,” he says. Taking a Gaga workshop and bringing its principles back to their home studio offers teachers, and their students, a key to making deep personal investigations in movement. “When you experience subtlety in your own body, you can see it more easily in others.” For example, Staib says, “Even teaching an undercurve, I never realized that people like to swing back before going forward. So you just get attuned to that sort of attack and the boldness or subtleness of movement.”
Movement as pleasure
A Gaga class or workshop isn’t for the shy or the faint of heart—even with no set exercises, the dancers still leave drenched in sweat. Both Staib and Jordan note that to fully benefit from Gaga, participants should leave skepticism and inhibition at the door. “You have to be very open to it as a dancer,” Jordan says. “So in the studio you have to be completely committed and alert and aware of everything that’s happening. I love that sense of aliveness.”
First and foremost, Gaga is about relishing the pleasure of moving—of freeing the body and the mind from the mundane, the banal, the everyday—to open up oneself to new possibilities, challenges, ideas. It’s also often quite silly; smiles, even laughter, in a Gaga class are indications that its participants are truly awake and on to something—discovering the pleasure of moving the body.
Where To Find Gaga
In Brooklyn, New York: Classes are offered regularly at Mark Morris Dance Center and Congregation Beth Elohim.
In the West: Classes can often be found in San Francisco and Seattle.
Other locations: The first certified teachers completed their studies at Batsheva in Tel Aviv in August 2012. They will begin offering classes in cities throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Israel, Switzerland, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Portugal, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Paraguay.
For articles, videos, and more information: gagapeople.com/english/