‘Mr. Gaga’: Compelling story of an Israeli who redefined dance

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Anyone who buys a ticket to “Mr. Gaga” hoping to learn more about a certain pop star’s love life — or maybe to see a drag-queen impersonation of her — is going to be surprised. But I have enough faith in Lady Gaga fans to say they won’t necessarily be disappointed.

“Mr. Gaga” is a documentary about the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, an imaginative, even iconoclastic figure in contemporary dance. The title refers to his system, or philosophy, for creating movement.

“What is unique about Gaga is the demand to listen to our body before we tell it what to do, and the understanding that we must go beyond the familiar limits on a daily basis,” he explains.

“I’m bringing it back to the animal we are, and to the hunters we are.”

Dancing is a human universal, but contemporary dance — descendant of the modern-dance revolution of the early 20th century — is a narrow niche. And maybe for good reason. As with Modernist painting, the sometimes esoteric theories underlying the choreography can result in overly cerebral performances that demand a certain level of expertise in the audience to appreciate — and occasionally devolve into self-parody.

But Naharin’s dances, amply illustrated from decades’ worth of film, is visceral, emotional and sometimes shocking. There are herky-jerky bodyquakes that might remind you of Bill T. Jones’ choreography for Broadway’s “Spring Awakening.” There’s a percussive blast using empty water jugs that could be a number by Stomp. In one early piece, Naharin rides a shopping cart around the stage. It’s quirky and joyful, and a stark contrast to dramatic imagery of bodies wracked by pain and collapsing in a heap.

Ohad Naharin

Part of the uniqueness of the movement stems from the fact that Naharin began formal training so late, at 22. He learned ballet and danced for Martha Graham’s company in New York, but he always felt like an outsider performing other artists’ work. In 1990, he moved back to his native Israel to lead Batsheva Dance Company. His work there has reflected his Jewish culture but also made pointed commentary on militarism and right-wing politics. And he generated some controversy of his own when religious conservatives objected to his dancers performing in costumes that looked like simple underwear.

“We live in a country that is infested with racists, bullies, lots of ignorance, lots of abuse of power, fanatics,” he says.

Director Tomer Heymann lets Naharin provide most of the narration, and the choreographer’s personal story is compelling (and occasionally frustrating, for reasons that might constitute a spoiler). He talks about having to reinvent his movement after sustaining nerve damage that threatened to end his dance career. And we watch him become a sort of evangelical for Gaga, teaching movement classes to ordinary folks, the elderly and the disabled.

We also learn about his romantic and creative partnerships with two women, including longtime wife Mari Kajiwara, whom he “poached” from Alvin Ailey’s company in New York. But the insistent power of this documentary lies in the dance itself, sometimes humorous, sometimes arresting and always surprising.

NOTE: Gaga teacher Anna Long will perform a dance demo and lead a discussion after the 7:15 p.m. Friday screening.

Kerry Lengel, USA TODAY Network

★★★

Abramorama presents a documentary directed by Tomer Hymann. In English and Hebrew with English subtitles. No MPAA rating. Running time: 100 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.


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